Book Review

Renovation of the Heart

“We live from our heart.”

        From that first line of Renovation of the Heart (Navpress, 2002), the late Dallas Willard drills deep into our spiritual core and the need for spiritual formation through Christ. Clearly, this book rolls out of a well-lived life—studious, devotional, and humble. Willard obviously thought deep and long about character, personality, destiny, societies, and cultures. But mostly he thought about God.

       This book is so clear, gentle, and well organized. It’s like Willard discovered a big stack of unkempt theological firewood, then began to stack it neatly. Not too neatly, but just enough to help readers think as they read. Willard makes us full partners in arriving at discernments of truth. Now, what follows is not a review, but rather a rock skipping across the pond of this book.

       First, Willard understood how evil germinates in the human heart. That’s why too many people, including children, live along various fronts of “withdrawal and assault” from those who should care for them. That alienation and brutality eventually leads to the slaughter of millions from “enlightened” thinkers, leaders, and governments.

       Jesus, the eternal Son, is the largest figure in all of history because His life reversed the corruption that invaded all people in all times and places. We were designed to love and to be loved by God. When we refuse it—when we seek or find love in any other place, thing, idea, event, or person—we miss our purpose and end up imprisoned to sin. We all live under government. The only question is, who’s government—His or ours?

       While reading this book, I often thought of Paul Batalden’s great slice of wisdom: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” When we live in anger, weariness, lust, fear, “assault and withdrawal,” and other human conditions, it is because we have perfectly designed our lives to get them. The only answer is to forsake our own way and seek the King and His Kingdom. 

        First, as a foundational issue, Willard sees six basic aspects in our lives:

1.    Thought (images, concepts, judgments, inferences)

2.    Feeling (sensation, emotion)[1]

3.    Choice (will, decision, character)

4.    Body (action, interaction with the physical world)

5.    Social context (personal and structural relations to others)

6.    Soul (the factor that integrates all the above to form one life)

       Willard doesn’t present those aspects as contradictory to the triad view of human life—body, soul, and spirit. He simply lays them out as the crucial zones of life.

       Sadly, most people do not even understand that construct. As a result, they are lost. And, as Willard explains, “Something that is lost is…not where it is supposed to be, and therefore it is not integrated into the life of the one to whom it belongs and to whom it is lost. Think of what it means when the keys to your house or car are lost. They are useless to you, no matter how much you need them and desire to have them and no matter what fine keys they may be. And when we are lost to God, we are not where we are supposed to be in his world and hence are not caught up into his life. The ultimately lost person is the person who cannot want God. Who cannot want God to be God… Wanting God to be God is very different from wanting God to help me.” 

Right there is the crisis point of all life. Who owns us? On that, Willard comes down the track like a freight train:

       “Christian spiritual formation rests on this indispensable foundation of death to self and cannot proceed except insofar as that foundation is being firmly laid and sustained…Covetousness is self-idolatry, for it makes my desires paramount. It means I would take what I want if I could.”

       And that is why, “What we call ‘civilization’ is a smoldering heap of violence constantly on the verge of bursting into flame.” 

 Transformation of the Mind and Body

Willard, author (The Divine Conspiracy and other books), professor, and director of the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy, was a true scholar. So, he understandably cared about clear thinking. He writes, “Bluntly, to serve God well we must think straight; and crooked thinking, unintentional or not, always favors evil. And when the crooked thinking gets elevated into group orthodoxy, whether religious or secular, there is always, quite literally, ‘hell to pay.’ That is, hell will take its portion, as it has repeatedly done in the horrors of world history.” 

       And he also focuses on the transformation of the human body. “For good or for evil, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life …our body is a good thing. God made it for good. That is why the way of Jesus Christ is so relentlessly incarnational. The body should be cherished and properly cared for, not as our master, however, but as a servant of God.

       “Incarnation is not just an essential fact about Jesus: that ‘Christ is come in the flesh.’ Rather, he came in the flesh, a real human body, in order that he might bring redemption and deliverance to our bodies… This present life is to be caught up now in the eternal life of God. But of course ‘the life I now live in the flesh’ is inseparable from the mortal body I now have. So it too must become holy, must ‘come over’ to Christ’s side.”

Social Dimensions

The geniuine tragedy of human life sweeps in when damaged people get together. Toxic thinking, the centrality of feelings, corrupt choices, ignorance of the body, and disintegrating souls produce societies that abuse and destroy people. Especially children.

       “The spiritual malformation of children is the inevitable result. Their little souls, bodies, and minds cannot but absorb the reality of assault and withdrawal in the climate where their parents or other adults are constantly engaged in them. And of course they are soon in the line of fire themselves… in such a context you can almost see the children shrivel.

