Required Reading

I’ve spent my life around books.  With a BA in Literature, MFA in Creative Writing and MSLS in Library and Information Science, stories have embedded themselves in my personal and academic life.  Inspired by a conversation today, here are a few authors you should grab as soon as you can….

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1/ Graham Greene-a former military intelligence officer for England, Greene has a keen eye for character, struggle, faith, suffering, and life. Start with The End of the Affair and go to The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter (which contains one of the most powerful paragraphs I’ve ever read).

2/ Flannery O’Connor-Taken from this world way too young, O’Conner is a master of the short story.  Check out the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge and particularly “The Lame Shall Enter First.”  It is a story that floored me to the point where I had to walk away from the book for a while to absorb it.

3/ Dante-I’m a fan of darker literature and Inferno, besides being almost required college reading, is something worth spending time in.  Look past the political allegory and get lost in his imagery. Dante’s contrapasso is creative, the environments deep and horrifying.  The final part of the trip, finding the devil encased in ice, is a masterstroke from a writer so deep in the tumultuous waters of his time.

4/ Marsha Pessl– In the dark lit vein, check out Pessl’s Night Film. She plays with form and style enough for a unique result, better than Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The novel split critics but could be, and probably will be, part of a movement that may change print output as we go.

5/ David Mitchell– check out Ghostwritten, a novel of scope spanning centuries and locations over multiple narrators. The chapters, despite their different locations, are connected.  Mitchell is one of the authors who consistently make me sit back in amazement at what he can do. This book put him on the map and rightfully so.

Check any of these out and you won’t be disappointed.

Tuxedo

Carter and I were riding in the car this morning.

“They had a meeting with all of fifth grade this week as a reminder about how to act at lunch and in class and with friends,” he says, “this one kid got in trouble a few times for doing things, like real bad things he shouldn’t have.”

An unusually warm February sun shone in the window. I thought about what he said.

Do you know what a gentleman is? I asked.

Not really, he said. I took a breath.

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Open doors.

Say please and thank you, loud enough to be heard.

Pull her chair out. Push her chair in.

Ask to hold her hand.

When the time is right, ask to kiss her.

Be a friend. Stand up for the bullied and stand up to the bullies.

Be a leader. Make those around you better.

Talk. Listen. Respect.  Shake hands. Say goodbye. Look people in the eyes.

Stand at the table when people arrive or leave.

Make your word your bond. Tell the truth. Be honest. Mean it.

Be a good man. Be a good friend. Be a good husband. Be a good father.

Be confident.  Give confidence.

Celebrate wins. Learn from losses. Apologize for wrongs. Don’t gloat over rights.

Be humble. Be sympathetic and empathetic.

Does it make sense? I asked.  He nodded. I think, he said.

Me, your father, and your great grandfather were raised to be gentlemen, to be good men.  I expect you and your brother to be the same, I said.

I want both of you to be known as good men.

He smiled.

We drove on into the afternoon.

The Open Hand

Today at church we started a series on Detours, those moments you find yourself off the path of life.  We all have them.  Some detours just knock you a block over and some are severe, causing a journey far out of the way.

The pastor mentioned the route Israel took leaving Egypt and making their way to the Promised Land.  It was not straight and direct. It was a “roundabout” way. It was a journey of internal work, progress of change through something not to something.

In this process we read that God leads with a hand outstretched.  Pastor Jason Mitchell made an excellent observation that our view of God’s hand is usually one of two ways.  It is either shaking hands in making a deal.  Or the open and calming presence of a father to his child. Each one impacts your view of faith.

You may see God as a deal-maker. If I just _______ enough it will all work out, heal, go away, come back, pay off, jump on, add up, respond, whatever you may need.  If I do what I need then God has to come through. When you have this view and a major detour strikes, your faith evaporates.  You hang on the WHY question.  Why did God not do what he’d promised when we made the deal. Why did God not come through.

When you see God as the father, your view shifts.  You flip the question from Why is this happening to What does God want to do in me. The one question answers the other.

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Fortunes have been made by pastors pushing God as deal maker. Books have been sold. Seminars booked. Checks cashed. There’s a power dynamic so appealing to people looking for control, for the deal offers control.  If we can just be good enough, God will come through.

When Val and I dealt with a miscarriage in 2018, this was me.  I had nothing to say to God. My deal maker hadn’t held up his end of the bargain. Even though I’d made progress, even though my faith had grown, even though I’d thought I’d matured as a believer, there was still work to be done.

This morning, the nail was driven home.  I realized he was right.  My pillars built up over the years were wrong.  My God is not the one of the deal.

My God is one of outstretched hands with big dreams, plans and visions.  Words that reach nations. Legacy with impact. My God is not the one of control. My path is not A to B.  It is the roundabout journey through the desert.

Jesus offers no deals.

