Iron John

run away from me, bunny (runaway)

When we simply ignore all that is in the depths of us, duty and obligation will often be the only things that keep us afloat. But staying afloat is not the same thing as living from our depths. When we are not living from the depths, we are not living from our souls — we aren’t living out of our deepest desires. We develop an entire religion out of a system of “shoulds and oughts.” At our earliest stages of development, this is normal and even necessary. It’s the classic exchange between parents and children — “Why can’t I do that?” “Because I said so!

But we aren’t built to live in this stage forever. If we do not deal with what lives in our depths, we will live as fragmented, repressed, and often secretly angry people. This is why bad religion often turns out to be more toxic for people than no religion. We cannot live our lives with no sense of order. But to replace a life without boundaries with a slavish system of “shoulds and oughts” will actually leave us worse off than we were before. Fear-based religion always leaves us worse off. It is exactly what Jesus describes in Matthew 23.15 when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

It’s heartbreaking when people feel they are forced or coerced into knowing God, or trying to love God — “you must love God…or else!” In the very act of saying “you must,” we virtually ensure that the person will never feel like they actually choose God for themselves. When we are not truly given a choice to know God, then choosing God is not truly possible. And when we cannot live from a place of authentic desire, we cannot live from our depths—thus ultimately, we live cut off from our very selves.

Saving the cable repairman

When I was a kid, I spent my summer days at my Grandmother’s house on the Church of God State Campground. Those were the most magical times of my life. She was a sweet, southern grandmother who made Tang and fried cornbread for me every day. We would sit on the couch and watch the Price is Right and play Scrabble. My grandmother was a woman who deeply loved me, and deeply loved Jesus. I still feel like a lot of the most important things I’ve learned about God I learned from her, though she’s been gone for 18 years now.

I remember one morning in particular when the cable went out. She called the company, and they sent a repairman. When the friendly cable guy knocked on the door, a thought seized me: I am supposed to witness to this man. I had been hearing so much about how I needed to tell people about Jesus. Surely this was my opportunity. And then the terror came. I was eight years old. How am I going to share my faith with an adult man?

I was suddenly paralyzed. I was terrified to talk to him, but even more terrified to not talk to him — because I did not want to be held responsible for his eternal soul. If I didn’t witness to him, then he would not hear the gospel. And he could get in a car wreck on his way to his next job, and would have to go to hell for eternity. And because he didn’t hear the gospel, he would not become the missionary he was supposed to become. Which would mean some kid in tribal Africa would not hear the gospel because the cable repairman did not hear the gospel, and I would be responsible for an entire village going to hell. After agonizing deliberation, I walked into the living room awkwardly where he was trying to work, and I asked him a handful of questions about his life. But I could not muster up the courage to ask him “if he knew Jesus as his personal Lord and savior.” I just couldn’t do it.

So when he left, I burst into tears. My grandmother came into the living room and asked me what was wrong. I could barely even answer her through my tears. Finally I sputtered out, using words formed from the prophet Ezekiel, “I didn’t share the Lord with the cable repair man — and now I know his blood is going to be on my hands!” It was intense for an eight-year old, but that is how I lived every moment of my life — always afraid of Jesus coming over the horizon at any second to call me into account for my sins. My grandmother was, as always, tender and wise. “Oh, Jonathan. That’s not how God works! The way I see it, when I get an opportunity to tell someone the good things the Lord has done in my life, it’s always a blessing. And when I don’t do it, sometimes I feel like I miss out on the blessing of telling my testimony. But that is all — God is not mad at you for not sharing your testimony with the cable repairman!”

But that was the system I internalized, and that is how I always interpreted anything I thought God might be calling me to do. It wasn’t an invitation, but a threat. I grew up feeling sure that God was holding a gun to my head, saying do this or else. Everything I did for God, even when I grew much older, was still out of a sense of duty and obligation. No wonder I was so stuck in my head. When you are living in constant fear, there is no way you can choose to live out of your depths.

pancakes and epiphanies

One of the beautiful things I picked up in my Pentecostal upbringing was an openness to hear or see the Spirit at work in all times and all places. It made me into a kind of accidental mystic. This has especially played out in my life through my love of reading somehow; it’s made me attentive to the possibility that the Spirit could show up through most any kind of text. There have been key moments where I felt like God somehow led me to just the right words in the right book at the right moment. I know this all might sound kind of tenuous. I’m aware “confirmation bias”, that we tend to go looking for things that will support what we already believe. And I certainly don’t think every coincidence in my life equates to some full conspiracy of the angels. But there is a kind of synchronicity at work sometimes in life I have just decided to trust.