       “Their only hope of survival is to become hardened… Hardened, lonely little souls, ready for addiction, aggression, isolation, self-destructive behavior, and for some, even extreme violence, go out to mingle their madness with one another and nightmarish school grounds and ‘communities.’ They turn to their bodies for self-gratification and to control others, or for isolation and self-destruction.

       “The wonder is not that they sometimes destroy one another, but that the adults who produce them and live with them can, with apparent sincerity, ask ‘Why?’ Do they really not know? Can they really not see the poison in the social realm?”

       Willard also laments western society’s inept responses… “sickeningly shallow solutions to the human problem, such as ‘education’ or ‘diversity’ or ‘tolerance…’ they do not come close to the root of the human problem.”

The Covenant Community 

Finally, Willard turns to Romans 12:9-21 for a comprehensive list of what gatherings of covenant communities, local churches should look like:

1.    Letting love be completely real

2.    Abhorring what is evil 

3.    Clinging to what is good

4.    Being devoted to one another in family-like love 

5.    Outdoing one another in giving honor

6.    Serving the Lord with ardent spirit and all diligence

7.    Rejoicing in hope

8.    Being patient in troubles

9.    Being devoted constantly to prayer

10. Contributing to the needs of the saints

11. Pursuing (running after) hospitality

12. Blessing persecutors instead of cursing them 

13. Being joyful with those who are rejoicing and being sorrowful with those in sorrow

14. Living in harmony with one another

15. Not being haughty, but fitting in with the “lowly” in human terms

16. Not seeing yourself as wise

17. Never repaying evil for evil

18. Having due regard for what everyone takes to be right 

19. Being at peace with everyone, so far as it depends on you

20. Never taking revenge, but leaving that to whatever God may decide 

21. Providing for needy enemies

22. Not being overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelming evil with good

Willard says, “Just think for a moment what it would be like to be a part of a group of disciples in which this list was the conscious, shared intention, and where it was actually lived out…”

Transforming the Soul

This chapter, one of the book’s best, gets to the most crucial issue: the health of the human soul. He writes, “The soul is that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on the various dimensions of the self… And the person with the ‘well-kept heart,’ the soul will be itself properly ordered under God and in harmony with reality…. For such a person, the human spirit will be in correct relationship to God. With his assisting grace, it will bring the soul into subjection to God and the mind (thoughts, feelings) into subjection to the soul. The social context and the body will then come into subjection to thoughts and feelings that are in agreement with truth and with God’s intent and purposes for us.”

       One of the best paragraphs in the book: “… The Psalm 1 man delights in the law that God has given. Note, he delights in it (verse 2 ). He loves it, is thrilled by it, can’t keep his mind off of it. He thinks it is beautiful, strong, wise, an incredible gift of God’s mercy and grace. He therefore dwells upon it day and night, turning it over and over in his mind and speaking it to himself…The result is a flourishing life.”

       “… Our soul is like an inner stream of water, which gives strength, direction, and harmony to every other element of our life. When that stream is as it should be, we are constantly refreshed and exuberant in all we do, because our soul itself is then profusely rooted in the vastness of God and his Kingdom, including nature; and all else within us is enlivened and directed by that stream.” 


[1]  According to Willard, “a great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings… the will is then left at the mercy of circumstances that evoke feelings.” 

Why We Sleep

Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (Simon & Schuster, 2017), reveals that, besides being essential to health and life, sleep brings a magical level of creativity. Walker chronicles “some of the most revolutionary leaps forward in human progress” first rode into existence on dreams.

         For example, during the night of February 17, 1869, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev dreamed the periodic table of elements. According to Walker, “The dream took hold of the swirling ingredients in his mind and, in a moment of creative brilliance, snapped them together in a divine grid…”

         Walker also describes Otto Loewi’s dream of two frogs’ hearts that ultimately revealed how nerve cells communicate using neurotransmitters. That discovery won the Nobel Prize. We also learn that “Yesterday” and “Let it Be” came to Paul McCartney in his sleep. Keith Richards has a similar story behind “Satisfaction.”

Why We Don’t Sleep

Naturally, the driving question behind Why We Sleep is “Why do we not sleep?”

         At the most extreme, today many countries (including the US) officially authorize sleep deprivation as a form of torture against enemies. But, what about the ways “civilized” behavior keeps us from sleeping? How is modern life imposing poor health and even death through restricted sleep? Walker names the biggest culprits:

  • Constant light (including LED)
  • Temperature (our bodies need cool air for sleeping best)
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol (“one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep”)
  • Work schedules (factory whistles and alarm clocks spike blood pressure)

        

Furthermore, US workplaces try to fight smoking, substance abuse, injurious practices, disease, etc. “But insufficient sleep—another harmful, potentially deadly factor—is commonly tolerated and even woefully encouraged.”