Follow me. Do Not Be Afraid. I have overcome the world.

So go forward and enjoy the work. When the detours come, know the job is not yet finished.  You are still being refined for greater things. For life and life to the fullest.

For the journey not yet written, the path not yet taken, and bridges not yet built.

 

 

Answer the Call

What makes you, You?

In that Marvel cinemas flipping title sequence scroll, what shows up?

In the temperance path of life, where do you live? Age Twenty? Thirty? Fifteen?

At the end of a bad day, what moments do you revisit?

From your first breath to now, you are where you need to be.

The question is, what to do with it?

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Our stories are ours alone, ours to share with someone, our battles to fight.

Our suffering shapes our identity.

Our faith hangs on the hope of something more, the pull on our heart towards a compass direction rising out and above our trajectory, spreading to lives and people we have not known and may never meet.

Contemporary research believes Jesus to have been an architect, a stone mason and not a carpenter as originally conceived. This makes sense as he often spoke of building lives and laying foundations. The towers of our life can only be built on strong foundations, firm borders and set boundaries.

So, what makes you You?

Be something different.

In this time of division, be Unity.  In this time of hate, be Love. In this time of poverty, be Generous. In this time of violence, be Peace.  In this time of noise, be Silence.

Trends are made to be broken.

The status quot must end.

The future is being painted today by the brushstrokes of the fearless, of revolutionaries willing to answer the still, small voice that calls them in the dark hours.

The voice that calls to you.

Will you answer?

Kobe Bryant and The Art of Legend

The stories are numerous.  From his start at Lower Merion High School (not far from where I type this) to his years in the NBA, Kobe Bryant was a phenomena. He worked, drilled, fought, and practiced harder than his peers. He was relentless, driven, and passionate. He demanded more of himself and pushed his teammates to follow.

Today, in a helicopter crash in California, Bryant and his daughter along with six others passed away. They were traveling to a basketball game when the helicopter crashed and caught fire.  There were no survivors.

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Pic from the LA Times. 

Story is a powerful force.  We write one in our heads on a daily basis.  We tell it to our loved ones. We base our identity on our stories. This can help, when the plot drives us forward, or hurt when it shackles us in place.

I’m sure many young men in the Philadelphia suburbs picked up a ball pretending they were Kobe.  I saw a tweet saying, “How many of us crumple up a wad of paper and shoot it into the trash can saying ‘Kobe’ as we let go?” Carter does this all the time.

Not many are influential enough to change the lexicon of society. Sports offer hope and lessons.  They teach the value of work.  For every shot Kobe took in a darkened gym alone, he made many more under the lights of the NBA.

If there’s anything we can take from all this, that is the bottom line. What we do in the shadows plays out in the light. What we do alone writes our story in public. Small efforts expand in big ways.

Before he made it, Bryant could have walked away more than once.  He could have stopped, hit the snooze button on the alarm and went back to bed. He lived a life where that wasn’t acceptable and reached the pinnacle of his game.

Rest well Kobe. Your legend lives on.

Aaron Rodgers and The Art of Meaning

For those of you who may not know the name, Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. He’s also a media darling, appearing in commercials though not to the level of Peyton Manning. He has MVPs and a Super Bowl victory to his name.

Rodgers recently visited Danica Patrick’s podcast. Rodgers and Patrick are dating at the moment, so this isn’t a stretch for him.  The conversation turned to matters of faith and Rodgers stated he was unsure if he believed in hell anymore. He said, “I don’t know how you can believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet to a fiery hell.”

Relevant‘s article about this includes the information that Rodgers was involved in ministry earlier in his life, but had since drifted away and no longer considered himself a Christian.

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There are a few things to unpack here. I do not begrudge Rodgers for his faith journey as each person is entitled to their own. I find his perspective on hell interesting though. Rather than breaking things down to New and Old Testament semantics, we need to look at the idea of suffering.

There is a split in creation.

Humanity is imperfect.  This causes pain and fear.  We operate within psychological systems ingrained from generations of development. Our problems have grown, the risk of life has grown.  With every advance comes someone working to skew it to their own desires.

A belief in pain denotes a belief in God. Suffering does not exist outside the dichotomy of good and evil. Our souls, deep in their core, yearn to beauty and glory, hope and compassion.  We feel the longing of this when we hurt and the imperfection of humanity hits deeply.

Rodgers is reacting to the medieval image of hell as fire and brimstone. In this, he is incorrect.  Hell is losing a child.  It is the end of a relationship, a family member drifting away, declining health, losing a job, or going hungry.  Hell is living on the street.  It is crime and punishment and families torn apart by addiction. It is cancer and the diseases that will not go away.

As you read that paragraph, images of people likely flashed through your head, the weight of sorrow sitting on your heart.  That is eternal punishment.

