40 for 40 (January 2020)

The goal of 40 for 40 is two fold: (1) I want to take some time (a year) to slow down, stop reading so much new stuff, and (2) create space to revisit books that I have loved or considered formative to this point in my life. 

Part of the quest is to fight my propensity to consume. I love reading new things and that’s not bad, but it does make it hard to deeply digest, or to go back and revisit. New is always better, right?

So, my hope this year is that I’d spend some time reflecting on the journey to 40, sit with some past favorites, get to know the “old Steve” a little better, and see if these books I’ve loved have aged with me, or if they are simply relics (ebenezers) from the past.

I began with Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. For the past 15 years, if you had asked me: “Steve, what is your favorite book,” there’s been a 90% chance (or better) that this would be my answer.

I first read this book in the fall of 2003 on the advice of one David Crowder. I met him at a concert that my friend was running lights at, and I asked him what I always ask people: what is the best book you’ve read this year? He said, “Everything Is Illuminated.” He had just released Illuminate (coincidence?).

I re-read the book two more times: once on a trip to India in the fall of 2004, and again (in hardback for the first time) in 2007. 

All three previous readings were in my 20s, pre-marriage, and well over 10 years ago!

My takeaway re-reading it now: it is a young man’s book.

It’s still amazing in many ways. Hard to believe the author was in his 20’s when he wrote it. The scene where he describes the Nazi’s coming to take over his grandparents village is still one of the most harrowing passages in any book I’ve read.

It’s a book about memory and making sense of the stories that have produced us.

And it’s great. But as I said before, it is a young man’s book.
Full of fury and urgency and sexual tension. 
Full of longing and a desire for everything to mean something.
But not as weighty as I remember it feeling 15 years ago.

Young people have, and can express deep wisdom. 
And getting older is no guarantee that we will grow in wisdom.
And yet…weight. Everything Is Illuminated just feels lighter now than it did then.

Which, interestingly, is sort of what the book is all about: memory, how we change and grow and evolve as people, how the perception of an event changes depending on our moment in time and our proximity to that event.

It’s a brilliant book, written by a brilliant young man, and I mean that in the best sense possible.

—————

Next up is The Book of Lost Things. There was no method to choosing this book next, but it makes for a fascinating contrast. 

The Book of Lost Things is also a clever and a wonderful bit of writing about memory and tragedy and processing the traumatic events we experience in life. (First read in the fall of 2007.)

John Connolly reimagines classic fairy tales as the main vehicle for his narrative. I remember this technique being more shocking the first time around. I don’t know if I’ve just read more gnarly things, or watched too many movies, but there was very little shock value during this reading.

The particular copy I have has a big section at the end that gives the reader the background on each fairy tale and I had never read that before, so this experience was much different simply by taking the time to read through all that information. 

I found the experience of reading this book much easier than I remembered it, but the ending was no less meaningful (and it is one of the best endings to any novel I’ve ever read). 

And it’s the ending that gives the book weight and that provides a sharp contrast to Everything Is Illuminated. This is an old man’s book. It has less urgency, but more weight to it.

And so, my initial response, two books in to this adventure, is a sense of (a) relief. I confess to being mildly concerned that I would be devastated by “old Steve’s” taste. But, (b) also a sense that it is good to be in a different place than I was back then. 

Can’t wait to share more next month…  

Seeds

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32

In our public discourse there is a lot of noise, a lot of bombast.

In reaction to the noise some people keep turning up the volume,
while others bury their heads in the sand.

The Kingdom that Jesus speaks of often looks more like the latter,
but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Kingdom comes in hidden,
small,
seemingly insignificant ways,
but it’s far from head burying,
or piously removing oneself from the fray.

The Kingdom operates in an entirely different mode.

With that in mind I would like to briefly tell the story of my friends at 1951 Coffee Company. 1951 (named after the year the UN created the official Refugee status), is the brainchild of Doug and Rachel.

Doug has been a committed member and servant at our church for a while,
and it has been a great pleasure to root him on.

Doug was working for a non-profit serving refugee’s in the East Bay (Oakland has been a sanctuary city for years and is one of the largest refugee resettlement areas on the West Coast). When the job became more about serving the organization than the population, Doug and Rachel started searching for something else to do.

Their idea, of combining their (and the Bay Area’s) love of coffee with job training, started to gain some traction.

The past year plus has been a wild ride of getting established as a 501c3, starting the training program, fundraising, and seeking a permanent space.

Our church cafe has served as the location for the training program. 25+ folks have been through a two week process and graduates have gone on to work in many local shops and cafes.

The organization found a great spot in Berkeley, started work on remodeling, and recently opened their cafe space.

And right after opening, the Executive Order effectively putting a hold on refugee admittance to the US came down. The timing could not have been better for business, and 1951 has been getting all sorts of great press.