         Beyond those big 5, Walker links our inability to sleep with heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and cancer. Yet, he writes, “More than 65 percent of the US adult population fail to obtain the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night…”

         Making it all worse, too often, when we can’t sleep, we reach for the wrong fix, sleeping pills. They decrease the quality of sleep and increase the risk of poor health and early death.   

Return to Sanity

So, how do we go to sleep? Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending on your perspective, returning to what we’ve always known builds the best paths to sleep. We should:

  1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  2. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine (especially in the afternoon and evening).
  3. Eat moderately.
  4. Make sure your medicines do not delay or disrupt sleep.
  5. Don’t nap after 3:00 p.m.
  6. Relax before going to bed.
  7. Make your bedroom cool, dark, and free of sound or light-emitting gadgets.

        

Why We Sleep weaves beautiful logic and rhythms into finding our way back to healthy sleep. And, of course, that goes far beyond those 7 points. In fact, as I read, I often thought of Psalm 127:3, “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.” (NASB)  

         Unbelievably, western societies decided to work too long and too hard to obtain what is a gift from God.

         Sleep is one of the primary gauges on the dashboard of life. Why We Sleep presents a compelling case for keeping our eye on that panel, especially the dial that often clangs and flashes “SLEEP – SLEEP – SLEEP.”

NOTE: If you order this book from Amazon, be very careful. An almost-identically titled book, with similar cover design, and almost twice the price will pop up first if you search for Why We Sleep. It’s a scam. Make sure you get this book:

See You in 100 Years

More than just a good story, which it surely is, Logan Ward’s See You in 100 Years (Author Planet Press, 2013) calls readers into a deep meditation of what we gain and what we lose through “progress.”

       Here’s the story: In the spring of 2001, Logan and Heather Ward quit their jobs, sold (or stored) everything they owned, and, with their 2-year-old son, Luther, moved from New York City to a farm, with a 116-year-old house, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

       More than that, they also “moved” back to 1900. That meant no cars, cell phones, or electric appliances, and no electricity, gas, or water service in the house. If it didn’t exist in 1900, they wouldn’t use it. They didn’t even accept rides in cars. If they could not get there by walking, bicycling, or by horse and buggy, they didn’t go. And they would live like that for one year.

       Part of the absorbing joy of this book is the way the reader must think through every detail of suddenly leaping backwards a full century; the long hours of hard work required just to remain alive, learning to work with some animals and kill others, living without weather forecasts or news, discovering the new patterns of farm life, and the knowledge that you cannot call anyone in case of emergencies.

       No wonder 1900’s life expectancy was 47 years for men and 49 for women.  

The Stamp of Time and Place

See You in 100 Years also reveals the way times and places mold people. So, we see good, liberal, non-religious, and artistic people quickly conform to traditional husband and wife roles. Ward admits that Heather fell into “the stereotypical chore load of the female… cooking, cleaning, laundry,” while he took care of “wood-splitting, water-pumping, livestock care.” He explains, “We do the jobs we’re inclined to do and that will be more efficient…with chores filling our days from dawn to dark, efficiency counts for a lot.”

       Well, maybe it always has! 

       And, then there is rain. As one who grew up in farm country, I understand why farming communities are inevitably religious. It all comes down to this: We must have rain and we can’t make it happen. Who you gonna call?

       During their sweltering, parched summer, the Logan family runs right into an ancient pattern; a black cloud covers the farm, the wind increases, the air cools, and a few big raindrops hit the dust, and then…nothing but the blazing sun. Over and over for weeks. He says it well, “For the first time ever, I understand the desperation that could drive people to dance for rain.”

       But, then…the rain arrives! “Heather breaks into sobs. I hug her and cry, too. Letting go is easy in the deluge.”

A Time of Testing 

Moving backward 100 years would inevitably become a crucible of testing. Sometimes excruciating, the tests measure every aspect of life: physical, mental, marital, financial, and communal.

       I’m sure it was unintentional, but the pace and intensity of bad language seems to serve as a thermometer for the heat of the testing. Ward and Heather’s profanities increase until they break. From that point, their language becomes clean and gentle.

       Perhaps the biggest test was 9/11/01, as these transplanted New Yorkers had no knowledge of the terrorist attacks of that day until neighbors began coming to their door. Logan admits the enormity of the attack made their experiment seem small and maybe silly. Neighbors invited them to their homes to use their phones and TVs.

       The way they work through their relationship to 911 (and the modern news business) throws a big yard light on modern life. Their choice is not a stunt, but a plumbline of sanity.

       Finally, as life on the land knocks them face down in the dirt, they come up grateful for every tomato, egg, cucumber, pint of goat’s milk, or drop of rain. Near the end of the book, Logan tells us, “I can’t contain my feelings of gratitude. For the first time since my boyhood, I offer silent prayers of thanks…”

       Obviously, I loved and do highly recommend this penetrating, moving, and funny book. It immersed me in another world and time, frequently pulled me out of bed or office, and threw me into sadness when it ended.

