Review: The Second Mountain

the second mountain

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A book on our life journey, from the first mountain of individual achievement and success to the second mountain of rooted commitment to relationships and service.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has been on a personal journey and this book reflects that journey five years on from his earlier Road to Character (review) in which he describes the movement from resumé virtues to the eulogy virtues that describe a life of character. In this book, Brooks develops a further dimension that his first book did not focus on, perhaps because Brooks himself was not focusing on it–that dimension of our commitments and our relationality. He continues to think about the moral life, and particularly the idea of moral ecologies, a way of being, believing and behaving shaped by our context. What he contends for in this book is a thicker moral ecology shaped by relational commitments rather than what he sees as the hyper-individualism of our contemporary culture.

This is where the two mountains comes in. The first mountain is the individual journey focused on self-realization, personal achievement and success. It operates in a moral ecology of self buffered from others, a focus on one’s own feelings, one’s own god, a privatization of meaning, a dream of freedom and a central focus on personal accomplishment.

Often it takes the experience of the value of failure, suffering, and pain to awaken us to the second mountain. Often the valley is a crisis of meaning, increasingly, it is the experience of intense loneliness. Brooks talks about the valley, and its companion, the wilderness, where we listen to our lives.

He then speaks about the second mountain, which represents the committed life. He focuses on four commitments, giving a section of several chapters to each. The four commitments he writes of are to a vocation or calling, to a marriage, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. For each, he describes, not a moment, but a process of realization and development. He offers help in discerning a vocation, which sometimes comes down to saying “yes to every opportunity.” He gives sound principles for the growth of intimacy, including whether you really enjoy talking to one another, and can envision enjoying that for a life. I love his description of marriage as “the school you build together.”

His discussion of philosophy and faith is the section that seems most personal and occupies the most space. He describes his own spiritual journey both away from the mixed Jewish and Christian influences of his youth and his return, significantly through the influence of his research assistant, Anne. He writes of her:

“Anne answered each question as best she could. She never led me. She never intervened or tried to direct the process. She hung back. If I asked her a question, she would answer it, but she would never get out in front of me. She demonstrated faith by letting God be in charge. And this is a crucial lesson for anybody in the middle of any sort of intellectual or spiritual journey. Don’t try to lead or influence. Let them be led by that which is summoning them” (p. 239).

So where did he end up, for those who wonder? He describes himself as “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” It also turns out that after several years apart, he and Anne, a Wheaton College graduate and committed Christian, married.

In his final section, he talks about commitment to community, to restoring the kind of communities where people have a sense of belonging to and being responsible to and for each other. He has critical words for programs focused on single problems rather than comprehensive approaches.

He concludes by proposing that the second mountain is the relational mountain, and offers a relationalist manifesto with enumerated points that serve to sum up the book. Everything but the kitchen sink is here, a grand sweeping vision for the second mountain life.

As I read this book, I felt both a deep resonance with much of what Brooks writes and that he was trying to do so much that I found myself wondering at times, “what kind of book is this?” I did not find that it had as coherent a structure as The Road to Character. The lengthy sections on each of the commitments, each engaging, felt like stand alone pieces, each of which could have received book length treatments. I wonder if less could have been written on each commitment and more on how the four commitments cohere, if not in every life, but in healthy societies.

That said, Brooks charts the journey into the second half of life well, of the commitments to be negotiated if one is to enjoy a rich and full, and not merely successful life. That he writes so personally and openly of his own journey into both faith and love is one of the most attractive and winsome elements of this work. The challenge he offers to the hyper-individualism of our culture is one worth considering. Will we recognize that we need one another? That may be one of the critical questions of our time.

Review: Relationomics

relationomics

RelationomicsRandy Ross. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: The health of relationships within organizations and with customers is directly connected to productive and profitable economic activity.