I am grateful to have been witness to this journey,
and there are two things I especially love about this story:

  1. They did it. A lot of people (myself included) have great ideas that never come to fruition for a whole bunch of different reasons. It’s hard to see a vision through all the way to the end, and while they are far from done, 1951 crossed a significant finish line in January, a line many great ideas fail to reach.
  2. They haven’t ended persecution, stopped the mass-migration of peoples, or eradicated dictatorships, but they planted a mustard seed, and it is growing. As it’s branches grow, I’ve been amazed at how many people have been involved in the process. Many of these folks are from our church community, but all over the bay area and the world too. That’s the power of the growth of a kingdom seed.

In a world with a lot of noise,
I am, more and more,
looking for mustard seeds.

And I am looking for folks (myself included) willing to do the hard work,
the cultivating work,
for these seeds to grow.

I can find hot takes and big headlines without looking very hard.
But, I want good stories and better art, not more hot takes.

There is a lot of quiet good happening below the surface,
under the radar,
off the big grid.
Do we have the eyes to see it?

Rejoice With Those Who Rejoice

I’ve been around church(es) for a long time now, so I’ve heard my fair share of references and reflections on Romans 12:15.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

The vast majority, if not all, of the references/reflections/sermons I’ve heard on this verse have to do with the second part, the mourning part.

Usually when something bad happens we like to say this as a reminder of our duty.

Mourning with people is extremely important.

Mourning with people exemplifies empathy, sympathy, and emotional intelligence, not to mention spiritual maturity and the sacrificial love of Jesus.

But, why haven’t I heard as many (if any) references/reflections/sermons on “rejoice with those who rejoice?”

And what does it even mean to rejoice with someone? Does that mean giving them a high-five, or a pat on the back when they are pumped about something good in their life? Or is it something deeper than that?

I think it is easier for us to mourn with those mourn.

Positively, pain binds us all together, so I think it can be easier to access those emotions and connect with someone experiencing pain.

Negatively, I think we get a sort of “hit” from coming alongside someone and walking with them through their pain. This is not necessarily bad, but I think mourning with someone puts us in a helping role, and we tend to feel good about ourselves when we help someone.

Sharing someone’s joy doesn’t give us quite the same sort of ego hit that mourning does.

I’ve found rejoicing with others to be really hard to do personally, and I’ve felt its absence, in my own experiences, in some pretty profound ways.

In a competitive world it can be hard when someone else achieves something, or reaches a new stage of life, or is just simply celebrating a level of success that we haven’t reached yet. Seeing someone else succeed might make us insecure about our state of life, or disappointed in what we haven’t accomplished.

In other words, rejoicing with others seems like a bigger test of character than mourning.

Rejoicing with others requires a true sense of humility. To truly share in someone else’s joy means that we are totally focused on the other. So focused that their joy becomes our joy.

And that’s hard to do.

But, this is one of my new life goals. To revel in their success and fun and excitement as much as I would my own.

I want to be great at rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Some New Thoughts on Sabbath

I once had a ministry supervisor say to me: “Sabbath’s are encouraged, just don’t let your sabbath interfere with your work.”

When I came back at that comment with: “I think that’s actually the point of a sabbath: to interfere with and interrupt our work,” there was some back tracking, but the point was clear. You are here to work, don’t let anything get in the way of that!

Amy and I have tried to sabbath throughout our life together to varying degrees of success.
To be honest, we haven’t been that good at it.
We haven’t let sabbathing interfere with our work.

One of our commitments in this new chapter was to start practicing some good habits right out of the gate.

Monday is our sabbath. So, far we’ve done a good job of it. No work, ministry, or prep takes place on Mondays. Just family stuff.

Sometimes we go to Costco.
Sometimes we explore Oakland.
Sometimes we just stay home and make pancakes.
Sometimes we go to the park and then to a great family cafe for lunch (this is our favorite).

We don’t check much email (I don’t check my work email at all).
We don’t do too many chores.
We do try to have fun.
We are absolutely with each other.

I titled this post “new thoughts,” but really there are no new thoughts, just a better, more disciplined practice.

And it really is making a difference.

We all recover from Sunday.
It reorders and prioritizes the week.
It is renewing and refreshing and all the things sabbath is supposed to be.

I know this will grow more challenging and more disruptive as we move into future phases: Amy returning to work, the kids going to school, sports and activities, more ministry opportunities and pressures.

 But I’m also beginning to see that we can’t give this up. The day may have to change, but the day off never should.

My new thought on sabbath is that this is yet another area of life that requires discipline. And discipline is hard, but rewarding. We are reaping the benefits.

Please, friends, let sabbath interrupt your work.

It’s worth it.

The Pull and The Push

We recently went through several major life transitions: we added a family member (Cruz!), we moved from the east to the west coast, and I started a new job. We have seen a lot of change in a short amount of time. I don’t think we are completely through this time of transition, but I wanted to share a couple of insights we’ve gleaned along the way.

So, today: how do you know when it’s time to make a big move?