So during the middle of my own descent, I had an especially strange moment in church. It was early during the 10:45am service at St. Peter’s Episcopal. There are four readings every week — one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament, then climaxing with a reading from the Gospels. That morning when the Old Testament text was read, it was about Joseph being thrown into the well by his brothers. This was before I had come to understand that the journey I was now on was a journey of descent. But somehow when the verse about him being thrown into the bottom of the well was read, I felt a kind of electricity in my soul. It was odd. The only way I knew how to recognize the Spirit in the text in a church service was if the preacher read one louder than the others! But this verse was read just as gently as the verses before and after it. Our rector didn’t even mention Joseph in his sermon — he preached from the Gospel text. But the image of Joseph being thrown into the well lingered.

The next morning, I went to the Cracker Barrel for pancakes. That is what I do when I’m depressed (and also when I’m very, very happy, incidentally) — I medicate with pancakes. On my way out the door, I grabbed a book almost arbitrarily off the nightstand by the poet Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book about Men. It is an artful, elegantly written book about masculinity that at that point, I knew next to nothing about. Feeling somehow mysteriously drawn, I opened the book at random, near the middle of the book. I know this not a fool-proof method: hence the old joke about the guy who opens up his Bible and asks God to talk to him, and the first passage he opens to is where it says “Judas hung himself.” Then he flips a few more pages and reads where Jesus says, “Go therefore, and do ye likewise.” I don’t have an imitable formula, just an odd story of grace, in the way that all stories of grace surely are.

The page I flipped to was in a chapter called “The Road of Ashes, Descent and Grief.” And these were the first words I read on that page: “We remember that Joseph’s brothers put him down into a gravel pit — the Arab version says into a ‘deep, dry well.’” That is one of Bly’s images for the necessary path of descent men must go through. Remembering what I felt in my soul when that text was read the day before, the way the image of Joseph’s descent had haunted me—I freaked out in the middle of the Cracker Barrel. Every hair on my body stood up. It was not a place I would choose for a spiritual experience.

I still had no idea just how profoundly the book was going to affect me. The premise is roughly as follows: Bly draws from a Grimm fairy tale about a prince who finds a wild man in a cage. Inside the cage with the hairy man is a golden ball the prince wants, but he is afraid to unlock the cage and thus let the wild man out. The only way he could unlock the cage would be to steal the key hidden beneath his mother’s pillow. For Bly, it is crucial that the key has to be stolen. If the boy never passes through this part of the journey, he grows into a man who represses his zest for living under layers of shame, anger, and unfelt grief. He emphasizes:

The key has to be stolen. I recall talking to an audience of men and women once about this problem of stealing the key. A young man said…’Robert, I’m disturbed by this idea of stealing the key. Stealing isn’t right. Couldn’t a group of us just go to the other mother and say, ‘Mom, could I have the key back?’…No mother worth her salt would give the key anyway. If a son can’t steal it, he doesn’t deserve it. Mothers are intuitively aware of what would happen if he got the key: they would lose their boys. The possessiveness that mothers typically exercise on sons — not to mention the possessiveness that fathers typically exercise on daughters — can never be underestimated.

Bly brilliantly exegetes this myth as a way of understanding the plight of many contemporary men. There is a natural rite of passage that takes place when a boy differentiates from his parents, when the key is stolen. The boy has to become in touch with the wild man if he is going to grow and develop. In other words, he is going to have to integrate the wildness — and that is not going to happen without making some choices of his own, and having to deal with his own consequences.

The deeper I got into the book, the bigger my eyes got. I’m reading this as a 36-year old man with my life in crisis, feeling like I’m finally dealing with the deepest issues of identity for the first time. And sure enough, Bly says that if a man does not have this kind of process when he’s young—if he tries too hard to mind his manners and keep all the rules and not disappoint any of his authority figures— then he has to go through this stage later in life. By the time he is 35, Bly contends, there is already a deep fracture in his true self that is going to come to the surface in a dramatic way. But the split just now happening on the top layer has already been years in the making. Dear God, I thought. I am reading about my life. It made me think of the moment inThe Neverending Story when the young boy, Bastian, realizes that he himself is a character in the magic book he’s been reading, and he hurls the book across the room. It was both holy and frightening, as I suppose most holy moments are.

But there was also great comfort in coming to understand something of what was going on within me. I had been the boy who lived his whole life out of fear of failure or rejection, the boy who always kept the rules. I had kept the wild man in the cage at all costs. I had lost touch with myself. There were rites of passage I had neglected that I was having to undergo now, at great cost. It was my moment of illumination.