The odd title of this book, Relationomics, is the author’s way of communicating the vital importance of healthy relationships to healthy organizational economics. He defines relationomics as:

“…the study of the observable impact that relationships have on economic activity. It’s an assessment of the value created by relationships as opposed to simply a fiscal transactional analysis. In the marketplace, a significant causal correlation exists between the strength of the relationship and the flow of resources. The stronger and healthier the relationships, the more productive and profitable the transactions between those parties tend to be” (p. 36).

I found this an extremely practical and wise book that rings true to my years as a director in a religious non-profit, and challenged me to take a look at my own relational practices. The book is organized around four relational qualities, with several chapters under each of the following: intentionality, humility, accountability, and sustainability. I’ll share some of the most valuable insights and takeaways for me from each section.

Intentionality. As a kid who grew up as something of a loner, his chapter on The Great Deception names a lesson I’ve had to learn–that growth comes in relationships as we have others who encourage, sharpen, and challenge us. He calls the effort to grow outside of relationships the “Luciferian lie.” When organizations treat people as pawns and foster cut-throat competition rather than collaboration, they suffer. He argues that effective leaders foster remarkable cultures where people “believe the best in one another, want the best for one another, and expect the best from one another” (p. 63).

Humility. Humble leaders know themselves well and are comfortable in their own skin, which breeds in turn authenticity and empathy. He describes two kinds of growth spirals. One is descending characterized by defensiveness, rationalization, stagnation, and alienation. The other is ascending, characterized by openness, honest evaluation, solution orientation, and inspiration through unity. He also proposes a Poor Man’s 360 question that I intend to use: “What’s it like for you to be on the other side of me?” He also states that there are two kinds of leaders in organizations. There are value creatorswho bring more to the table than they take away, enriching the lives of others and their relationships. There are also value extractors, who get more from you than they offer. It shows up at networking events, and Ross proposes a practice he calls “NetWeaving,” of looking for ways, to connect others with common interest, “paying it forward,” as it were. Often we don’t lead like this because of fear, which great leaders transcend when they decide that being open-handed actually creates for them a greater capacity to receive as well as give.

Accountability. Good organizational relationships flourish when everyone’s OAR is in the water: when there is ownership, accountability, and responsibility. Good organizations have accountability in how they engage in workplace conflicts, the goal of which is to avoid throwing sand. He gives five practical suggestions in this regard:

  1. I will talk to you before I ever talk about you.
  2. I will engage in candid conversations with humility, knowing I have room to grow.
  3. We will seek objective input if we come to an impasse.
  4. I recognize that the objective of the conversation is to seek understanding, resolve issues, and move toward unity.
  5. I will forgive quickly [with some qualifications about destructive behaviors] (pp. 177-183).

Sometimes this means practicing RAW conversations. These Reveal reality, Advance creative dialogue, and Wrestle with solutions. This last seems particularly important–that both stay at the table (with time outs if it gets too emotional) until there is resolution.

Sustainability. This circles back to the idea of leaders who move beyond self-interest in their leadership. They are grounded leaders who are emotionally mature, have established convictions, and are determined. They are “rooted in reality, emotionally centered, relationally rich, results-oriented, other focused, mission-minded.” He offers a great example in the founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, who is committed to high wages for his workers, and a share of the enterprise. His insights about the revolving door of employee turnover focuses on how most organizations hire too quickly, and he contrasts Chick-fil-A, where hires are interviewed by every person they will directly relate to in the organization over an extended period.

Each chapter includes reflection questions to help one crystallize the chapter content and apply it to one’s own situation. The writing style is clear, personal, filled with illustrations and acronyms to help remember the content. If that is not sufficient, Ross includes a glossary at the end of the book. For those looking for an approach to relationships that is faith-based, you may recognize biblical allusions and principles in the writing. But because this seems directed to a wider audience, there are no Bible references or discussions of faith in the workplace.