A former student asked me this in a coffee shop back in November when I told her we were moving. It’s a great question.
I answered by saying: “well, you just know.”
I said that somewhat in jest. She responded by saying: “that’s such a Steve Boutry thing to say,” which means I did actually leave a legacy!

Of course there’s more to it than that, but I begin with that story because I have learned to put more and more stock into my intuitive/gut-sense, and, honestly, sometimes you just know.

When you start to get that sense you should start to pay attention to what my brother-in-law calls the pull and the push.

The pull: there should be something drawing you into a better future. A compelling vision for what might lie ahead.

Wanderlust, boredom, and/or frustration with you current situation are warning lights that something might wrong, but they are not reasons to make a big change. Pay attention to them, process them with wise people, but don’t make a big move just to make a big move, or because you are ticked.

Sometimes, though, you begin to sense that a vision is forming, an idea is taking root. Opportunities start to knock. You begin to see a different future. That’s the pull! Lean into it.

The push: there will also be some things (people, circumstances, etc) that make it clear it’s time to go.

The push is tricky because not every irritating thing is “the push.” There may be some relational difficulties you need to work through. There are hard conversations to be had. Make every effort to be at peace with those around you. Sometimes, after working through some of these issues, you may find that you should stay!

But do not think that just because you have a vision (a pull) that you will sail on to the next thing unscathed. The push will leave a mark, and that mark might hurt, but sometimes we need that to get moving.

Navigating the pull and the push is an art, and deserve a post of their own, but the quality of your character in a time of transition is measured in handling the pull and push well.

You will never know with one hundred percent certainty that “now is the time.”
Trust your gut.
Pay attention to the pull.
Be ready for the push.
And make sure you have some wise guides around you to help navigate the waters.

And then jump with both feet in confidence and enjoy the ride!
More on the “ride” tomorrow.

Check Your Mouth

I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on words at a church in California last weekend. Words have been on mind.

Which is partly why I find the following to be so fascinating:

Our two-year old daughter is growing more and more verbal with each passing day, but still struggles to fully express herself, the way that toddlers struggle with their emerging vocabularies. It can be frustrating at times. Super cute at others. And, incredible enlightening as well.

For example, whenever Marina is struggling with her attitude, or obedience, or just general human politeness we will ask her:

“Where are your manners?”

Or,

“Where is your happy heart?”

And she will point to her tongue and say: “Mouth.”

This, as I mentioned, is super cute. It is also deeply profound.

In fact, I think there is a proverb about this: [I actually enjoy the King James version here.]

“Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” [Pr. 4:23]

I also think Jesus had something to say about this:

“…for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” [Luke 6:45]

Many times we are asked to examine our hearts. And this is a good and worthwhile practice. But, perhaps we also need to examine our words. Because our words reveal what is in our hearts.

So what are you talking about? What are you complaining about? What are you dwelling on? What subject can you never drop? What conversation do you always find yourself in? Are your words bringing life and joy and peace, or death and frustration?

Where is your happy heart? Check your mouth!

Happy Birthday!

Marina turns two today which, among other things, serves as the proverbial, cliched reminder that time does, indeed fly. Today I hit pause for a moment to reflect on two years of parenthood.

The first thing I would like say by way of observation is that nothing has been more disruptive to my life than becoming a parent. College was a time of transitioning and developing. Post-college brought new adulty realities into my life. Moving to Colorado to plant a church required a different level of growing up. And then marriage and moving to Boston accelerated the maturity process in all kinds of new ways.

But, nothing has been more disruptive than fatherhood.

The second thing I want to say is that this disruption has proven to be one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

I say this because parenting has challenged me, has stretched me, has disrupted my selfishness and self-centeredness like nothing else. Nothing has revealed the dark parts of my soul quite as brightly as parenting.

I used to roll my eyes when my dad would say things to this effect. And certainly, I know many single people (or non-parents) who are incredibly mature and are light-years ahead of me in terms of character development.

I also want to say that I know many people who for whatever reasons are unable to have kids. Having experienced some challenges with fertility ourselves, I can also say that that challenge is every bit as forming as having kids. Maybe more so.

But, for me, and for many people I’ve talked to and pestered with questions, I understand like never before how important parenting is to becoming a mature adult with a character that has been tested and refined in the crucible of poop and fatigue and disciplining and trying to reason with a tiny, emotional human being.

God, I believe, gives us children to make us more like him.

Now, I know also know many people who had poor parental examples. I know and have heard so many stories of parenting done poorly. I know that simply reproducing doesn’t make you a better person.

But it does reveal what’s there unlike anything else. Some people look at what is revealed and choose to ignore it, run away from it, or deny it.

But if the revelation is embraced it can bring transformation. This I have also seen personally and in the lives of countless friends and family who have become incredibly beautiful people through embracing the challenges of parenting.

The last thing I would like to say, is that beyond life lessons and maturing, I am simply grateful for Marina. At two years old she is already a remarkable person, and we love discovering more about her all the time.

Happy Birthday, Kiddo! We love you!

IMG_1091