Understanding something of the journey I was on did not precisely make itfeel any easier, then or now. That path of “ashes, grief and descent” is a long and often lonely one, however necessary it might be. So I was feeling especially low again a few months later, when the pain of the journey was landing heavy on me. Once again, I was in a restaurant eating alone. Once again, I had picked up a book on the way out the door I had been meaning to start but had not got around to. This time, it was Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. Once again, I casually flipped the book open.

This time, I opened immediately to a chapter where Lesser is talking about her own experience with Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book,The Runaway Bunny. She tells how different it was to read it to her two sons. The sweet little tale begins like this: “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’” So from there, the little bunny keeps coming up with wild schemes to get away from his mother. But no matter where he chooses to go or what he chooses to become, his mother changes into whatever she needs to be to get back to him.

One of her sons loved the book, and was comforted by the image of the mother who would not let her little bunny get away, no matter what. But her son Daniel didn’t like it. He was frustrated that the little bunny could not make his escape, and would cheer for him to actually get away from the mother, shouting “Run away, bunny!” He would even come up with new schemes of his own for the little bunny to use that might actually enable him to get away.

I don’t have children, so I don’t know children’s books—it was the first time I had heard of The Runaway Bunny. It was meaningful for me in a way I find hard to explain now, because (and I’m swallowing anxiously here—this is not a very masculine admission), I have always had a thing about bunnies. I love them. I think bunnies are somehow kind of superfluously beautiful. They always make me think of grace. They have kind of been my totem. At different times and places in my life, I will see a bunny, and be reminded in just the right moment of God’s beauty and faithfulness to me. (There. I said it.)

I was moved that night because I felt like a runaway bunny who could not find his way back home. I loved the image of God pursuing me at all costs, going wherever He had to go and becoming whatever He had to become in order to get to me. It made me think of David saying in the Psalms, “even if I take up the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, you are there.” And indeed I do think there is a beautiful picture of God inThe Runaway Bunny. I do believe that there is a way that the love of God pursues us no matter where we go, a love that will not leave us alone. I am humbled by that love, and ever grateful for that love.

But that was not the central message Broken Open had for me. Feeling the open wound of my own heart, I kept reading. And as Lesser goes on, she goes in a direction I could not have expected — she writes about her later experience with…Iron John!? She came to know Bly through her work, and fell in love with the book. But she said she choked on the part about the boy having to steal the key from underneath his mother’s pillow. That is until her own sons grew up, and their process of individuation meant they too had to have seasons of distance from their mother. Today she is extremely close to both of her sons. But she does not believe this would be possible now if she had not been willing to grant them the necessary space to make their own choices. She ends the section this way:

If you find yourself holding tight to your children long past appropriateness or helpfulness, perhaps it would help if you took down an old copy of The Runaway Bunny. Sit on the couch next to your stunned son or daughter, and read the book aloud. Only this time, change the words. Read it like this: Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will let you go. For you are grown now. I trust you to find your way in the world. Run away, bunny!’

I was stunned. I just assumed that the message I needed to hear—as it is one I have always struggled to internalize—was the message of God’s relentless, unconditional love. And in way it was, but not in the way that I presumed. God loved me enough to not hold the gun to my head, to not tell me what I should or must do from here. God loved me enough not to say, do this or else. God loved me enough to say, now you are at a place in your life where you are going to have to make some choices of your own. God did not want me to live in the shallows of duty and obligation anymore. It was time to learn to live from my true self, it was time to learn to live from my depths. And there was going to be no way to do that without the love that grants us terrible freedom.

Choosing one’s self

On the other side of that moment, I understand many things I had read in Scriptures much differently than I once did. In the Genesis story, when God tells Adam and Eve they can eat from any tree of the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit glistens with inevitability. How could they choose anything else? In order for them to live awake, for them to become fully human, they would have to make their own choice — even the wrong choice. Strangely enough, it is only in making the wrong choice that they will be able to return to their native state of dependence again—the only place from which we can know God. Partaking of the fruit is a necessary part of the universal human journey.

Rollo May articulated this brilliantly in Man’s Search for Himself. For May, the goal of human development is that we all, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, come to ultimately “choose one’s self.” There is no way this can happen unless we are given a real choice:

It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact that he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live. The mass patterns of routine are broken: he no longer exists as an accidental result of his parents having conceived him, of his growing up and living as an infinitesimal item on the treadmill of cause-and-effect, marrying, begetting new children, growing old and dying. Since he could have chosen to die but chose not to, every act thereafter has to some extent been made possible because of that choice. Every act then has its own special element of freedom.