There are lessons here for any relational context, including marriage. This is especially valuable for anyone who leads a team or an organization–whether a sports club, a work group or business, a task force, or a church or non-profit group. Unhealthy relationships can suck the life out of an organization. Healthy relationships with a high performing team can be exhilarating. Randy Ross’s book can help a leader, who is ready to learn, to develop the latter.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

 

Review: Subversive Sabbath

Subversive Sabbath

Subversive SabbathA. J. Swoboda, Foreword by Matthew Sleeth, MD. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Summary: An extended argument showing how keeping sabbath is a counter-cultural, subversive practice in every area of life.

Apart from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic, The Sabbath, I would consider this the best book I have read on Sabbath. In a world focused on relentless doing, Swoboda challenges the Christian community to take the sabbath commands as seriously as we do the other nine, observing it is the only command speaking of something as “holy” to the Lord. His argument is that to begin to take this seriously is a subversive act, and perhaps one of the most significant way the church can bear witness to the transcendent reality of God. He writes:

“How is the Sabbath subversive? The truth remains that Sabbath will be challenging for anyone to live out in our busy, frenetic world. Sabbath goes against the very structured and system of the world we have constructed. Sabbath, then, becomes a kind of resistance to that world. Such resistance must be characterized as overwhelmingly good. In other words, if Sabbath is hard, then we are doing it right. It is never a sign of health or godliness to be well-adjusted to a sick society….Relating to our world of death, ‘going along’ is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream. Only the dead go with the flow” (p. xi).

The book consists of four parts, each with three chapters: Sabbath for Us, Sabbath for Others, Sabbath for Creation, and Sabbath for Worship. Beginning with Sabbath for Us, the first chapter explores Sabbath and Time, and the marvel that the first day life for Adam and Eve was a sabbath, where they rested along with God, and how hard it is for us to do the same. Sabbath and Work calls us to establishing rhythms of work and rest and challenges our worship of work instead of a reliance upon God when we do not work that carries into our work. Sabbath and Health speaks into how often we cannot say “no” when God says “no” and invites us for our health’s sake to rest.

In Sabbath for Others, Swoboda begins with Relationships, and how Sabbath practiced together may overcome the isolation of our lives and strengthen community. In Sabbath, Economy and Technology, Swoboda challenges us to think about how we prepare for the Sabbath in advance, and how we might do so in ways that others also enjoy rest, and how to manage our technology so we step away from our screens (he just went from preaching to meddling here!). He takes this further in Sabbath and the Marginalized, considering the implications of practicing the Sabbath so that the poor, the marginalized, the under-employed also find rest.

Sabbath for Creation begins by focusing on the intricate balance of creation and how Sabbath neglected is part of the the degradation of creation. He proposes that Sabbath is the string that holds everything together and that Sabbath-keeping is earth-keeping. Sabbath and the Land focuses particularly on how land needs sabbath to be restored, fallow periods every seven years that enrich the soil to enrich us. Sabbath and Critters (!) focuses on how we treat our animals, even to the point of suggesting chickens get a Sabbath from laying, and that all our animals need rhythms of rest.

Part Four centers around Sabbath as Worship, the ways we glorify God in community and in the world. It is Witness, setting us apart as this weird, contrast society that might be intriguing to tired, burnt out friends. It is Worship, and sometimes what we sacrifice rest for tells us what we falsely worship. It calls us into the trust that believes by not doing but by resting, we will experience God’s care. It is Discipleship that helps clear out what should not be in our lives, that exposes the noise inside us in times of silence, and helps us rightly order our lives into a new week.

