A (Kind Of) Book Review: Beginnings

First, let me confess that this is not an “objective” book review. Not by any means. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t accurate or that I’m making stuff up.  It’s just that if you read my blog, you should already know that Steve Wiens is a good friend whom I’ve talked to about this book throughout the process. So, yes, those facts will color my perceptions. I won’t post this on Amazon or Goodreads or anything like that. But let me tell you about this book.

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After I spent a couple days in California with Steve in California in May – rising early in the morning to run the coastline, attending a conference together, eating and drinking at great restaurants in Laguna Beach along with another friend of mine and even taking a surfing lesson together, he sent me a .pdf of the manuscript.

At the time, I was struggling with my own “stuckness,” the kind that Steve described here when he guest-posted on Monday:

“I was stuck, but I was only beginning to realize it, and it was a sickening kind of feeling when I finally did. My life seemed to be drifting away from me, like someone was using a pair of bellows all wrong, extracting breath from me instead of adding it.”

I read the first chapter, called “Light.” And when I got to the last paragraph I sighed, closed the file on my computer and didn’t look at it again until I got an advanced copy in December.  Even though the writing was as beautiful as I’d expect it to be, in my “stuckness” I just couldn’t read anymore.

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The book is called Beginnings because it’s about the creation story. But it’s not just about the creation story recorded as a poem in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Because, in my experience, that makes a rather boring book!) Rather it’s about how creation is always happening, it’s about how God is always inviting us into starting over, and it’s about what that looks like in each of us.

Steve uses the seven days of the creation poem as a template for exploring our transitions by exploring his own with vulnerability and humor. Okay, that sentence sounded too much like a real book review. Here’s the lowdown: Steve is a great storyteller both in real life and in his writing. He writes beautifully, and I would think – even if you don’t know Steve like I do – his earnestness, vulnerability and warmth all come through his writing.  

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Here is the paragraph that made me put down the book in early June:

“What new beginning is dawning in your life these days? What darkness is blinding you? Can you see it and name it? Can you hear the Ruach whispering in your ear, calling you into a new beginning?

Welcome to Day One. Let there be Light.”

At the time, my own darkness was at about a 3 a.m. level. And while I could feel it oozing out of my pores in nearly every conversation and every interaction and churning in my head every moment my mind wasn’t otherwise occupied, I couldn’t name it. I couldn’t even bear to face it. So I was just going, going, going, refusing to stop lest it catch up to me.

And a promise of a new beginning even from a good and trusted friend felt too-good-to-be-true, too much hope at 3 a.m., when the sunrise seems so far away.

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On the last day of 2015, I got my second tattoo. It’s a sunrise with the words “Do it Again” in a banner underneath. Originally, I got the idea for it from this quotation about wonder, joy and living in the now, by G.K. Chesterton,

IMG_5537-1It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that
makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

But as the day got closer, it became even more significant to me, because I’ve come to believe in sunrises. No matter how dark the night, the sun always rises again. (I wrote about this idea in my NYE post.)

To say it Steve’s way: there is always a new beginning. There’s always an invitation to look towards the sunrise, even when the night feels dark. Don’t they say it’s always darkest before the dawn?

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When I picked up the book this time around, I was in a different place, it feels like there’s movement in my life again. I don’t feel stuck like I did for much of 2015, and conversations about light breaking in (chapter one), an expanse being created in us (chapter two) and seeds (chapter three) all resonated with the conversations I’m having with myself and with those whom I talk about these kinds of things.

And through this book Steve is challenging me to “create the future simply by being who we are and bringing forth what is within us.” This is what I’m about, trying to authentically be who am I and offering my gifts to the world. It’s energizing and good.

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Here’s what I think about Steve’s book: Steve is a great writer. But this book will be best if you read it with friends. If you read it and think about your own beginnings, your own transitions, your own journey and then share those ideas in safe, vulnerable places, with the kinds of people who love the prickliest parts of you.

As for me, next Sunday night, I’ll begin discussing this book with my closest people, hearing their journey, sharing my own, as much as I dare. I can’t wait. It’s Steve’s hope that this book is a midwife, that “this book helps to give birth to what needs to emerge from deep within you.” And I think it will, if you let it, and even more so, if you do so in community.

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Two last notes: Steve will be in Peoria at Imago Dei Church on Sunday morning, January 24th. And if you want more interaction with Steve, there will be a limited, ticket-required event on Saturday night where he will perhaps do a little reading, talk about his book, answer questions and sign. Details will be coming soon; check my Facebook.

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Beginnings. A guest post by Steve Wiens.

As far as friendships go, I haven’t known Steve all that long. But, over the last couple of years, he’s become one of my most important people – one of the people I seek out when I need guidance and especially encouragement. It’s been fun to listen to his journey of writing his first book. Later in the week, I’ll post my thoughts about the book, and later in the month, Steve will be at Imago Dei Church. But first, I’m super-happy to turn this space over today to my friend Steve Wiens…

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I suppose it might be considered a cliché to say that my first book discovered me; that it fluttered down to me in a bright burst of color and flame, beckoning and irresistible. But it did.

It came to me as a question, but one with a smirk and a wink. It was a delicious question, the kind that invites you to leave Bag End with only a walking stick and a stomach hungry for adventure.

I was stuck, but I was only beginning to realize it, and it was a sickening kind of feeling when I finally did. My life seemed to be drifting away from me, like someone was using a pair of bellows all wrong, extracting breath from me instead of adding it.