God’s desire is completion, to see us live the stories we were given before creation, to see us hold hands and connect hearts.  God’s desire is for opportunity and dreams, to impact the world and make it a better place.  God’s desire is to fill the hole deep inside our being.

We do this by crossing the line of faith.

It is not easy.  It is not safe. It is something that will change your universe.  Yet, it is worth it.

You may not believe, and that is your right.  Yet, I’m willing to bet you feel.  You understand pain and suffering.  You long for better and your soul radar is pulling you towards something greater.

Faith is courage.

Hell is missed opportunity.

Life is the interplay between the two and what wins out in the end.

Taking Offense

It was a game we’d talked up for a week, ever since the tournament schedule was released.  Our team would be playing a team from New Jersey, one of the best in the region.  They were undefeated. We’d drawn them in a seeding round in a tournament that happened to not have a tiered playoff like usual.  Basically, it was win or go home.

Carter got the start on the mound.

I’d spent the days leading up to the game building him up, telling him it was business as usual. Before he took the mound that afternoon, I told him to not leave a single pitch on the field. He said he wouldn’t, and jogged out to the mound.

The first inning, he was dominant. No runs, one hit.  He doubled up a runner from the mound on a soft line drive. Both teams traded runs in the second and, by the time he took the mound in the third inning, we’d had a small lead.

Then he received his first balk warning. The next batter reached on an error.  The field umpire took position over Carter’s right side and watched him every pitch.  The balks kept coming.  The runners moved.  After a walk, another runner did the same.

Parents started yelling at the umpire.  He insisted Carter wasn’t stopping in his motion (a balk happens when a pitcher doesn’t stop  and “come set” before throwing).  As his dad, I knew he liked to work fast.  I tried to slow him down.  Our coach talked to him.  Parents were yelling, the other team was yelling, people were getting restless.

In one look from the mound I knew he was done.

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One of my goals in 2020 is to live a year in less Offense. Pastor Erwin McManus described it as freedom and the ability to trust again, to go deep in relationships and community.

Do you know anyone who is perpetually offended? Every breath is another opportunity to make them angry?  It’s not an easy relationship to be in. I work in an office with individuals who put in 40 Offended hours a week, every single week.

Personally, I err towards cynicism. It’s a trait I’m looking to change in myself for the new year.  Optimism is the key, the idea that change is possible.  Living Faith as a verb and not a noun, an act not an anchor.

I’m looking to gain the 20,000 foot view. Cynicism is easy. Doubt is easy. Burnout is easy.

The challenge that shapes us into new people is to remain hopeful, to see opportunity, to work towards what we are called to do, to marshal our anger when it’s needed.

Change is hard but worth it.  I believe 2020 will be a transformative year. I’m ready to reshape the husband and father I am into what I can be.  All it takes is time.

 

The Witcher and Destiny

My current binge show is The Witcher on Netflix. Henry Cavill’s plays Geralt, the main character, a monster hunter with supernatural powers. The source material is from a series of novels that have spawned other visual adaptations including video games.

The writing and technical work of the series is better than I’d anticipated.  The characters play with the idea of destiny, fate, choice and power. Three stories overlap at the moment, chronologically, and I’m looking forward to the intersection point as I’m almost finished season one.

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In episode 6, Geralt is talking to his love interest Yennifer. Yennifer is played by Anna Chalotra. Chalotra kills it, owning her scenes and the story of Yennifer’s transformation. Both Geralt and Yennifer were forced into their roles and neither had a choice.  In this scene, Yennifer asks Geralt if he regrets being a witcher. He replies,

“It’s hard to regret something you didn’t choose.”

It’s these phrases that shine of skilled screenwriting and they are scattered throughout the series. The idea of regret and choice creates an interesting dichotomy.

Can we regret something that was forced on us? How about choices made outside our say or influence? Is the nature of regret something we can only own and access on a solo basis?

Look back at the traumas of the past.  We can feel pain and sorrow, anger and frustration. We can only control the reach of our influence.  We can mourn for loss, but loss shapes us into who we are meant to be.  It punctuates our story.

If we agree with Geralt’s line, we move forward with new insight. It is our choice to reshape how we see the past. We can burn down the chains and use them to drive us forward.  We can reset healthy boundaries and own our spaces and influence.  We can look forward as victors as victory comes in survival.

We can see the utmost value of choice, the power in the moments we offer it to someone else. The concept of not wasting a choice because we never know when the next will come.

The world is not always fighting monsters.  No matter your role, know your power.  Know your past and where you hitch the powerful emotion of regret.  Your future relies on it.

The Hardest Relationship

One of my roommates in college dated a girl with destructive habits. She’d lived on the outskirts of Philadelphia, worked in the city, and would disappear for days at a time.  She battled addiction and substances.  He’d loved her then, and would often vent to me about his attempts to save her.