This is why moralistic religion actually becomes dangerous for us, how it makes “double sons of hell.” As May demonstrates, those who have been taught that happiness and success would follow their ‘being good,’ and understand being good merely as a kind of external obedience, are not able to develop their own ethical awareness and strength: “By being obedient over a long period of time, he loses his real powers of ethical, responsible choice. Strange as it sounds, then, the powers of these people to achieve goodness and the joy which goes with it are diminished.”

Like Bly in Iron John, May understands many social problems as the end result of a culture where people do not have necessary rites of passage that enable them to really take responsibility for their own lives. When people continue to live out of duty and obligation, keeping the rules only so that others will tell them they are good, they end up with contempt for themselves. Living contingent on the approval of others means we never develop our own sense of self:

The compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s own courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own…when one acts to gain someone else’s praise, furthermore, the act itself is a living reminder of the feeling of weakness and worthlessness; otherwise there would be no need to prostitute one’s attitudes. This often leads to the cowardly feeling of having co-operated knowingly in one’s own vanquishment.

It was by no means a happy discovery at 36 to see just how much I had operated largely from those “compulsive needs to be admired and praised,” and thus how much I often felt like I had “vanquished myself.” I had not, in some very fundamental ways, really grown up yet. I was being plunged into the depths of my own soul and my own life, and the sea was raging. I would have given anything to make the churning stop. And yet the more I came to see the necessity of this phase of the journey—even though it seemed to mean my unraveling—the more I started to experience fleeting moments of peace. I was starting to understand that being thrown into the ocean is not God’s way of abandoning us, but of saving us.

Love leaves the cage door open

I am not nearly far enough in any of these soul discoveries to claim to understand them well or clearly. But here is what I do know:

Love does not lock us in.

Love always leaves the cage door open.

If we don’t feel like we have a choice, then we don’t truly choose.

I lived so much of my life afraid God would punish me for doing the wrong thing. But what I’ve come to believe is that the consequences of our actions are intrinsic — thus “the wages of sin are death.” In that sense no one ever gets off easy, because we all live out the natural course of our choices, our own consequences. We do, in fact, reap what we sow. But God is not the cosmic enforcer of karma, making sure we get what we deserve. God is the One who interrupts this cycle with grace.

Sin does not keep God away from us — we cannot outrun His everlasting love. But what our own choices can do is blind us so that our vision of God becomes a distortion. The God we see through the lens of duty and obligation, through the lens of bad religion, is not the God we are actually given in Jesus of Nazareth. So many of the teachings of Jesus gesture toward this — that God is not who we have always presumed him to be from our place of guilt. In the story of the prodigal son, the wayward boy squanders his father’s inheritance, and thus has to live out the consequences of his actions — thus he finds himself working in a hog pen. Significantly, it is only when he “comes to himself” that he starts to remember his father for who he really is, and has in fact always been.

Even then, he sees through a glass darkly. He thinks the only way his father would allow him to come home is as a hired hand. He does not know yet that his father only wants to tackle him with his ferocious love, embrace him, and celebrate his return. But as much as the father wants his son home, the one thing he will not do is force him to stay there. Even though he knows his son will have to learn some hard lessons through his choices, they are yet very much his own choices to make. So the father did give his son the inheritance willingly, knowing it would be squandered.

The truth of this parable, and of the love that will not coerce us, is most clearly demonstrated to us in the cross of Jesus. The cross says to us there is nothing God won’t do to bring us home — except force us into choose Him. The cross is God laying down His great power, so that we might be compelled by the beauty of His heart. He will not coerce us, only woo us. But so long as we see Jesus through the distorted lens of bad religion, every invitation is perceived as a threat.

That night sitting in the restaurant after I read that section in Broken Open, I had a revelation that I don’t think I’ll ever get over: up until that point in my life, I had never really chosen God. I was still in so many ways the boy who thought the cable repair man’s blood was going to be on my hands if I didn’t share my testimony. I was still living a life motivated by fear rather than love. It was not God that was coercing me, but my own terror of God — which ironically enough, kept me from being able to truly love God. Because again when we feel like we do not have a choice — choosing God is not yet possible. I heard the whisper of the Holy Spirit, a scandal to my own ears: “You don’t have to choose me — but I would sure love for you to.

By that point, I had preached countless sermons about the love, grace and beauty of God that is revealed in Jesus. And yet in my own deepest self, I still saw him as a punitive ogre. I still had not yet learned that my own choices did not change God’s heart for me, but my perception of God. Hell would be to remain forever caught in such a delusion, unable to see God for who and how He really is.

“When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things,” the apostle Paul writes. As long as we are caught in childish, infantile delusions of God, we remain trapped in the most primitive level of consciousness — that of law and fear: “Don’t do that, because I told you not to.” That is a life lived in the shallows, if it can be called a life at all—certainly not the kind of life where “deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls,” in the words of Psalm 42.7. This is why it’s often only when we are at the end of ourselves that knowing God is truly made possible. Only there is the prospect of a relationship that is born out of desire—and thus out of the depths of us.

the books that most shaped me in 2014.