While Swoboda interacts with a number of theological writers, literary figures, and others throughout this work, as well as the scriptures, his own stories of trying and failing and learning and pressing into Sabbath practice made this reader want to follow him into what appears a richer fuller way found by stopping and resting. He doesn’t present Sabbath as a cure all, but does propose that this command/gift is God’s way of liberating us from our hurried, distracted, alienated, consuming selves. Not only does this help liberate us from our false selves; Sabbath helps us to meet the true God. I will close with this:

“We worship the God who invented the weekend. This is why biblical scholar Al Baylis contends that ‘Genesis 1 is one of the most remarkable put-downs ever administered.’ The biblical creation account essentially served as a theological rebuttal of all the other ‘gods’ who never allowed anyone to rest. In a restless world, Yahweh required rest. Again, imagine what kind of first impression that would have given to an ancient person’s understanding of Yahweh. The God of Scripture not only rests himself but invites the world to rest with him” (pp. 9-10).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Path Between Us

The Path Between Us

The Path Between UsSuzanne Stabile. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Formatio, 2018.

Summary: Using the tool of the Enneagram, this explores how each “number” interacts with the other numbers, how each number relates in stress, and security, and what is helpful for other “numbers” to understand about relating to a person with this number.

In The Road Back to You(review) Suzanne Stabile and her co-author Ian Cron give one of the most accessible explanations of the Enneagram that I have read. In this sequel, Suzanne Stabile builds on the insights of how each of the nine “numbers” on the Enneagram views and engages with the world uniquely and how this shapes the ways we build and maintain relationships with others, both those who share our “number” and those who differ (Enneagram types are summarized by the number for that type).

She begins by reviewing briefly the different numbers, the different Triads (Gut – 8, 9, 1; Heart – 2, 3, 4; Head – 5, 6, 7), the Wings (adjacent numbers to ours), and our Stress and Security numbers (those whose qualities we may draw on when we are under stress or feeling secure) and the three Stances (Aggressive – 3, 7, 8; Dependent – 1, 2, 6; and Withdrawing – 4, 5, 9). These are elaborated much more fully in The Road Back to You but also covered in the context of relationships in the following chapters.

Before discussing relationships for each number, Stabile offers very helpful advice for those concerned about the misuse of the Enneagram:

“First, please don’t use your Enneagram number as an excuse for your behavior. Second, don’t use what you’ve learned about the other numbers to make fun of, criticize, or stereotype, or in any way disrespect them. Ever. Third, it would be great if you would spend your energy observing and working on yourself as opposed to observing and working on others. And going forward, I hope you will share my desire that we all grow in our ability to accept, love, and walk beside one another on the path with loads of compassion and respect” (p. 13).

The next nine chapters are devoted to looking at each number beginning with Eights (the Gut Triad). Each chapter begins with a story of an interaction involving a person with the number being considered. This is followed by a description of the world of this number, how they respond in relationships under stress and security, and the path together with this number. A sidebar in each chapter considers relationships between this number and each of the other numbers, including those sharing the same number. The chapter concludes with two summaries, one focused on key things a person with this number need to remember that they can, and can’t do in relationships and what they need to accept; and one focused on what others need to keep in mind in their relationships with a person with this number.

I found this book extremely helpful both for self-understanding, and understanding the ways I relate with others. In my case, I’m a Five. I value competence that comes through knowing, independence, privacy, and guarding my energies. I listen and observe well, but I’m not always good at communicating my feelings. Instead, I will tell you what I think. I learned that I’m not always good at picking up innuendo or indirect communication (true). Being laid up for a couple of months at the end of 2016 told me how hard it is for me to let others care for me, and the truth that the best way to live is neither dependent nor independent, but interdependent. Stabile’s title for my number really fit: “My Fences Have Gates.”

One critique I would offer of this book is that it assumes that a person knows their Enneagram number and doesn’t give much direction to the person who does not. There is a resource advertised at the end of the book on knowing your number but little guidance given about how one may go about discerning this. Stabile has been trained by Fr. Richard Rohr, whose approach is that one discerns one’s number as one reads the different types and finds one that makes you uncomfortably squeamish, saying “how did you know that about me?” That one is probably yours.