       As with many good books, I wanted to remain with those people and in that place a few pages and years longer.

Subversive Sabbath

A. J. Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World (Brazos Press, 2018) is a double gin and tonic in the land of lemonade. Commanding. Bracing. Disruptive.

Like nothing else in all of creation, the Sabbath – a day of rest – reveals God’s love for His creation, including the people. God orders a day of rest because He rested and, as Swoboda says, “built it into the DNA of creation, and it is therefore something creation needs in order to flourish. Humans were made to rest…Sabbath is a scheduled weekly reminder that we are not what we do; rather, we are who we are loved by.”

This book is a well-written, balanced, and persuasive view of the Sabbath, as it applies to all of life. We vividly see the ramifications of keeping (and violating) the Sabbath – on community, health, worship, marriage, sex, children, the environment, technology, animals, and the economy. The book fully illustrates why a “Sabbathcentric” economy is more humane and ethical for everyone.

Christian Amnesia

But, despite the Sabbath’s beautiful patterns and the fact that “Remember the Sabbath” is one of the Ten Commandments, Swoboda reflects that the Sabbath “has largely been forgotten by the church, which has uncritically mimicked the rhythms of the industrial and success-obsessed West…Sabbath forgetfulness is driven, so often, in the name of doing stuff for God rather than being with God.”

Swoboda’s chainsaw continues, “the worst thing that has happened to the Sabbath is religion. Religion is hostile to gifts. Religion hates free stuff. Religion squanders the good gifts of God by trying to earn them, which is why we will never really enjoy a sacred day of rest as long as we think our religion is all about earning.”

Is that why so many Christians, even pastors, so openly admit they habitually violate one of God’s ten commandments?

The author, who is also a pastor, shakes his head at “the nine commandments that, if I choose to break, I might lose my ministry over. But if I did not keep a Sabbath day, I would probably get a raise.” He quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, “We have made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we’re running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see least.”

The Power of No

Swoboda writes, “…every yes takes a little space out of our lives. Soon, after a thousand yeses, we find ourselves exhausted and marginless.” That’s why saying “no” is essential if we are to enjoy healthy margins in our lives. However, “Sabbath is not a culturally acceptable reason to say no.”

When Subversive Sabbath turns to Eugene Peterson for wisdom on how to say no, we learn that he “schedules times for prayer and meditation, dates with his wife, and even time to read books. And he schedules the Sabbath as well.” When someone asks him to do something on those dates and times, he just explains that the calendar will not permit it. Swoboda helpfully ads, “Not everything is everyone’s business.”

Stop!

The very thing that makes the Sabbath so essential in the totality of life is also what that makes us violate it: It is a reminder that we humans are not as crucial as we often believe. We really think we can help God run the world better. For example, we ignore the Sabbath principle of crop rotation. Instead, we gorge the land with chemicals and work it hard and continuously to get more out of it.

Climate change agnostics (like me) get a new view through Subversive Sabbath. For example, he quotes 2 Chronicles 36:21 about the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon: “The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.” [i]

          Swoboda explains: “When the Israelites were exiled, the land finally got what it needed: Sabbath rest. The land ‘enjoyed’ its newfound lease on life because it kept the Sabbath.” To not give the land a break is to abuse it. That and other biblical passages provide a convincing case against what happens when humans get better ideas on how to manage the earth.

That is why we humans should often just STOP! Don’t analyze, suggest, or do anything. Quit digging. Or, as Swoboda says, “Sometimes the best thing we can do for the healing of creation is nothing at all…Our culture says that healing can only come by doing. Scripture tells a different story. The world is healed by our stopping.”

And, that is a very subversive position.

[i] Scripture from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.Zondervan.com

 

God According to God

Gerald Schroeder, the author of God According to God (HarperOne, 2009) holds a Ph.D. in physics and earth sciences from MIT. He is also an Orthodox Jewish theologian (and lives and teaches in Jerusalem).

Furthermore, Schroeder clearly understands time, space, and matter as finite concepts floating in the sea of eternity. That’s probably why he sees no conflict at all between the Bible and science. To him, the Big Bang and Genesis 1:1 are just two, and quite accurate, descriptions of the same thing.

Although he is immensely knowledgeable, wise, and articulate, Schroeder is an humble man. As a writer, he never draws attention to himself or distracts his readers away from God and the universe. For him, God seems to be the plumb line, against which science is measured, not the other way around.

 

“A Very Special Planet”

In Chapter 3, The Unlikely Planet Earth (which is easily worth the price of the book), Schroeder delivers a grand and dazzling tour of the 47 billion light-years-wide universe. We catch a glimpse of 10 trillion galaxies in the universe, which he calculates into 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars!