I will spare you the tedium of an apologetic for publishing this list, of saying that it’s all in good fun or I don’t mean it to be pretentious or whatever. I assume if you clicked the link, you like lists too. These are wildly subjective, and were not even all published in the last year—of the many books I’ve experienced, these are just the ones that have marked me most (in non-fiction). Since this has been an intense, emotional, roller-coaster ride of a year, they are all pieces of art I’ve felt special kinship with, because in one way or another they have ligthened the dark just a little. So it feels a bit less sterile and more intimate than these have felt when I’ve done them in the past. It feels like I am introducing you to my friends. It’s very nice to have you and them all at the same dinner party. I hope you get all get along, but if you don’t like any of these guests, I won’t hold it against you.

  1. Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

When somebody says something like, “this book has saved my life,” generally it is hyperbole. It’s not an expression here. It is a book that has kept me alive, sustained me when all else was lost. It has been my companion in bed in the darkest of nights, sometimes the only thing that could subdue the shivers. I was at Rohr’s conference in New Mexico this fall, and I thought from afar that if I could, I would like to kiss this little monk on the top of his head (I’m 6'5,” Rohr is a fairly slight man). I read it while on a personal spiritual retreat in San Diego back in March, and every word bathed me, bandaged me, soothed me, sang to me. It was holy reading. I want everyone that I love to read it.

Falling Upward is about the two halves of life—not so much in terms of biological age, though the two are often tangentially related. It’s about life before and after failure. There are 1,000 ways I could commend it to you, but the truth is that Falling Upward is a book that will feel like it dropped out of heaven if you are in the right season in life for it, and probably feel like reading math if you aren’t. You are either ready for it or you are not, and if you are not ready, or the time just isn’t right, I doubt it would be particularly helpful if I explained it to you. I’ll put it this way: it will make all the sense in the world to you after the crash. We go crashing into the second half of life, not waltzing into it, and you probably won’t need anybody to tell you that you’ve got there. In the meantime, if anybody reading this sees Father Rohr, please kiss him on the head for me.

It’s nearly impossible to pick an excerpt since I highlighted most of the book. But here goes: “Some kind of falling, what I will soon call ‘necessary suffering,’ is programmed into the journey. All the sources seem to say it, starting with Adam and Eve and all they represent. Yes, they ‘sinned’ and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, but from those very acts came ‘consciousness,’ conscience, and their own further journey. But it all started with transgression. Only people unfamiliar with sacred story are surprised that they ate the apple. As soon as God told them specifically not to, you know they will! It creates the whole story line inside of which we can find ourselves. It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to this unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. As my favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, put it in Middle English, ‘Sin is behovely!’”

And since I’ve already got you to the dinner party, let’s not rush. Here’s one more: “The genius of the Gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising. The raft became the shore. The small self cannot see this very easily, because it doubts itself too much, is still too fragile, and is caught up in the tragedy of it all. It has not lived long enough to see the big patterns.” Sweet Jesus, yes.

2) The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh

Books like The Grace in Dying do not come along very often. It is so comprehensive in scope, so bold in its vision, and runs across so many disciplines—it truly is a book of particular genius. Not only is it wise, but tender, warm, compassionate, and most of all unbearably human. A PhD who has spent her life walking with hundreds of people through the dying process, Dowling Singh’s bold thesis is that no matter where people come from, what their culture or background, religious or otherwise—the dying process is remarkably similar when people actually have time to die (as opposed to sudden, traumatic death). In the same way that Rohr sees the “answer” in Christianity as already being programmed into the problem (through failure, sin and stumbling, we fall into resurrection), Dowling Singh sees divine grace as hardwired into the dying process itself.

The argument runs something like this: We spend most of our lives building our ego, making judgements around our likes, dislikes, and preferences. The ego is not evil—ego-building is necessary in human growth and development. But the ego is not the true self, only our image or perception of ourselves. So we spend most of our lives living from that ego rather than living from our depths, living from the soul. In the process of dying, all of those ego mechanisms are slowly taken from us as the body becomes weak, frail, and dependent. And yet it is precisely in this letting go of the ego self, even against our wills, that we are liberated. While the process inevitably entails seasons of chaos, anger, and denial, before death there is generally a time of unparalleled acceptance and peace, however long or short—the last burst of a soul finally living beyond the constraints of the ego. Grace indeed, however harsh it may come.