I know there are some who are critical of the Enneagram. I won’t try to defend this tool, except to say it has been useful for me and those I work with. Those who work with the Enneagram often like to say that the purpose of the Enneagram is not to put us in a box, but rather to help us understand the box we are in. Often, I’m tripped up by the things I don’t understand about myself. As I grow in self-understanding this opens up new dimensions in relationships with both people and God, and frees me to more skillfully use my gifts and pursue the things I care about. Only Jesus fully knows me, and can form me to be the person he envisions, both fully who I am, and in his image. The Enneagram has been one way among many he has used in this process. Stabile’s work is a great introduction to this way, this tool.

The Path Between Us Study Guide is a companion guide for both individuals and groups who want to pursue this material further. The six studies are titled:

  1. The Best Part of You Is the Worst Part of You
  2. What We Want
  3. What We Fear
  4. What We Offer
  5. Keeping Each Other Forgiven and Free
  6. Ways to Help Ourselves and Others

There is a section for those facilitating group discussions with a plan for each session. I have not used this guide so I cannot evaluate it. It appears that it can be used independently of reading the book, though I’m sure the book content will enrich discussions and insights.

The author has also recorded eight short YouTube clips accessible via the publisher’s website or through this link. I have to confess that the author photo gave me the impression of a stern school principal, an impression immediately dispelled in listening to her on the videos!

Stabile’s book and accompanying guide are the best resources I’ve seen for extending the framework of the Enneagram to our relationships and giving practical insights for relationships between the different numbers. As she has written, we all probably have much room to “grow in our ability to accept, love, and walk beside one another on the path with loads of compassion and respect.” In her work, we have a wise and gracious guide for the journey.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Power of Together

power-of-together

The Power of TogetherJim Putnam. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: A pastor of a thriving church explores what he believes to be the key to both spiritual maturity and the ministry effectiveness of his church–the fostering of relationships of depth between believers throughout the church.

Jim Putnam begins this book by observing a gap that exists in many American churches. People have come to faith, been taught both Christian doctrine and Christian practice and yet seem to lack the vibrant maturity and depth one one would expect in disciples of Jesus. His thesis is that what is lacking is a depth of relationships between believers, where people are deeply engaging with each other week in, week out, practicing the Christian faith with each other in working through conflict, confessing and turning from sin, learning to serve together, learning to go the extra mile for each other, and caring for those who are seeking.

Relationship is central to the gospel, not only a restored relationship with God but also with each other. First Corinthians 13, he observes, is instructions on how people in the church are to love each other and be family to each other. Marriage is only a small subset of that. Pride is often the major barrier to really opening our lives to each other. We fear being known, and we resist the idea of submission when it means we need to be open to others speaking into our lives, calling us to change. This may especially be an affliction of church leaders to whom Putnam writes pointedly:

“Leaders must be submissive too. This might sound counterintuitive at first, but it’s not in practice. If leaders are submissive, to whom do they submit? The answer is that leaders must be submissive to God, to other leaders, and even other Christians. Yes, it takes strong leadership to get a church off the ground, and yes, it takes strong leadership to keep a church running smoothly. But Ephesians 5:21, which says, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ,’ applies to everyone, not just people who aren’t in leadership positions” (p. 121).

He writes of how deeply his church invests in training its leaders to work as a team and how hard they work at it. He recognizes the danger of leaders becoming siloed in their work and how much better leadership is when teams keep thinking about the whole and keep developing their capacity to care for the whole. Putnam argues this is crucial to meet the spiritual battle churches face and to stand out as “a city on a hill.”

The style of this book is a consistent movement between biblical principles and stories from various settings of life from Putnam’s personal life to sports. One of his most memorable images is that often our investment in relational discipleship is similar to buying an $8 tube to float down a river. Fine for calm waters, but entirely inadequate for white water rafting.

There are points where I felt the writing was a bit of “variations on a theme” where the author was reiterating his point about how important being together in relationships of depth is to our growth as disciples. I thought there were places where he could have fleshed out how this works more in his congregation. For example, thousands of congregations have some form of home groups or small groups. What distinguishes those at his church?

