Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Coming Clean: A Story of Faith" by Seth Haines

  "Be honest: in moments of clarity, of stone cold sobriety, do you ask how a good God could allow so much pain?  Do you wonder whether Jesus is a figment of your imagination, whether God is real? you love and do you forgive yourself the way God loves and forgives you?  Do you wonder whether God will ever speak again, and whether He ever spoke in the first place?  Do you wonder whether it's just your noggin talking to you?  Do you wonder whether God likes you?  Do you hear your accusers casting aspersions, telling you that you're unloved, unworthy, a thing to be discarded?"  These are the words tucked away in the second to the last entry of Seth Haines new book "Coming Clean".  It seems only appropriate that they would be hidden in the last few pages of a two-hundred some odd page book.  Not that the author is trying to hide fact he's insanely honest and vulnerable from the very first line, of the first entry, on the first day... but rather, it's ironic that it resembles the human heart... particularly the heart of this follower of Jesus.  These are the types of questions that I keep tucked away deep in the recesses of my brain.  These are the types of questions and wonderments that I have sometimes, but that I don't want anyone to know... because these aren't the questions of the super-powerful, awe-inspiring Christian....or are they?!  Maybe these are actually the types of questions that when faced, lead us to the deepest truths of our faith!
  Anyway, I think there's something about pure honesty that really draws people in.  When someone takes off their mask, stops pretending, and is just real...even when it might not be acceptable, even when it might not be understood, even when it may cost them something... it captivates us (or at least me).  Probably because it's so rare!  But this is exactly what it was like reading this book.  There were no false pretenses, no sense of trying to please the crowd and say/do what's right.  It's just a man sharing his struggle, his pain, and his journey back to God...and it is POWERFUL!
  Seth Haines is a man, a husband and a father...he's also a Christian, a true follower of Jesus, just trying to figure it all out.  The story written in the pages of his book are wrapped around the two flagpoles of his youngest son's illness and his own struggle with alcohol... but there's so much more in-between, basically a whole lifetime.  Haines states in the beginning of the book, "If faith starts as a mustard seed, maybe doubt does too" and throughout these pages he learns where those doubts of faith began in his life and how to begin to overcome them. 
  There's a culminating incident that leads him to make the decision to stop drinking (what that actually is, I will leave up to your reading pleasure to find out) but reading the story I felt myself cringing for him, because had it been me I would have been so embarrassed.. I would have felt like I had lost all control and respect and wouldn't want to show my face again.  But he doesn't do that.  Instead it becomes his opportunity, his moment of change.  So even though, as he appropriately mentions, "our ghosts always seem to surface at the most inopportune times", maybe that's exactly what we need... to be thrown off balance at the worst possible moment to get us to the place of reaching for the help we need.
  As Seth begins to walk into and through his own pain, he shares some of the most insightful things I have heard on the topic... and maybe it's just because here's a man not just spewing advice at something he's not even affected by, but rather he's talking from his very own walk.  He says, "If pain took an organized, namable, tangible, physical shape it'd be an easy thing to put to death.  It turns out, though, that to beat the shame out of you, you have to give the pain in your life contours".  Basically you have to give shape to it... you have to figure out what it is.  Then he follows that up with the comforting truth he received from his therapist, that "if you deal with the pain, you won't need the numbness"... which is the straight up honesty we all need to hear whether we go looking for comfort in alcohol, like the author, or food, power/success, men/women, etc. (something the author points back to many times throughout the book).
  He even admits, "I am a Christian who has used systems and liquor to numb the pain that God might not answer my prayers, that he might not heal, that ultimately, he might not be present in my life.  The pain is evidence of this idea of non-conformity, I have used these vices to kill the pain". Then he ever so inspiringly connects this pain to the story of Jesus in the garden of gethsemane and meditates on the idea that, "to ask for relief from God... this is human.  To pray through the pain, to live in it instead of numbing yourself to it, to subjugate your will to the will of God, even in the face of potential suffering.. this is what it means to be like Jesus.  This is what it means to yield to the mystery".  Again, these aren't words of a pastor trying to convince a congregation, these aren't words of salesman trying to make a few bucks, these are the words of a man in the midst of the muck and the mire, crying out to a God he's not even sure cares to listen, and finding that God is closer than he ever imagined.  And maybe that's what makes his thoughts that much more meaningful.
  I am not one to be so open with my struggles.  It's very hard for me to open up with even the closest of my friends, when it comes to the deep down, nitty gritty, messes of my heart.  Yet in reading Haines story I was convicted by the idea that maybe it really does "take a village to break through to freedom". And I was reminded of a conversation I recently had with a friend where she said, "Maybe in being honest with your struggles and with who you are some people will walk away from your life and reject you for it, but those who stay, the ones that really matter, will get to know the real you and be able to love you in a more deeper, intimate way".  Maybe this is why God places us in community... so we can share our stories and our struggles with one another, and that maybe in sharing what we've learned in them we can help one another through this  journey of life (and maybe that's exactly why the devil works so hard to convince us me need our masks).
  Seth Haines book is more than just words written on a page.  It's life, and hope, and a hand reaching out to you in the darkness saying, "I know, I've been there, let me show you the way" and I am more than grateful that he put it out there for all of us to read (even if this is only the beginning of your journey)!  Thank you Mr. Haines for your honesty... for being real... and for showing that in even in our darkest moments, we are never to far beyond the reach of God!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More and Being Good Enough" by Jefferson Bethke