And what if each of those stars, like our own solar system’s sun, holds a few planets – say 6 or 8 – in its orbit? Now, out of that brain-exploding number of planets, how many could possibly support life, as we know it?

How many could possibly have the right combination of temperature, water, tectonic plates, mountain ranges, dry land, right size and placement of other planets and moon, the right balance of gravity and centrifugal force, and other essential factors?

Just one.

Schroeder sums it up nicely: “…we reside on a very special planet at a very special location within a very special stellar system, formed at just the right position within the right kind of galaxy. The earth’s distance from the sun, for the right amount of warmth, and its mass and gravity, for the ability to retain a proper atmosphere, put us in the only habitable zone within the solar system.”

 

Something Out Of Nothing

Although he doesn’t quote it, Schroeder would surely agree with the Apostle Paul that God “gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” (Romans 4:17 NASB)

In other words, the reason anything exists is because God is Creator. His spoken word produces life; He causes nothing to become something. Indeed, Schroeder flatly announces, “Wisdom is parent, and matter is the offspring.” One of his core truths is that “the totality of the physical world, our bodies included, is made of the light of the creation.”

Naturally, he thinks Stephen Hawkings is, and Carl Sagan was, nuts. Both contributed to the intellectual goofiness of the materialist view of reality. Rather than seeing a God Who, by His spoken word, creates something out of nothing, they have promoted a view that “if we can’t see it, weigh it, touch it, it’s not there.”

Because Schroeder’s view of the universe is so vast and magnificent, his theology seems to reflect Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” (NASB)

 

The God Who is God

Schroeder’s view of and insights about God are refreshing. For example, he says that when Moses asked God for His Name in Exodus 3:13-14, “God said to Moses, ‘I will be that which I will be…” Schroeder carefully explains the history that produced the erroneous “I am Who I am.” This carries great significance; God can never be boxed or defined. He is the unpredictable, wholly sovereign, Creator and Lord of all.

To my surprise, he sees God’s view of the world in universal (not Jewish) terms. His view of Balaam as a gentile prophet, representing God’s whole world vs. Jewish view is beautiful.

But the most beautiful part of the book to me was his contemplation of God’s relational integrity. Think about it; God is the Supreme Creator of, and Presence in, the entire 47 billion light-year-wide universe. Yet, incredibly and unfathomably, He chooses to have an authentic relationship with humans.

For example (and it’s only one of many), in Exodus 32: 9-14, God decided that the whole Jewish people must be destroyed. But, Moses interceded for the people. And out of His friendship to Moses, God “changed His mind” about the planned destruction.

As I finished this magnificent book, I was painfully aware that I didn’t have the intellectual horsepower to really scale its heights or rappel into its depths. So, if you read it, please let me know what you see…and I missed!

Touring Heaven

Imagine that you, a cop or teacher, could tour an active volcano. You would not experience its boiling and beautiful wonder as a geologist, but rather from your untrained perspective. And, in fact, your lack of education and expertise may enrich the whole experience.

That is the basic premise of Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into The Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D. (Simon & Schuster, 2012). This NDE (near-death experience) story is not at all like 90 Minutes in Heaven, Heaven is For Real, or any of the other Christian books on the afterlife. A secular materialist, not a Christian believer, wrote the book. I don’t believe it contains one scripture.

But I believed every line of it (“believed” as in gut resonance, not theological accuracy).

On November 10, 2008, a rare form of bacterial meningitis struck Dr. Eban Alexander, a Harvard trained neurosurgeon in Virginia. His “entire neocortex – the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human – was shut down.” For seven days, Alexander had zero brain activity. He was “brain dead,” kept alive only by a breathing machine. On the 7th day of his coma, his doctor recommended ending treatment.

As a medical drama, this story is a breathless, vivid, tense, and emotional page-turner. But, beyond that, the reader is mesmerized by Dr. Alexander’s very descriptive report of where he went and what he saw after his life on earth.

The Tour

Alexander offers rich details of the sights, sounds, thoughts, communication patterns, and other dimensions of his kaleidoscopic tour of, yes, Heaven.

For example…at some point in his coma, “something appeared in the darkness. Turning slowly, it radiated fine filaments of white-gold light, and as it did so the darkness around me began to splinter and break apart. Then I heard a new sound; a living sound, like the richest, most complex, most beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard. Growing in volume as a pure white light descended…

“I was no longer looking at the slowly spinning light at all, but through it…I began to move up. Fast. There was a whooshing sound, and in a flash I went through the opening and found myself in a completely new world. The strangest, most beautiful world…brilliant, vibrant, ecstatic, stunning…

“A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above…the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it.