I think this could be a helpful book for a church leadership wrestling with a sense that the congregation seems “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Often that lack of depth is in the dimension of relationships. Putnam charts a biblical vision, some practical dimensions of the form this takes, what it looks like for leadership, and both the barriers and crucial spiritual importance of relational discipleship to spiritual maturity and church vitality.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Apologies 101

ApologyWe’ve seen a recent example of attempts to apologize gone bad with one of our Olympic athletes. He is hardly the first public figure to have a hard time with apologies. And he is a great illustration of the truth that a bad apology may actually be worse than keeping your mouth shut (at least until you can render a good apology). I wonder if we do better.

Bad apologies.

Bad apologies may look like apologies because they use the words “I’m sorry” but they do not express sincere and unqualified remorse and own up to our own responsibility for what we’ve done wrong and how we’ve hurt someone. These kind of apologies often take the form of:

  • Blaming the victim. These usually follow the form of “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The person is really saying that the person they’ve offended is the problem. It is patronizing, it shifts blame, and only intensifies the situation.
  • Excusing bad behavior. A person may say something like, “I’m sorry for what I said, but if you knew how late I was up with the kids, you’d shoot your mouth off too.” Maybe and maybe not. It’s another way of shifting responsibility and excusing what is actually not excusable.
  • Distorting the truth of one’s offense. The athlete mentioned above, in a TV interview said he “over-exaggerated” his story. He would have done far better to say, “I lied to cover up my own inebriated behavior and this reflected badly on my Brazilian hosts.”

Preparing to make a good apology.

Good apologies don’t just happen. They involve self-reflective and empathic preparation. Here are some of the things I’ve tried to consider when I’ve needed to apologize–which I’ve had to do many times!

  • Do I understand and can I clearly articulate what I’ve said or done wrong without sugar-coating it or excusing it or justifying it. If I’m not clear on what I’ve done wrong, it will be a false apology. Either I’m apologizing for something I’ve not done, or I am inadequately apologizing for what I have done.
  • Do I understand how my words or actions might have affected the other person? What if the tables were turned and this were done to me. How would I feel? We should also be prepared that we may not know all of the impact of our words or actions, and be prepared to listen, to take that on board and to express our understanding of that additional impact.
  • Am I truly sorry for what I have done and its effects, or do I simply want the bad feelings to go away? Getting to “truly sorry” often means taking account of the damage to a relationship that means something to me that my words or actions caused.
  • Am I prepared to make appropriate amends for what I have done wrong? This could include financial repayment of damages, acknowledging our responsibility if our words and actions have falsely damaged the reputation of another, and accepting any legal penalties associated with my action if I have broken the law.
  • Am I willing to commit myself to specific actions to rebuild trust in the relationship if the other is so disposed?

If you’ve not worked through questions like these, you are not ready to make a good apology and you will probably just make things worse. Working through these questions doesn’t guarantee that another will receive your apology but it will raise the possibility that they will consider, if this is your object, that you are well and truly sorry.

If there is the possibility of legal action, one may want to consult with a trained mediator or attorney before going to the other party to understand how a statement of apology may affect such legal action. Most matters don’t rise to this level and a good apology often averts more serious conflict.

Making the good apology. 

You need to find your own words to express several things, and you might even write, or memorize at least your initial words.

  • The apology proper. This is saying “I’m sorry” and keeping the language “I” language.
  • A statement of how you have offended that acknowledges your responsibility. “I dominated the conversation in our meeting and cut you off several times when you tried to make a point. That was wrong and I had no excuse for acting like that.”
  • A statement that acknowledges awareness of how this hurt the other party. “The way I acted must have communicated that I didn’t think what you had to say was very important. It robbed our group of your ideas and contribution. Are there other ways this hurt you?”
  • Discuss how you could make amends or rebuild trust in the relationship. “I don’t want this to happen in future meetings. I will try to limit my own contributions and not interrupt you. Are there other things that would be helpful to your participation in our meetings?”

