Sunday, October 9, 2016

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life - Henri J. M. Nouwen

The little I have read by Henri Nouwen was too mystical for my taste, so I chose to read this collection of his letters in hopes that I would come to understand Nouwen more. Spanning decades (1973-1996), this book includes letters to a wide range of recipients, from dear friends to strangers. Nouwen was clearly a gentle, soft-spoken man, given to encouraging and supporting others no matter who they were. He apparently was also a very emotional man, given to introspection and great sensitivity to pain and insecurity. He came across as a very human man. Almost all letters begin with Nouwen’s thanks to the recipient for their correspondence, and he invariably spoke very personally, including when he gave gentle advice. Surprisingly, this well-loved author wrote in one letter that those to whom he ministered influenced him most profoundly; it was not books that had a lasting influence. Repeatedly, he encouraged others to pray. Once he stated his simple intercession list: friends, enemies, your city, your country, and the world, and he advocated gratitude and intercession as gateways to a closer relationship to God. Many wrote of loneliness and depression, and Nouwen cautioned them to listen to the voice of hope, not of despair, and encouraged them to pray for others. He readily acknowledged that depression was his nemesis, so he knew their struggles. A few times, Nouwen responded pointedly to criticism. In one letter, he summarized how the criticism sounded, how it felt, and how the writer would never have written in that vein had they known what he was facing. He replies, in part, “I don’t think I am ready yet to pray with you and Alex together. That feels quite scary to me. I would be too afraid of being told that I am not praying right or not living up to your expectations. So maybe we have to be very, very gentle and patient with each other. Please continue to pray for me and recommend me in the prayers of your community.” He had the ability to speak plainly and yet graciously. Part of his brilliance was in his simplicity. Describing the soul, Nouwen said, “The way I think about the soul is simply as the place where God dwells. . . . My ego, mind, self and DNA are part of my mortal being, and I know that one day I have to let go of that. But my soul is eternal in me, that aspect of me where I am part of God’s life. When I pray, I nurture my soul. When I care for the sick, dying and weak, I nurture my soul, and it is that soul in me that will be held eternally in God’s embrace.” There is much to learn from this book, and it is easy to imagine oneself as the recipient of some of Nouwen’s letters, as he addresses so many situations common to the human condition. I imagine it was impossible not to like him. The one thing I found distracting in the book occurred in introductions to the letters. Often after identifying the addressee, the editor adds notes, such as “He shares his own struggles as well as his insights born of his recent experience that one must go into the pain in order to discover God’s unconditional love.” These short summaries occur so often in the book that it feels anticlimactic to read the letters themselves; the book would have been much improved without those summaries. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Unreasonable Hope by Chad Veach

Chad and Julia Veach’s firstborn is Georgia, who has lissencephaly, a brain disorder which keeps her at a three-month-old infant’s development, although she is now over three years old, and is characterized by seizures and a lack of interaction. Chad’s book focuses on telling their story and communicating the faith and hope God provide in their journey. The book has four sections: The Struggle, Remedy, Rest and Better, each ending with “In Conclusion”, which include excellent action steps. So far, so good. Unfortunately for me, the author, who is in his mid-30s, writes heavily from that perspective and jargon. If your daily vocabulary includes “amazing”; “sucks”; “like” as a verb or adverb, as in (referring to Abraham talking to God), “He was like, ‘Let’s do this thing,’” (p. 180), then you likely will like this book. If, on the other hand, you do not know the meanings of, “One night Abraham was kicking it with God in the tent,” (p. 181) or, “A funny thing about God is that he doesn’t come in to fix things and then peace out,” (p. 115) or if you might find yourself wondering what he means when describing his second child as “my little gangster baby,” then you will either need some translation, or you might want to find a book written by someone either older or less entrenched in current culture. If, like me, you are not acquainted with CrossFit or do not understand what “the OGs of the fishing world” are when referring to Simon Peter and the others, much of the narration will be lost on you. In addition, if you find no humor or cuteness in hearing someone renarrate the biblical stories of Joseph and Moses by referring them as “Jo” and “Mo”, I’d move on. Its vocabulary is even already outdated, as it includes instances of that annoying cutesiness from a few years ago: “Such wonderful words to speak over your family. Not.” (p. 34) Every once in a while, I read a book by an author I think of as writing with one eye on the mirror, thinking “how clever am I!” This is one of those. Interestingly, long after my opinion solidified, the author notes on page 91, “. . . I’d like to describe the type of person I am. I love being affirmed after I’ve done something well. I’m the guy who puts one dish in the dishwasher at home and looks around to see if anyone noticed.” This book is, to say the least, a mixed bag. Proceed with caution. I received this book for free in exchange for my unbiased review through the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze Program.