“We were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, alive with indescribable and vivid colors – the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us – vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the greenery and coming up around us again…a river of life and color…we flew in lazy looped formations past blossoming flowers and buds on trees that opened as we flew near.”

The Message

Alexander’s tour of Heaven fills many pages and is surprisingly complete and satisfying. But then he moves into what he learned or received on the tour. Those observations include:

  • “The (false) assumption that we can somehow be separated from God is the root of every form of anxiety in the universe.”
  • “Nothing can tear us away from God, ever.”
  • “Physical life is characterized by defensiveness, whereas spiritual life is just the opposite.”
  • He summarizes all that he saw and heard with three statements:

    “You are loved and cherished, deeply, forever.”
    “You have nothing to fear.”
    “There is nothing you can do wrong.”

In a very moving scene, a few weeks after his recovery, Dr. Alexander goes to a church service with his wife. To his astonishment, what he sees in the structure and iconography of the sanctuary reminds him of what he saw in Heaven. It was then, in a gathering of God’s people, that Alexander realized, “I didn’t just believe in God; I knew God.” Then we see him hobbling to the altar to receive the Eucharist, tears streaming down his cheeks.

For me, the main value of this fine book lies in seeing a skeptic pulled into the too-good-to-be-true Love that is Larger. And, consistent with his astonishment, Alexander’s descriptions tumble out in powerful, clear, and fresh language. No clichés or religion-speak here.

You want a good book that will pull you out of your world and take you to another one? Do you want a renewed look at the great adventure of life – one that passes through and beyond the earth? If so, I recommend you dive into the very deep and clear pool in Proof of Heaven.

 

 

 

 

The Hidden Life of Trees

I think the Apostle Paul gave a good basis for science when he wrote: “By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being…” (Romans 1:20, The Message)

True science reveals hidden mysteries for those who have eyes to see.

And that brings me to an astounding new book, The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2016). Although I’ve always seen trees as “living things,” I had no idea of the sophistication or vigor of their life. Now I will never be able to see a tree or a forest the same way again. This book is a revelation; you see a design for health and wellness at, both, a tree and a forest perspective.

That pattern is deeply relevant to humans and society.

Wohlleben has methodically observed (and clearly explains) the intricate nature of trees and forests. To my great surprise, I learned that trees feel pain (even emitting ultrasonic “screams”), have some capacity for sight, require daily and seasonal periods of rest, possess memory, communicate with other trees, defend themselves when attacked, care for their young, build friendships with other trees, pass wisdom down to the next generation, fight to survive, and extend respect to the other members of their community.

They also ride bicycles and surfboards. Just kidding.

Wohlleben is a very visual writer. You see the patterns of plant and animal life – such as elk, wolf, beaver, aspen, willow and cottonwood populations in Yellowstone National Park – expanding and contracting over decades, almost as though dancing together. His skillful writing helps us to see electrical impulses racing up and down tree trunks, fungi burrowing through the subterranean soil in support of trees, and flirtatious tree scents swelling on the wind.

The Web of Wellness

His visual and detailed perspective of trees and forests reveals a very complex web of wellness. That view of soil, water, fungi, birds, animals, disease, and other trees is just breathtaking. In fact, he gave me a new appreciation, even a sense of awe, of the interconnectedness of all life on earth. And, of course, that brings us to the relationship between trees and humans.

So often, when humans have imposed decisions on forests and other natural resources, they set off chains of disastrous repercussions. For example, he describes what happens to trees planted in cities. By sharing space with water lines, buried cable, and other subsurface objects and systems, and because the ground becomes so trafficked and hardened, city trees are just not as healthy as trees in the wild. They often die young.

Studies have also revealed the illness or death of trees because they were subjected to too much city light. “…at some point, lack of sleep exerted its revenge and the plants, which had seemed so full of life, died.” Yet, Wohlleben is practical and dispassionate about humans. He writes:

“…we use living things killed for our purposes. Does that make our behavior reprehensible? Not necessarily. After all, we are also part of Nature, and we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species. We share this necessity with all other animals.”

Purifying Our Environment

Although unintentional, the book also suggests the Creator’s majestic administration of the planet. You see the cycles of life almost as tides, receding and then rising and rolling back in. Or you see them as starling murmurations… appearing, disappearing, pulsating, morphing. With all due respect for other views, I don’t know how anyone could read this book without seeing a Creator.

I often thought of Thomas Merton while reading The Hidden Life of Trees. In one of the best lines I read this year, he spoke of monks (could be anyone) as “trees that exist in obscure silence, but by their presence purify the air.”

Think of it; they purify the environment. Just by being there.

Could there be a message in this for us…is it possible that we – individuals and society – can be as healthy and as beneficial to our environment as trees are to theirs?

The Monks of Tibhirine

Why would anyone choose to live in a place of mortal danger? And if and when that danger’s noose tightened into a choking death, why would anyone refuse to leave that place?

