N. D. Wilson on the Difficulty of Life

I’m reading through Death by Living by N. D. Wilson for the second time. It’s a powerful book that everyone should read. While it’s difficult to share any passage as my favorite since Wilson weaves the parts together into a greater whole, the section below never fails to bring a tear to my eyes.

May we embrace the beautiful and messy uphill-inclined difficulties of life.


There is a school of American thought that suggests we are supposed to live furiously and foolishly when young, slave away pointlessly when adults, and then coast into low-impact activity as soon as financially possible.

Isn’t that just a kiss on the lips (from a dog).

The truth is that a life well lived is always lived on a rising scale of difficulty.

As a little kid, I had a job: Obey my mother. Don’t lie. Play hard. Be kind to my sisters.

At the time, that job was actually difficult. My mom kept saying things like, “Come here.” And, “No jumping on the couch.” Or, “Don’t stand on the doorknob and swing on the door.” And, “No hitting.”

But my sisters were there, and so were my fists. The couch was bouncy. Doors are cool to swing on.

Man, I was bad at my job.

I remember the existential despair as I stood in the front yard of our duplex with my real yellow fiberglass bow with a real arrow on the string, but on that arrow’s tip . . . a tube sock with red stripes duct-taped on tight.

I still managed to shoot it over the fence.

I remember kneeling on my top bunk and pounding nails into my wall in a long, winding row that even crossed my Seattle Seahawks poster.

Throughout my childhood, the second most common (bad) sound effect was most likely glass shattering, only occurring slightly less frequently than the yelping of a sister.

But I was supposed to push the limits. That was my job at the time. I was supposed to live as fully as I could within the boundaries of the law. I transgressed often, but a balance between full-throttle living and obedience was found with much help from wooden kitchen spoons.

I learned how a raw egg reacts beneath a hammer and how far I could throw a hatchet. Sure, I mounded toilet paper up in the toilet bowl and then lit it on fire, but at least I flushed.

And just as I began to get good at my job, I got promoted. The law remained the same, but the number of ways in which it was possible to transgress radically increased. I was bigger. I was faster. I was at school.

It’s that way for all of us. But the promotions come regardless of whether or not we’ve actually improved. If you are bad at being two, you will be bad at being four. If you’re bad at being four, you will be bad at being six.

Temptations increase. Potential falls multiply. We look at a two-year-old attempting to overthrow righteousness and establish evil in all the land, and we snicker. Lazy parents tell themselves that the wee little he (or she) will outgrow this little tendency of theirs.

Yipes. Wong. Buzzer. Gong.

What they mean is that the child will grow into someone else’s problem. Once they are at day care, the struggle will be out of sight and will be dealt with by other struggling peers and/or unrelated adults. Or not.

The school years escalate in difficulty and multiply in temptation. Add sports and friends and hormones and petty power structures. You can now sit in huge chunks of hurtling metal, taking the lives of every one of your passengers and every passenger in every other passing chunk of metal and every passing pedestrian and every passing bicyclist into your irresponsible hands. You can now make mistakes that kill people (and you). Off to college and mustachioed professors will pour nonsense all over you. You are ready or you aren’t. Peers wallow in every kind of debauch. You are ready or you aren’t. And you can now (far more easily than in high school) ruin your life forever.

You are now on your own.

And then you aren’t. Other real live souls are now depending on you. You are the creator of their childhoods. You are the influencer of their dreams and tastes and fears. You are the emcee of all reality, the one to introduce those small people to the true personality of their Maker (as imaged by your life more than your words). The choices you now make have lives riding on them. Always. Their problems and struggles are yours to help them resolve. Their weaknesses yours to strengthen. Or not. (Maybe they’ll outgrow them.)

This X marks my spot. I am here. For good and ill, I am a molder of childhoods, an instiller of instincts, a feeder (or famisher) of souls, a sensei of humor. I am an image of God (stunted and vandalized but all the earthly father my kids can have). Thank God for faith and bulk-ordered grace.

As the next decades flicker past, my burden will change. I will begin to ride my bike with no hands, watching my children be what they will be. I will reap what has been sown. I will see the fruit of faith (and the fruit of failures). And I will see my children sow again, but on their own.

I will labor to live with the joyful fury of a child, but I will be exhausted. My body will decay and break. That part has already begun. I will grow weak, but with the memory of strength, reaching for strength that should be there and is now gone.

In the end, I will face the greatest enemy that any man has ever faced. And I will lose.