  Jefferson Bethke broke out on my scene several years ago now, when I and about 23 million other people watched his YouTube video "Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus" (you can watch it here ).  I remember watching that video and just thinking, "Wow, this kid gets it!".  He was speaking truth, hard truths that we religious folk don't often like to hear and amazing truths that those who have been hurt by the church need to listen to.  It's the truth behind that statement, "It's a relationship not a religion" and it was something I needed to hear then and I still need to hear now.
  I remember also, when this book came out.  I was still working at a chain bookstore and I remember seeing it and thinking, I need to read that.  But I didn't... at least not in the moment.  Instead I recommended it to several people.  I purchased copies and gave them away.  I even put it on a "to-read" wish-list, even though it took me until now to actually read it.  I guess what I knew then and can attest to now, is that the book would be full of the same kind of truths as the YouTube video (after all one is based on the other) and those truths are things we all need to hear... again and again.
  I think Jefferson does a good job of pointing out or at least putting his finger on things we in the church really need to think about... and not just think, but allow what we discover from it, to change us...or in more religious terms, to allow God to change us through it.  He says, "No wonder the world hates us (meaning Christians).  Most of the time we're persecuted not because we love Jesus, but because we're prideful, arrogant, jerks who don't love the real Jesus.  We're often judgmental, Hypocritical and Legalistic while claiming to follow a Jesus who is forgiving, authentic and loving".  It hurts to hear, but it's true.... this in many ways, is how we act.
  He also talks about how, "In a postmodern world where all religious activity is seen as what we do for God, we need to proclaim that Christianity is about what God has done for us.  This would take people's focus off their behavior and put it on Jesus".  Again, truth!  Think about it.  How many of us get so completely shocked and turned off to the gospel when yet again another Christian in leadership "falls from grace" (if that's even possible....maybe they actually fall into grace!).  If those leaders were just honest all along, if they admitted where they struggled and where they see pitfalls in their own faith journey, would we even be astonished when one of those issues tripped them up.  Maybe instead we would take our leaders of their pedal stools and realize that we're all in the together...on the same playing field.
  I like also how Jefferson turns this all around and addresses the flip side as well.  He suggests that, "the minute you think you've gotten on God's good side by your own behavior, you are naturally prone to demonize those who haven't" and opens the readers eyes up to the fact that "no one is more religious than the Christian who gives grace to everyone except the religious older-brother types" (relating to the story of the prodigal son, whose older brother whose always done everything right, comes home from working in the fields to find his father is throwing a party for his wayward brother who has returned.. a brother who has squandered his entire inheritance.  The older brother is angry and refuses to come in to the party).  Following that up with the realization that "the biggest difference between religious people and gospel-loving people is that religious people see certain people as the enemy, when Jesus followers see sin as the enemy".
Then he finished up with idea that "the paradox of the scriptures is that it calls us way more sinful than we think we are, and it calls us way more loved than we think we are".  And addresses how "there is no security in being an employee.  The contract can be breached.  When you're an employee and something goes wrong you can be fired.  But when you are a child who is having a season of struggle and waywardness, parents become more intimately involved in your life" and that's what Jesus did for us. Jesus came to us. Jesus comes to us.  And as the author states, "the most dangerous thing about the human heart is that we want to reverse the roles by making God the responder and us the initiators".  But God is love and "that's what love is... it stays, it pursues, it pushes in.  And that's why Jesus is > than religion.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Have a Little Faith: A True Story" by Mitch Albom