Those very serious questions crouched in the corner of my mind as I read John W. Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). And, for me, this haunting true story of seven Trappist monks who died in Algeria twenty years ago fully answers those questions.

It all seems to come down to this: Trappist monks live according to “The Rule of St. Benedict” (from the 6th century). The rules cover normal life issues like prayer, study, work, etc. But one of the rules is the “Vow of Stability.” And that means joining a community and staying there. They stand; they are stable. You know, like a tree.

In classic Christian faith, everyone who follows God lives within His call to die. As Jesus said to His disciples, “…whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” In that sense, instability is an attempt to avoid death. No goofball religion here; The Monks of Tibhirine is an exceedingly mature look at Christian life.

Strangely perhaps, but his 14-year-old book is unusually relevant today, first because it portrays ordinary life among Muslims and Christians – normal relationships marked by mutual love and respect and support. Secondly, it describes life in the midst of terrorism. At the time and in the place of the story, Algeria was convulsed and destabilized by “violence done in the name of Islam.” Yet, to the author’s credit and wisdom, Islam was not the issue. Just as it really isn’t today. Most of life occurs at eye level, far away from the isms and ologies.

So what is the issue? I think Thomas Merton captured it when he spoke of monks (but it could be anyone submitted to the Lord) as “trees that exist in obscure silence, but by their presence purify the air.” By virtue of their created purpose, you might say (with small poetic license) that trees take a Vow of Stability. They stay. They stand. They purify. Just by being there.

For example, one of the monks, Brother Luc, a medical doctor, took care of everyone in the village of Tibhirine. No questions asked. Although he was elderly and ill, Luc treated up to 100 people a day. Every day. The monks were very poor, so he often had no medicine. But he still purified the atmosphere by his very presence.

The monks certainly knew the danger; they were not naïve. Nor did they have a desire to die. Kiser tells us that one monk, Célestin, “had a visceral terror of…a violent death. But his even greater fear was not to be there with his brothers when the time came.”

They frequently gathered (often with their Muslim neighbors) around the issue of leaving or staying; they prayed, discussed, and voted. But, “As each man expressed his view, the vow of stability kept returning as the touchstone of their thinking. Stability meant they were bound…to their neighbors and to one another.”

In the end, members of GIA, an Algerian terror group, broke into the monastery early in the morning of March 27, 1996 and kidnapped seven monks. After weeks of trying to use them to negotiate the release of terrorists, they murdered the monks on May 21, 1996. Their bodies have never been found.

Christian de Chergé, the abbot of the monastery, is the conscience of the book. A man of deep humility, he infused his time and place with a generous vision of faith and community. He also poured his life out in service in the place of his planting. Christian loved everyone and loved them unconditionally, knowing, as he said, “the love of Jesus did not wait for a response.”

Christian wrote a note of thanks to his executioner (before he knew the time, place or instrument of his death). His note perfectly captures the spirit of the book:

“In this Thank You – which says everything about my life – I certainly include…you, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing…Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A Dieu,’ whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it please God, our common Father. Insha Allah!”

NOTE: The story of The Monks of Tibhirine is also told in the movie, Of Gods and Men – the best movie about Christian faith ever made. Although not cited as source material in the credits, Xavier Beauvois, the producer, director, and writer called this book “our bible” for the production.

The Taste of Silence

In 1988, Bieke Vandekerckhove was a 19-year-old university student in her native Belgium when she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Although the average life span after diagnoses is two to five years, she lived 27 years with it (she died four months ago).

Her only book, The Taste of Silence (English translation from Liturgical Press, 2015), is a beautiful, candid, sometimes searing, but deeply wise view of her journey into ALS. Like so many others in history, she found that vast and pure view in prison. For Bieke, that prison was her body.

What do you do when a lightning bolt explodes out of a clear sky, blowing your body, soul, and spirit apart? Do you collapse into a pile of smoking rubble? Escape into chemicals, fight to regain control, choose suicide? Or, surrender to the One Who “directs the steps of the godly” and “delights in every detail of their lives?” (Psalm 37:23 NLT).

Vandekerckhove surrendered.

In her submission, she tumbled into great silence. I understand that; it’s what happens when a painful loss pushes you beyond the walls of language. I could so identify with Bieke as, in the silence, she found profound gratitude, even for her diagnosis and for “the collapse of all my beliefs.” ALS took her beyond what she knew and preferred, and into the beauty of “not-knowing.” In that place beyond thought, she “discovered the art of waiting in the dark.”

In the dark, Bieke found “the God of the Bible, and not the god who is…bound by the contours of logic and morality.” She also discovered that God meets those who live real life. That is a place beyond information. As I read this book, I often thought of Hebrews 11:34, which speaks of those who “became powerful in battle.” They found success as it was forged in the heat of life, not through knowledge or credentials.