Our challenges always build. A ninety-five-year-old man sits in his chair with a wandering mind because a century cannot pass without many blows. That much life is heavy for the strongest shoulders. A young man might feel bold; he might feel courageous, gambling with life and death. And he might be courageous. But he trusts his strength; he feels as if he could fight, as if he could run, as if he has a chance. He may even choose his danger.

It takes a different kind of courage to face death when you cannot run, when you cannot fight, when you are pinned beneath heavy decades, beneath the weight of life—when your faith really must be in another.

I spoke with Lawrence Greensides—Granddad—often. But not often enough. He was a man with big shoulders and a strong back, carrying nearly a century before the weight finally dropped him to his knees.

He was my expert whenever some adventure story required knowledge of planes. He was a man who faced bullets and bombs and storms, who was willing to end his life story in the service of his country, his family, his men. And he came close. But even after two wars, the heaviest burden he ever carried was still at the end in a quiet house where his wife sat in a swing that he had hung for her, watching the birds. Because at the end, he carried all of it. Ninety-five years of fallen choices. Of mistakes. Of darkness. Of frustrations. Of regrets. Ninety-five years of life means ninety-five years of loss.

He felt that weight as he cared for his sweet and forgetful wife. He would try to pick up his faults, his memory wandering over old scars. It was crushing. And then relief would come and he would laugh as happily as the day I saw him baptized. He didn’t have to carry the weight. It wasn’t his anymore. It had all been taken and hung on a tree. It had been bound to a broken body with strips of cloth and buried, and it was still in that grave, left there on one bright Sunday morning long ago when Life, this story, turned.

I had called him not long before when my mother warned me that something was changing. He was having dizzy spells. Abdominal pain.

I made a mental note to call him again. But I didn’t. If I am blessed to live to his length, a day will come in 2073 when I am sitting beneath the burden of a century, and my mind’s finger will trace the scar of this regret. By then, it will be soon healed.

My grandmother was on her swing when my uncle found his father on his knees. He tried to help him up, but my grandfather was focused on his last fight.

“No,” he said. “I’m dying.”

And he did.

Someday I will face death. I’m building up to it. For now, I face carpool. And deadlines. And book tours. And some back pain. And the task of molding childhoods. And occasional vomit.

 

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2 Tips for Reading More Books

Reading, like exercise, is something that many people do sporadically, a small population is obsessed with doing it, and almost everyone grudgingly admits to needing to do more often.

With search engines, online encyclopedias, and every kind of website imaginable, information is constantly at our fingertips. But with all of these tools, I still believe that books are one of the best forms for acquiring new knowledge.

But wait, you say, YouTube videos or internet articles can communicate the same knowledge in a more succinct fashion, right?

Well, yes and no.

You see, there is a cost-benefit ratio for using the internet, and one of the internet’s great benefits is also one of its great costs. The ease of accessibility enables us to gather information faster than ever before, but that same accessibility also allows us to shift to a new piece of information just as quick. The internet’s information can rapidly expand our knowledge, but it often does so to the detriment of our ability to focus.

And when it comes to concentration, the book has few rivals. It takes immense focus for a writer to coherently compose a comprehensible collection of words (you’re welcome for the alliteration, by the way). And likewise, it takes the reader a degree of focus to unravel the message that the author pieced together using words.

If you do not typically read books, you probably know the intimidation factor all too well, as even small books can sometimes feel like an impossible undertaking.

If you fall into this category, or perhaps you like reading books but want to read more, here are two quick thoughts to help you dive in.

1. TURN OFF THE TV

To be fair, television isn’t the only reading-killing culprit. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and other such websites and applications are now just as prevalent as TV.

Many Americans devote large amounts of their free time to these forms of entertainment, and while there is nothing innately wrong with them, they are far easier to consume than even the most simply written books. Like the internet, visual media requires less focus to comprehend than written media; therefore, our attention will almost always tend toward the former.

If you truly want to incorporate more books into your life, turn off the television first.

If you use the TV for white noise, play music instead or learn to embrace silence.

Video will almost always hold our attention more than written words, so when you pick a book up, make sure the screen is turned off.

And for the sake of brevity, I will refrain from discussing on social media… perhaps another post at another time. 

2. START SMALL

Runners obviously do not start out with the ability to run marathons. When many begin their training, they can only run in short sprints before stopping to catch their breath. But over time, their bodies learn to adapt, and they are able to run distances that they once thought impossible.

For many of us, reading books proves to be as difficult as running a marathon. Fortunately, the brain, like any other muscle, can be trained to focus on long form reading with enough time and discipline.