  Growing up I didn't do a whole lot of exploring of other faiths.  Actually, to be completely honest, I had some weird belief that even in talking to someone of a different faith I would somehow be forced to "convert" and lose my spot in heaven (crazy!  I know!).  However, over the years, especially over recent years, I've come to enjoy learning about other religions and why people believe what they do.  I don't spend my time trying to defend what I believe or convince others that what they believe is wrong.  Instead I listen and I share and I let God do the rest.  It's not up to us to "save" anyone anyway... I'm pretty sure God accomplished that on the cross (and it's really His work in our hearts that truly leads any of us to Him, we are just helpers along the way). 
  Anyway, I picked up "Have a Little Faith" at the library the other week and started reading it mostly because I remember enjoying "Tuesday's with Morrie" and I thought, "same author, same type of writing style, I'll probably like it" and I did.  In reality I enjoyed the interaction between Mitch and the "Reb" way more than the story of Henry, but I saw value in them both... even though they only really intersected in one way in my mind.
  From the Reb, I think I was reminded that we aren't called to judge, we are just called to love (I've proven time and time again that I am a horrible judge, yet I still catch myself assuming I have the right to do so and that my judgments are always correct, even though they aren't).  Through out the book the Reb is shown as this man of faith who is completely confident in what he believes and isn't afraid of the hard questions.  He is loving and compassionate and everything a good "Christian" should be, even though He's a Jewish Rabbi (To think how much we miss out on my shunning people of other religions). 
  Then There is Henry, this former drug dealer/user and convict who gave his life to Jesus and turned into a pastor.  You can sense the skepticism of the author as he first meets Henry and I guess that's really why the story of their relationship and interaction truly shows that you can't judge a book by a cover.  While I am not sure I completely agree with everything Henry believes... he talks a bit about how he's not sure he's given enough "payback" for all the wrong he's done in his life for God to let him into heaven... In his story I see the truly redemptive work of God and the proof that nobody is ever too far gone for God to reach!
  I'm glad I found this book, and this author, again.  I'm glad that I have become open enough to realize that a Jewish Rabbi can teach me just as much about the God I serve and how to truly walk out my faith, than my Christian friends and pastors.  It's a simple read... more story then in depth commentary of faith, but still totally worth the time it take to read.  So whether your Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Agnostic, ect.  I would say give "Have a Little Faith" a try... it might surprise you what you take away!

Monday, February 15, 2016

"Monkey Mind: A Memior of Anxiety" by Daniel Smith

  This was another book that took me a really long time to get through...even though it's not very long.  A friend of mine recommended it to me, saying that it had helped him to not feel so alone in his struggles with anxiety.  In fact, reading the "episodes" of the author helped him to see himself in new light, which in turn helped him to seek help.  That's great for my friend.  For me, I didn't have the same reaction.
  Even though I read the entire book, I couldn't really enjoy the story when it seemed so much of it flowed out of sex or sexual circumstances.  Not only that, but the book seemed to flow in a way that shared all the issues (or most of them) but not really how they resolved... just that they did (His therapist helped with that by giving him tools to overcome, but what those tools are, how they helped, that wasn't really explored).  Maybe that wasn't meant to be the point of the book, maybe instead it was suppose to just be a lament of how things had been and other books are about how they got better, but the simplistic overturn of once I struggled, then I didn't, kind of turned me off.
  So why continue reading a book that I didn't really enjoy?  Partly it's my personality... I like to finish what I start, plus I had promised a friend I would check it out so I needed to give it a fair shake.  But, to be honest, it was also because it wasn't all bad.  There actually were parts I could relate to and moments that made me laugh, like when he proved he could get from diagnosing himself with anxiety to dying disgraced and alone in just eight steps in his mind or how he used feminine period pads to try and cover up his sweat stains/ sweat issue as an adult.  In that sense I found the book enjoyable.  I just wish there was more of that and less of the drug and sex content (although I get that's an important part of the story).  I also wish that the author would have written in a way that made you feel like he was inviting you into his story and not just proving how smart and awesome he could be with his words (which is totally judgmental on my part, but sometimes his choice of words took away from what he was trying to least for me).
  Anyway, as if you couldn't tell, I probably wouldn't recommend this book to anyone.  I'm not even sure outside of this blog that I would mention to anyone I read it.  I am glad it helped my friend and spoke to him...which proves it does have it's audience... but it didn't really do anything for me and I'm actually pretty glad it's over with.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Stronger" by Jeff Bauman (with Bret Witter)