Just as Bieke found triumph through ALS.

What Do You See?

She learned that so much of life boils down to what we see. The deeper she went into the illness, she found that she suffered “more from an eye problem than from a muscle disorder.” Bieke seems genuinely grateful for the “great powers of suffering, death, and mourning” that “work a simplification in us that makes us see things differently. Perhaps making us really see for the first time.”

“All Things”

Although she was certainly Christian, Vandekerckhove’s journey through ALS gave her a great appreciation for Buddhism and other religions and perspectives. For that reason, I’m sure many Christians will reject this book.

I think her perspectives are valid and valuable.

She quotes the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 7:24: “Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.”

God is so large and so pervasive throughout His creation that His word can push through anyone, anything, anytime, anywhere. He owns it all; any or all of it can carry His voice. Just as His voice once (at least once!) animated a donkey, so it “pervades and penetrates all things.”

It is not a stretch for me to believe that a woman, sliced and diced and pulverized by the beautiful and terrible mercy of God, saw evidence of Him everywhere.

I deeply appreciate The Taste of Silence. It carries a ring of truth on every page. And I am moved by, and grateful for, a young woman who dared to tell her harrowing but hallowed journey into the largeness of God.

To summarize that journey, she wrote that when she surrendered to the mystery, and thought she lost everything, “remarkably my grip loosened and I rediscovered everything in a new way. Life was everywhere, in the midst of death, even as life slipped away from me…Everything became a gift.”

In her book, she passes the gifts on to readers whom she does not know. I and many others are grateful that she did.

Finally, although I loved the book, I must be fair and tell you that (to me) this short book burned bright for 15 chapters, or about 85 pages. The final 60+ pages felt like wet firewood; they just wouldn’t burn. But, those 85 pages were more than enough.

One Man

Stephen Talty’s book, Agent Garbo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), tells a spectacular story of one man’s enormous contribution to the Allied victory in World War 2. Viewed through the lens of today, this story is unbelievable.

Here’s the short version.

In 1941 Juan Pujol Garcia was a 28-year-old chicken farmer in Barcelona. Unalterably opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, he walked into the British embassy in Madrid and asked for a job as a spy. Of course they rejected him. So he went to the Americans. They were not impressed with him either.

Then Pujol asked the enemy for a spy job!

After hearing his emotional and bombastic profession of love for Hitler, the Germans accepted him…if he would relocate to England. Instead, he moved to Portugal and convinced the Germans that he was writing reports from England. When they told him to hire some agents, he created a fictitious network of 27 spies.

At that time, British Intelligence was an oxymoron (they were seriously considering staging the Second Coming of Christ as a means of defeating the Germans). But they soon had enough intelligence to realize that a very proficient Nazi spy was undermining the Allies. Finally, Pujol had gained the respect of British Intelligence!

When he went back to them, they accepted him as a double agent and code-named him “Garbo,” for he was surely the best actor in the world. He was theatrical, emotional, daring, and brilliant. And maybe nuts.

Agent Garbo’s greatest role was his support of D-Day. To create the illusion of an Allied strike 200 miles from the real one, he contrived a completely fabricated million-man army, led by General Patton. Under Pujol’s direction, the British built thousands of wood or inflatable decoys of tanks, boats, airplanes, hospitals, and other wartime necessities. Patton, like an actor, even made a speech in his fictional role.

The Germans bought it. Furthermore, Pujol had the audacity to convince the Germans that the real D-Day invasion was a scam. Even after D-Day! Although they assigned an army to Normandy, they kept a far larger force at the fake site. Clearly, without Pujol’s masterful deceit, D-Day would have cost thousands more lives than it did.

It is one of the most astonishing stories I’ve ever read.

How was it even possible that a man who had no training as a spy and failed at everything else in life became an essential voice to, both, Hitler and Churchill? He, a double agent, is the only spy to be honored by both Germany and England.

So many contributed to the success of D-Day. But Juan Pujol Garcia probably achieved more than any other individual.

Beyond my high recommendation of the book, Agent Garbo really challenged me. Could one person achieve such bold and sweeping things today? I don’t know. But it’s an important question.

It seems that today we live inside a screaming wind tunnel that blows everything into conformity with acceptable patterns. As a result, the distinctives of individuals are contoured into the most “aerodynamic” uniformity possible.

Progress seems to take as much as it gives. I love living in this age; I would not want to live in any other time or place. But it does seem that we’ve lost our view, and our honor of, grand individuals. We all seem to identify with our group.

That is why Agent Garbo is such a mesmerizing artifact. It gives the reader a clear view of a time when individuals sure seemed to matter more than they do today.

Perhaps the leveling of structures in our time will release individuals to achieve great things again.

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