Practically, this means if you can’t remember the last book you finished, Augustine’s City of God is probably not the best place to start. Begin with something in a more modern style and with fewer pages. Then work your way up to more complex works.

This also applies to the amount of time being given to reading.

At first, you may find reading for an entire hour to be boring and undoable.

That’s fine.

Start by reading for fifteen minutes. Once you enjoy focusing on a book for that time, up it to thirty and keep going.


So there you have it.

If you want to read more books, cut the visual distractions and begin with doable goals.

Remember that you will almost never simply find the time to read; instead, you must make time to read.

But as with most difficult tasks, it is worth the effort.

 

Books Read in January

I’ve decided to take the 2017 Christian Reading Challenge… kind of.

My aim is for the 52 books of the Committed Reader path, but I’m not fully implementing the various categories this year, just reading a book a week.

So in an effort to give greater accountability, I plan to provide a list of the books I’ve read at the end of each month.

Here goes nothing.

incarnationOn the Incarnation by Athanasius

To be fair, I started this one at the end of December and finished it the first week of January. I’m still counting it though. It was great to finally read this classic book that has been sitting on sitting on my shelf for two-plus years.

Also, C. S. Lewis’ introduction about the reading of old books is a great read in and of itself.

grootGroot by Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger

Okay, I’ll admit it. Reading comics is kind of my guilty-pleasure pastime. I won’t be regularly listing them here, but this six-issue miniseries is so good that I needed to write something about it. The art is cartoony and fun. Groot is a fully-realized character, even while he only says three words. Surprising, hilarious, and heart-warming twists happen throughout, making it easily the most enjoyable comic book I’ve ever read.

witgcWhat Is the Great Commission? / Can I Trust the Bible? / What Is the Church? by R. C. Sproul

These short (and free!) ebooks have been helpful reads during my current sermon series. There are twenty-five books in the series, and my hope is to read most, if not all, of them this year.

 

gw

The Gospel’s Power and Message by Paul Washer

This is the first book in Washer’s Reclaiming the Gospel Series, and I have owned it for some years now, without having ever read it. Washer effectively presents the message, meaning, and necessity of the gospel. My heart certainly needed this thorough and passionate study of the good news of Jesus Christ.

lfLiving Forward (audiobook) by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy

I love audiobooks. I typically listen to audiobooks or podcasts whenever I’m in the car or doing a task that does not require much mental focus. This book is all about developing a life plan, an idea that I already agree with. I very much enjoyed their thought of beginning your life plan by considering your own eulogy. We are not likely to seize the day without first understanding that we have a limited number of days to seize.

youandme

You and Me Forever (audiobook) by Francis & Lisa Chan

I listened to this on audiobook as well. While I certainly enjoyed Crazy Love, Forgotten God, and Erasing Hell, I’ve never been deeply impacted by any of them, but this book was different. Francis and Lisa Chan have brilliantly written a marriage book that is not about marriage; rather, it is about something far, far more important. You can read or listen to the book for free via the You and Me Forever smart phone app, but it’s worth buying.

Reading, Indecision, & Ancient Pastors (Dec 9, 2016)

Here are a few articles from around the Internet worth reading this week.

2017 Christian Reading Challenge

I’m excited for this. I began following Tim Challies midway through 2016, so I missed his 2016 reading challenge. But my wife and I are jumping on board this year!

Those Books Won’t Read Themselves

So how about this for an early New Year resolution: In 2017 read some books, because books are good, and teach us many things. (And they are far better when physical objects than Kindlefied files – though if you’re going on a beach holiday you may take your Kindle.) Read broadly, but wisely – you don’t have to read stuff that does your soul no good. Read for information, and for pleasure, but not competitively. And don’t feel guilty about all the books you haven’t read, or those you only skim through, because of the making of many books there is no end. And read your Bible!

You Could Be Doing So Much

This is my last one on reading for the week. I promise.

I’m Paralyzed by Indecision – What Should I Do?

A great episode of John Piper’s podcast, Ask Pastor John.

1500-Year-Old Pastoral Wisdom from John Chrysostom

Chrysostom argued that if a preacher “is overcome by the thought of applause, harm is equally done in turn, both to himself and the multitude, because in his desire for praise he is careful to speak rather with a view to please than to profit” (5.2). Similarly, Chrysostom used the analogy of a skilled painter who “ought not to be dejected, and to consider the picture poor, because of the judgment of the ignorant” (5.6) to make the point that pastors shouldn’t be undone by the criticisms of some. Even outside of the context of preaching, a pastor should be indifferent to “slander and envy” (5.4).