Dowling Singh herself is Buddhist, but the book is chock full of insights from Jesus and great Christian thinkers and mystics. In fact, I think the book at its core level is about nothing more or less than “losing your life to find it,” and Dowling Singh quite understands the essence of Christian theology from the outside infinitely better than most of us insiders. If it doesn’t move you, you don’t have a pulse. And if there is not Spirit and life all over this book, I don’t know where the Spirit is. I dare you to make it through this book without both blowing a few mental circuits and shedding some hot tears.

We will discover for ourselves that the tragedy is not in dying, the tragedy is in living disconnected from Life. I have heard it said that our culture suffers not so much from the forces of darkness but the forces of shallowness. We will experience grace the moment we experience our connection with Spirit, the transcendent Reality, the Center to our periphery. We will experience grace the moment we experience Life beyond our cramped self-definition, the moment we take off the blinders and glory in all that is beyond ‘me.’

And later, “The path home could be easily traced, much like a mother following her child’s path to bed. She sees what has been dropped on the way. If we were the mother following an enlightened being or the consciousness of one who has entered the Near Death experience, we would see the toys left behind and the shoes that had been dropped, the socks, the pants, the shirt, and the underwear; the body, the emotions, and the thoughts; and last, before the bed, just discarded on the floor, all separate sense of self.” Mercy.

Dowling Singh’s visionary, monumental work reframes the challenge of Jesus’ own teaching in an evocative, potentially life-altering way: if these are in fact the qualities of death and dying, what it would like if a person were able to experience the grace of dying while they are still alive?

3) Iron John: A Book about Men by Robert Bly

Unfortunately, we are not given a manual on manhood when we are born. It’s a pity, but ultimately a problem that could be corrected: I propose that every human being that comes into the world with a penis be given a copy of Iron John at birth, and begin being taught bite-size pieces from it by the time they start elementary school. Don’t even think I’m kidding. And this is from a guy who has generally stayed away from books on masculinity, finding most of them to be cliched, one-dimensional, and sentimental. But you won’t find an ounce of that within a country mile of Iron John.

Drawing from a Grimm fairy tale, the poet Bly illumines the plight of the contemporary male with unparalleled brilliance. I cannot do this justice here. In short, he begins with the myth of the young boy who finds a wild man locked in a cage in the woods. Inside the cage is a golden ball the boy wants. But he cannot get it unless he steals the key to the cage from underneath his mother’s pillow, and thus lets the wild man out. If he does not have this experience, if he keeps the wild man locked in the cage and does not undergo the necessary rites of male initiation, he must experience the lessons of this transition in mid-life in a much harsher way.

It would take a few pages to share the story of how I felt like I was almost mystically guided to this book, how a Scripture about Joseph being thrown into the well led me like a dove into it. I have a forthcoming essay where I share this experience at length, but for now I will simply say that it was one of the most explicitly divinely ordered experiences of my life. I especially wish every man I know could read Chapter four, “The Road of Ashes, Descent and Grief,” which was literally life-changing for me. I can tell you it was as uncomfortable as comforting, because it felt like I had stumbled intoThe Neverending Story. It was almost too true too my life. The process Bly describes for a man at roughly 35 who has not yet been initiated was eerie in its relevance for me. I saw things in this book I cannot now unsee. Read at your own peril.

Very little of Bly’s book works well to quote in some ways without full context, but here is a section I especially loved:

If a lover lacks the Wild Man, he may not give enough wild flowers. He may make love indoors to much, be too respectable, lack what Yeats called ‘the folly,’ the willingness to throw away house and land for a woman…A king without enough Wild Man will be a king for human beings, but animals, ocean, and trees will have no representation in his Senate. We sense that was true of President Truman. And Reagan, we recall, ‘If you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.’ Bishops and Popes have traditionally been lacking in the Wild Man; they take church doctrine too seriously but not the ecology of the earth.

4) A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd

I consider Brian one of my closest friends. But that is not why this book made my list. I’ll just repeat what I wrote in my endorsement of it, cause this is still what I think: “A Farewell to Mars is the best, most lucid, prophetic book written by a pastor in our time. It is peerless. Zahnd channels Dylan, Girard, Yoder, Hauerwas, Peterson and Von Balthasar. It’s a brash, bold, pastoral synthesis; so prophetic to the forces of empire as to be a work of pastoral treason. It’s deliciously traitorous. A Farewell to Mars builds the peaceable kingdom up and burns most everything else down. It’s delightful. I could not love it more.” Hey, and if you think I’m just too biased, Eugene Peterson’s endorsement is just as glowing. So if you will not receive my witness, listen to one higher than I.