A few other things:

  • Neither rush or delay apologizing. Don’t try to apologize in the heat of the moment. But don’t let it ride either. Try to talk on the same day if possible.
  • Do it in person. This is not the time to rely on email.
  • Do it when you won’t be rushed.
  • Do it privately, unless your offense was a public offense.
  • Try to listen twice as much as you speak.

I think the key to a good apology, and one of the hardest things for most of us, myself included, is to admit that we were wrong, particularly if we were not the only ones. Yet I find that when I go into self-protection mode, everyone else does as well. A good friend of mine who is a good leader and a peacemaker, says that in such situations, he always assumes that it is his turn to go first. Acknowledging wrong can be liberating. It unlocks conflict, it can liberate us from a futile narrative, and open up possibilities of a different future. Most of all it can lead to the healing of the torn fabric of relationships. It all begins with a good apology.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Finding Love

Wedding Picture

My wife and I on our wedding day. The minister was Rev. Robert Mulholland. That tux is a real fashion statement, isn’t it! Gotta love the 70’s.

This week, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary. It made me stop and reflect on how friends in Youngstown found love, or love found them, or not. The truth is that while some, like us, have been blessed with marriages that have endured (and I don’t think of myself as particularly deserving but rather gifted with a very patient wife!), it didn’t work out that way for everyone. Some have witnessed the end of marriages in divorce, and perhaps have married again. Some of my classmates have already fulfilled the “til death do we part” portion of their vows and have outlived a spouse, a special form of heartache. Some never married, sometimes because there was something else that was truly a life passion.

I know of people who married their high school sweethearts. It just wasn’t that way with me. The girl I took to my senior prom was one I dated throughout my senior year. We broke up a month after the prom. I did end up marrying a Youngstown girl though. Lots of people went away to college and met people from other cities. I didn’t, which made a lot of things simpler, everything from our idea of what makes good pizza, to a more basic outlook, which we have come to call, “thinking like a Youngstowner.” We also didn’t have to figure out which set of relatives to visit on holidays–we just visited them all!

O.K., so here is the story of how we met. Friday, September 22, 1972 was a very significant day in my life. At noon that day, I went to a meeting of the collegiate ministry that I have worked with throughout my adult life. At 1 pm, I met my future wife. I’m very glad for both of these, but I still think it is a good thing that we don’t know such things ahead of time.

It was the second day of our freshman year at Youngstown State. If you remember Youngstown State back then, it was mostly under construction and there were relatively few places to eat on campus. They only became a state university in 1967. There was a Red Barn restaurant on Lincoln Avenue where I went to eat that day. After getting my food, I spotted the one person I knew in that restaurant, a girl I had met that summer, eating with another girl. That girl is now my wife! It wasn’t love at first sight, but rather the lack of dining options that brought us together. I ate there regularly and so did the two of them. As I got to talking with this girl, I discovered that not only was she attractive, but also interesting, and that we shared common convictions about the important things of life, including our faith. Of course, we guys are slow. About the time she gave up on me being interested in her, I asked her out. That was the way it was done then. These days, she might have asked me! The rest as they say, was history. We dated through college, and waited to get established in jobs to get married.

In the early years, we would go out on September 22 and get a burger to celebrate meeting. Over the years, anniversaries have tended to become the bigger deal. But perhaps this year we need to go get a burger on September 22 to remember that significant day in our lives. Too bad we can’t get one at a Red Barn anymore!

What was your experience of finding love (or not)? How and where did you meet your spouse or significant other?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Relational Soul

Relational SoulThe Relational Soul, Richard Plass and James Cofield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Our relational capacity is essential to being human but often hindered by the false self that struggles with trust, but may be transformed through God’s gracious intervention, often through other people, that allows us to receive the gift of discovering our true self.

It is too rare that I read a book that develops an idea with a succinct, logical flow that connects head, heart and human spirit, and does so with just enough explanation and illustration and nothing extra. This is such a book, and on a subject so basic to the nature of being human — our hunger and drive for meaningful relationships.