  There are certain days in every persons life that stand out on a national or global scale.  For my parent's generation is was things like D-day and the shooting of JFK.  For my generation (or at least in my case) it's September 11th, the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Marathon Bombing.  I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when each of those things happened.  I can tell you who broke the news to me and all the feelings that went through my body as I listened to reports.  I wasn't even "there" (like in the situation) for any of those moments, yet I carry them with me.  How much more those who were there.
  To be honest, this wasn't exactly my next book of the year.  I actually started another book, which was quite interesting but might of been one of those bite off more than you can chew books for me, and I probably wouldn't have finished it for months.  So when reading that book turned more into homework than enjoyment, I returned it to the library and just started skimming the shelves.  I had a list with me (I always have a list), but this book... Stronger... wasn't on my list. I saw the title out of the corner of my eye and once I looked at the cover I immediately knew what it was about.  I hadn't intended to check it out, but a few pages in I was hooked...not just cause of the story or the writer, but more so because of his writing style. 
  I don't know Jeff Bauman as the celebrity that many other people do.  I didn't recognize his name, although I did recognize him by the photo I saw in the book (and in the newspapers at the time of the bombing), but beyond that I knew nothing of him.  In fact, it wasn't until about halfway through reading his story that I googled his name and realized there was a whole world of people out there who had all sorts of opinions of this guy and who he is or might be (think conspiracy theorist).  People are entitled to their own thoughts and opinions, but for me, reading this book, I have nothing but respect for this man.  I can't even imagine what he's been through... even after watching it on TV and reading his thoughts.  Then being able to put it all on paper and to connect with people in writing it...balancing the reality of what happened with your own thoughts and feelings, while still recovering from it all (if you can ever fully recover from such a thing).  He's right, He is strong!
  The story in the book talks about the day of the bombing (and a little before), the aftermath, the recovery and the "new normal" Bauman now faces.  There's such a good balance of showing both the good moments and the bad moments of the journey.  Jeff doesn't make himself out to be this perfect saint who just passed through it all with ease and flying colors...perfect A's all the way.  Sure he shares highlights of getting visits from celebrities and moments he was a symbol of inspiration to people, but he also shares about the hard times and the pain and the frustration of it all.  He tells about fights he had and things he said and did wrong.  He writes about his feelings and even how hard it is for him talk about those feeling or even think about that day (ironically since that's what the book is about).  I applaud him for putting it all out there, for not shying away and for not letting anyone take away from HIS story (naysayers, media or even terrorists).
  I will say that for me, the hero of the story isn't just Bauman.... actually pretty much everyone in the story is a hero in someway... but for me, it was actually his girlfriend who stood out to me the most.  What a firm foundation she is... what an inspiration.  Again, she's not made out to be perfect.... her struggles through out are very apparent... but she's there and she's strong and she doesn't let the world (or anyone in it) change their story.  This tragedy happened, but together these two people... Jeff and Erin... made their life through it.  That should be celebrated!
  Again, this isn't really one of those books that can be rated.  I can say it's a super easy read and you get sucked in pretty quickly (although maybe that's cause it happened just a few years ago), but  ultimately I think it's a story of triumph and over coming odds and seeing the good in the midst of the bad... and who doesn't want to read something like that!  But more than that, there's a spirit in this book that goes beyond just the "Boston  Strong" slogan mentioned time and time again.  It's a spirit of love and community and humanity at it's best (and worst!). I will leave you with one of my favorite things that Jeff Bauman said about the whole situation.  He said, "I'm coming out of this experience with damage.  I guess you'd call it suspicion.  I know how evil humans can be, and I'm watchful, because the bad guys are out there. But I know something else too; Bad people are rare.  But Good people are everywhere"!  Here's to the good people!