5) The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

Here’s my big claim about the Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart. I think he may well be our finest living theologian (Stanley Hauerwas has been the most influential on me, and Rowan Williams would be a rival). But there just simply aren’t many people on earth that match his blinding brilliance, artistry, beauty or grandiosity as a writer and thinker. Granted, in books likeThe Beauty of the Infinite, which I mostly enjoyed, the writing can be so ornate as to be over-adorned, and you can get lost in the avalanche of words. But more often than not, there is a laser-like precision to his words—even when Hart is addressing the biggest topic of them all, the nature and character of God Himself, as he does here.

Yeah, so basically this is kind of God’s biography. I don’t know if God gave David Bentley Hart permission or not, so I can’t say for sure wheter it’s the authorized or unauthorized biography. But based on the prose in this book, I’d put money down on God sending His notes straight over to Brother Hart.

I’ll tell you this just for fun: man, I would not want to be insulted by Hart. When he took on the “new atheists” in Athiest Delusions: The Christian Revolution and It’s Fashionable Enemies, it was the most awe-inspiring verbal punk-down I had ever read. But the great thing about Hart, an equal opportunity dismantler of any form of intellectual dishonesty, is that in this beautiful book about God, he gives intelligent design folks as much holy hell as he did the atheists.

Let’s watch as he actually brings all of that full circle: “It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God…The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time” (ow!)…As either a scientific or a philisophical project, Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction…Anyway, at this point I shall largely leave the new atheists, fundamentalists of every adherence, and Intelligent Design theorists all to their own devices, and perhaps to one another, and wish them all well, and hope that they do not waste too much time chasing after one another in circles. If I mention them below, it will only be in passing. From here onward, it is God—not gods, not the demiurge—of whom I wish to speak.” And OW.

Footnote: please remind me not to ever piss off David Bentley Hart.

6) Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May

Sigh…I’ll file this under books I wish I had read earlier in my life. Then again, I’ve become a big proponent of the notion that we see what we are able to see when we are ready to see it, and not before. But if Robert Bly gave us a manual on maleness, Rollo May gave us an awfully good manual on plain ole being human here.

For May, the goal of human development is that we all, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, come to ultimately “choose one’s self.” There is no way this can happen unless we are given a real choice:

It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact that he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live. The mass patterns of routine are broken: he no longer exists as an accidental result of his parents having conceived him, of his growing up and living as an infinitesimal item on the treadmill of cause-and-effect, marrying, begetting new children, growing old and dying. Since he could have chosen to die but chose not to, every act thereafter has to some extent been made possible because of that choice. Every act then has its own special element of freedom.

As May demonstrates, those who have been taught that happiness and success would follow their ‘being good,’ and understand being good merely as a kind of external obedience, are not able to develop their own interior awareness and strength. Thus, “By being obedient over a long period of time, he loses his real powers of ethical, responsible choice. Strange as it sounds, then, the powers of these people to achieve goodness and the joy which goes with it are diminished.”

Like Bly in Iron John, May sees many problems in human society as results of a culture where people do not have the rites of passage that enable them to really take responsibility for their own lives. When people continue to live out of duty and obligation, keeping the rules only so that others will tell them they are good, they end up with contempt for themselves. Living contingent on the approval of others means we never develop our own sense of dignity and self-esteem…really our own sense of self.

The compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s own courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own…when one acts to gain someone else’s praise, furthermore, the act itself is a living reminder of the feeling of weakness and worthlessness; otherwise there would be no need to prostitute one’s attitudes. This often leads to the cowardly feeling of having co-operated knowingly in one’s own vanquishment.

It is not been happy to learn this much about growing up at 36, but May is quite the tutor. I definitely have to go back and catch up on more of his catalog now.

7) Just Kids by Patti Smith

I only know Patti Smith’s hits. I did not come to this book as a fan of her music. But I walked away from it spellbound by her writing. I mean this as a very large compliment, as I’ve read some great memoirs in recent years—but I don’t think I’ve read one to rival Smith’s. It’s so alive, so earthy, so elegant, just teeming with life. There is no explicit faith message in this book, but you don’t write this honestly about human experience without getting into spirituality, and Smith traverses sacred ground over and over through the streets of New York City. Chronicling her on-again/off-again romance/friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, beauty and heartbreak shimmer through every page.

And then you get writing like this: “Perhaps to satisfy my curiosity, my mother enrolled me in Sunday school. We were taught by rote, Bible verses and the words of Jesus. Afterward, we stood in line and were rewarded with a spoonful of comb honey. There was only one spoon in the jar to serve many coughing children. I instinctively shied from the spoon but I swifly accepted the notion of God. It pleased me to imagine a presence above us, in perpetual motion, like liquid stars.