Eventually, they broke up.

For some of us, interpersonal relationships are the hardest part of life.  Out of our sons, Aiden is the friend-maker.  He can enter a room of kids he doesn’t know and come out knowing everyone.  He will go up to a kid and ask him to play, no matter how old the kid is, and often he’ll find himself with a new friend. Carter is the opposite.  He’s reserved, like I was.  He watches a scene before he interacts.  Conversation can be tough and navigating the preteen world is even tougher.

As hard as these are, a relationship that can transform you and your 2020 is looking into the mirror.

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This morning I listened to an episode of Eric Zimmer’s podcast “The One You Feed.”  It is episodes based around the parable of the Good Wolf (good qualities in life) and the Bad Wolf (bad qualities in life).  The winner is the one you choose to feed. The episode this morning was an interview with Stanford Psychologist BJ Fogg. Fogg works in the area of Behavioral Change through what he calls tiny habits.

The entire episode is worth a listen, but one part stuck with me.  He says in the beginning,

Be a friend to yourself.

He goes on to mention how many of us deal with self trash talk and how moving on from it can revolutionize our lives. As a veteran of self criticism, I know he’s right.

I don’t know about you, but my voice is cynical.  I look at where I lack and become hardened, vindictive to struggle and envious to progress of others. On the hard days, the voice is not even negativity.  Negativity implies a struggle.  No, its an understanding that this desire for better just isn’t going to happen.

Recently, though study and reflection, the work of thinkers like Fogg, Ben Hardy, Erwin McManus, and through conversation with others I’ve found my view shifting. The idea of faith is psychologically and biologically powerful. Certainty comes through struggle.

Our stories shape our potential.  Our future need not be married to our past.  It can be a transformation experience. Our memories can be reshaped.  Our victories can be celebrated and our struggles seen as opportunity to learn and change.

I haven’t been a great friend to myself over the years.  I’d developed habits and found my way out of them.  I gained and lost weight, stayed up too late while getting up too early.  I’ve been emotionally distant to those I love and am working on it as a daily exercise in mindfulness.

One of my goals is to empower friendship with myself in 2020.  To add courage and intention, to take big risks, to celebrate wins and see losses as chance to learn. To take on new things and expand horizons, to grow as a family and be a better father and husband.

My goal is to show my boys a father who knows himself and works to be better on a daily basis.  To grow new behaviors and expand identity.

I believe we are never done growing.  As long as we are breathing, our story isn’t over.  My wish for you is the same,  to grow in your friendship with yourself, to treat yourself better and look forward with new purpose.

To see 2020 with opportunity and make the most of it. To experience the joy of newness and change.  To realize your potential and see hope for the future.

For the future is yours for the taking.

Regret

In high school, I was on the Mock Trial team and I loved it. I was a lawyer for all four years of my time and lead attorney for the last two. I found I’d enjoyed speaking in front of people, the analysis that came from the legal process, and the chance to spin a story for an audience.

The last day of our last trial, the team adviser came up to me in the hallway of the courthouse.  He was an actual attorney in the county, a younger guy, and he shook my hand.  He looked at me and said,

“You should really consider law school.”

I laughed.  My mind flashed with images of defending criminals and what would happen when I lost?  Then it flipped to putting people in jail and what would happen when they were released?  Of course time, cost, and effort played into the idea.

In the end, I didn’t go.

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That conversation was a crossroad, one of the many we face in life.  The idea had been offered.  What if I’d taken it and followed?  How would life be different?  Where would I be a decade into a law career?

Now I have friends who are lawyers and I’ve known others.  It’s not all the glamour of the many television shows out there. It can lead to success and burnout, victories and defeat. Was it to be a part of my story that I’d never followed?  I’ll never know.

Regret is chasing memories.

Add in traumatic memories and you create a dangerous combination.

A shard of pain can stick like a nail in wood. Addictions swirl into long term substance abuse and manipulation. Emotional and physical abuse. Control. Mental games of chess.

Trauma creates an unbalanced ledger.  Our souls respond in kind.

Cancer, for example, can paralyze a person in fear and motivate another to live their best life. An abusive relationship can send one into a spiral of darkness while another may be inspired to take back their life and set up healthy boundaries.

Our lives are filled with mirror moments. We stand in spots where we are called to make a choice, to look at ourselves and see who we really are.

We all see the signs.  Some recognize them instantly, some miss, and others will only see them years later. We all need clarity in our lives.

As the year turns and a new decade dawns, I pray you experience this in your life. May 2020 be the best ever.  No matter where you are in your journey, I pray for bigger and better things, for fulfillment, for physical and mental health.  I pray you are bigger than your emotions and you can stand strong when the waves come.

Spend your energy making memories, not chasing them.  You’ll be surprised at what follows.