Plass and Cofield begin the book by contending that we were created for relationship, for enjoying meaningful connections with others. How we make, or fail to make attachments is formed very early in life and our “emotional thermostat” is set by our early attachment patterns–avoidant, ambivalent, scattered, or stable. Growing in our capacity begins with awareness of these patterns and our conscious and even unconscious memories and a receptivity of moving from distrust to trust.

They then turn to a construct others such as David Benner have discussed in formational work, the “false self”. These authors particularly focus on the mistrusting soul, that is both guarded in its trust of others and reliant upon oneself to project a self that we can control that we think will gain us affirmation while protecting ourselves from hurt. The breakthrough in relationships comes when Christ comes to us in grace, often through another person, and we experience relational connection as a gift rather than an achievement we control. This opens the door to discovery of our true selves, which comes through receptivity that begins to accept oneself with all our limits and losses, because we are accepted by Christ.

The second half of the book goes deeper into this journey of discovering true self in relationship by first of all exploring how our stories connect to God’s story and help connect head and heart. Community is crucial in deepening our relational connections–community that is particular, mysterious, and messy–in other words real rather than some idealized place. Plass and Cofield commend the four disciplines of silence, solitude, contemplative reading of scripture and contemplative prayer as disciplines that nurture the relational soul. They conclude by talking about the long, patient journey of love into relational wholeness, one that involves openness, curiosity, and acceptance of limits and loss.

The book includes a bibliography of further readings, helps in developing one’s life map, and a brief introduction to the Enneagram (probably the least helpful aspect of the book because of the lack of instruction in how to discern one’s personality style). Each chapter includes helpful reflection questions for personal or group discussion.

It seems to me that this is a good book to read in the context of working with a spiritual director or for individuals or groups wanting to go deeper in their understanding of relational alienation and relational disconnectedness. This seems especially important in this age of projected selves on social media where we may have many “friends” but rarely if ever experience deep connection with humans or God.

Review: The Magician’s Assistant

The Magician's Assistant
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sabine is the magician’s assistant to Parsifal who she fell in love with from the moment he called her out of the crowd to be part of one of his illusions. Only one problem–Parsifal is gay. Nevertheless they perform and live together, even when Phan becomes Parsifal’s lover. Between Phan’s software business and Parsifal’s fine rug stores, they become comfortably rich. Then Phan dies of AIDS. Parsifal also has the disease and marries Sabine so that she will more easily inherit their estate.

All this is backstory, or so you think. The book opens with Parsifal lying dead on the MRI table, the victim of a brain aneurysm. Sabine is faced with the difficult task of returning to her life making architectural models and managing a house now too big for just her. She thinks that is all until she learns that Parsifal has a family back in Nebraska for whom he has established a trust, and then that they want to visit to know their son and brother Guy’s life since he left Nebraska. This is totally different from the lifestory he has told her.

annpatchet

Ann Patchet

As the story unfolds, Dot and Bertie visit, and in turn Sabine goes back to Nebraska to understand this part of Parsifal’s life she never knew, including meeting the older sister, Kitty. Through her interactions with this family, she discovers more about the man she loved and why he had hidden this part of his life, and more. In the end, without giving too much away, she finds both healing from her grief, and the love she lost in Parsifal, though not with a man.

And here is where I struggle with Patchett’s plotting choice. I am at once drawn by her sparkling prose and story-telling skill. One feels a quiet sense of wonder as she unfolds the lives of her characters. Nor do I object to her portrayal of gay or lesbian love, although I feel she idealizes these relationships against a backdrop of dismal heterosexual relationships. It is that in the end, Sabine once again defines her life in terms of a relationship born out of grief and crisis, albeit “blessed” in a dream by Parsifal and Phan. I was rooting for Sabine to break free from being “the assistant”. In the end, I’m not sure she does.

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