Or how about this section, when she introduces Mapplethorpe: “His young eyes stored away each play of light, the sparkle of a jewel, the rich dressing of an altar, the burnish of a gold-toned saxophone or a field of blue stars. he was gracious and shy with a precise nature. He contained, even at an early age, a stirring and a desire to stir.

Thank you, Patti Smith—I don’t think I even want to try to write at all anymore.

8) Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara, oh Barbara. She just keeps cranking out these beautiful books, with such elegant (and occasionally deceitful) simplicity. Surely she is on the short list of our best spiritual writers before Learning to Walk in the Dark, but this accessible, lyrical meditation on all we can only see and learn when the sun goes down only cements her legacy more. I heard her preach on themes from the book this year, and she is of course just as much a force of nature as a preacher as she is a writer. What a gift her words are to us.

This year, I was especially grateful that Taylor told me what she saw in the dark, as I read it in moments when I could not see a thing. She challenges the dualisms so often held in religious circles, the way that Christian teaching often “thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light/dark. Even if you are not Christian, it should be easy to tell which half of each pair is ‘higher’ and which is ‘lower.’ In every case, the language of opposition works by placing the other half farther away. This not only simplifies life for people who do not want to spend a lot of time thinking about whether the divisions really hold; it also offers them a strong sense of purpose by giving them daily battles to engage in. The more they win out over the world of the flesh, the better. The more they beat back the powers of darkness, the closer they get to God. The ultimate goal is to live with that God forever, in a bright heaven where the bottom half of every earthly equation has finally returned to dust.” If that section scares you off, or you aren’t willing to consider the prospect that God may actually have treasures buried for us in the dark, don’t read this book. On second thought—read it anyway. BBT will probably change your mind.

9) Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley

There is nothing especially lyrical about this book. The writing is fairly unadorned; it will not knock you out. But the narrative absolutely will. There is something appropriately sparse about Smiley’s account of King’s final year, in which he takes us into the angst, anguish, and torment of MLK behind the curtain, before his martyrdom forever changed the world. LikeFalling Upward, The Grace in Dying, and Learning to Walk in the Dark, it illuminates the ways that unraveling, losing, and dying yield to the miracle of new life. But this is shown to us through narrative rather than told to us through theology or philosophy.

Smiley won’t let us skip ahead into resurrection. He takes us deep into King’s own descent, self-doubt, infidelity, and the constant in-fighting within the civil rights movement. He reminds us of a time when King was not a universally heralded hero, but a star who was fading, written off even by his most ardent supporters for fighting the Vietnam war with as much energy as he fought racial injustice. King was accused of watering down the message by not staying quiet on issues of war and poverty. Both the prophetic edge of King’s voice, as well as his most human brokenness, are brought back into the story for us here.

10) Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

What sets Lesser apart as a writer is her uncommon honesty. She is unafraid to shed light on her own soul and story, even the parts we might deem unattractive, and her courage gives this book a tremendous kind of authenticity and spiritual power. Lesser powerfully demonstrates the way that failure and loss of any and all kinds can transform us into wiser, more compassionate, more human creatures, capable of living with a depth of purpose and empathy we could not have known before the fall.

This is also a book that stumbles naturally in and out of Christian language, though it is not by any means a “Christian book” and is decisively non-preachy: “The journey from Once-born to Twice-Born brings us to a crossroads where the old ways of doing things are no longer working but a better way lies somewhere at the far edge of the woods. We are afraid to step into those woods but even more afraid to turn back. To turn back is one kind of death: to go forward is another. The first kind of death ends in ashes: the second leads toward rebirth. For some of us, the day arrives when we step willingly into the woods. A longing to wake up, to feel more alive, to feel something spurs us beyond our fear. Some of us resist like hell until the forces of fate deliver a crisis. Some of us get sick and tired of filling an inner emptiness with drugs or drink or food, and we turn to face our real hunger: our soul hunger.

Twice-born people trade the safety for the power of the unknown. Something calls them into the woods, where the straight path vanishes and there is no turning back, only going through. This is not easy. It is not a made-up fairy tale. It is very real and very difficult. To face our shadow—the dragons and hags that we have spent a lifetime running away from—is perhaps the most difficult journey we will ever take. But it is there, in the shadows, that we retrieve our hidden parts, learn our lessons, and give birth to the wise and mature self…If there is only one thing that has made a difference in my life, it is the courage to turn and face what wants to change in me.”

It strikes me by the end of this little piece, that talking candidly about the books I’ve read gives kind of road map of my own soul. Then again, maybe that is what the best books always do. If they don’t give us exact directions, at the very least they draw a giant red star on whatever road we’re walking, and say to us, “You are HERE.