The question thundered around me, accompanied by random flashes of lightning, and I was dazzled enough to turn aside to see what it was before it rolled by.

What if the creative act of God described so richly in the Genesis poem was not simply an event in time, but a process that is reflected in all beginnings that follow? 

What if new beginnings were lurking around every corner, inside every whisper, and even stitched into every ending? What if they hovered above us, and filled in the fault lines beneath us? What if being stuck wasn’t the inevitable destination?

What if the world, right here and now, is crying out once again, and what if the God who hears is responding, and sending, and moving, and acting?

So I wrote and wrote and wrote, and with three boys under the age of six, it was mostly done by magic tricks and stopping time. The more I wrote, the more I believed. It came in torrents, flooding me, until it didn’t. Then it trickled in: a paragraph, a sentence, a word. But it came all the way out, and I’m about to let it go into the world.

Beginnings is my manifesto of hope, that the creative activity of God is not finished, not even close. Beginnings is my defiant shout that even when we are lost in the inky blackness, there can emerge out of that swampland something glorious, something eternal, something covered in the goodness of God.

What follows are the first words I used to translate the fluttering reality in which I now am grounded. I hope it leaves you hungry for more.

“THE ACHE HAD probably been creeping up on me, but I didn’t notice it until that night, sitting on the deck behind my sub- urban house looking out onto my suburban life. Isaac was two, and the twins were six months old. I was a pastor at a large church, I had been married for fourteen years, and my twenty-year high school reunion had come and gone.

I didn’t go to that reunion. I didn’t have the energy for the awkwardness, the sizing up, and the plastic cups of stale beer to chase down our stale memories.

But the ache that had been whispering through my body rattled to a clumsy stop on that night, in those suburbs, on that deck.

I had been looking at pictures of my friends who went to the reunion: my old girlfriend, the guys I used to go all night skiing with on those blisteringly cold nights in Minnesota, my soccer team. And I remembered all the beginnings.

I remembered moving from Southern California to Belgium the summer before seventh grade. I remembered the sour, un-American body odor of the team of men who moved our old furniture into our new house. That smell was the baptism of our new life in Europe.

I remembered my friend Colin who lived across the street in a two-story white brick house in Waterloo with black shutters, like they all were. I remembered the in-ground trampoline in his back yard, on which we spent hours and hours, jumping our way into adolescence. I remembered his mother’s unbearably loud voice, as it boomed around their house like a grenade and made us run for cover.

I remembered falling treacherously in love with Tammi the moment I saw her, coming down those stairs in the fall of my ninth grade year. She liked me back, and then she didn’t like me. I was devastated. That’s when I started listening to the Cure and Depeche Mode, bands who were created for teenagers like me who don’t know how to express the frightening chaos brewing beneath our skin, bubbling and boiling.

I remembered Mr. Tobin, my tenth grade English teacher. Every student should have a Mr. Tobin. He got to know each of us and selected books based on what he thought we’d like. The first book he gave me was Trinity, by Leon Uris. I remember staying up late into the night reading about Conor Larkin, the main character, who was everything I wanted to be but feared I wasn’t: brave and passionate and rough edged. Almost thirty years have passed since I met Mr. Tobin, and I credit my deep love for reading to his deep love for teaching.

I remembered kissing Angie under a starry summer night on that dock that jutted out into Lake Como, the thrill of that moment reflecting off the lake and making everything luminous that summer before our senior year. I can still see the picture of us at the homecoming game: she was beautiful, holding my hand under the dark October sky. I had a ridiculous acid-washed denim jacket on, with only the bottom button fastened in the chilly air. There was a grin on my face and my eyes were sparkling. I was seventeen.

I remembered driving around in Matt’s Bronco for hours, finishing off the beer that Carl’s older brother bought us. We must have burned hundreds of gallons of gas on those cold winter nights; we were irresponsible, irrepressible and immortal.

I remembered deciding to go to college in a sleepy little town in southern Minnesota, instead of up north, where most of my closest friends from high school had chosen to go. I remembered trying to explain it to them, in the awkward way that high school guys do. I don’t remember much of that summer before college. I only remember the familiar sensation that comes with every new beginning: the thrill of reinventing yourself running parallel with the fear of the unknown—the twin tracks that lead to everything else.

But on that night, on that deck, in those suburbs, the continual forward movement seemed to have stopped. The tracks had run out. I used to be in motion, rattling forward toward a destination that kept morphing. But on that stationary deck, I had become solid and stable, and stuck.

There would be no new beginnings.

My life should have felt full and rich, but instead it felt empty and dark. There was only the slow work of playing out the reality of the decisions that had already come and gone. I was a pastor. I was a father. I was a husband. I didn’t regret any of those things. I loved my kids and my wife and my job. But the finality of it all was a relentless crashing—wave after wave, under those stars, in those suburbs, on that night. It felt vacant, like staring into nothingness.

It was empty and full at the same time. Empty of beginnings, full of endings.

As I sat there motionless with the emptiness closing in around me, there was something else hovering above me in the darkness, but I couldn’t see it.

If I could have seen it, it would have looked like a beginning.”

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Steve Wiens lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife Mary and their three young boys. Steve blogs at www.stevewiens.com and he publishes a weekly podcast called This Good Word. You can order Beginnings here: Amazon | Books-A-Million | IndieBound | Barnes and Noble.

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You ARE the Gift

Christmas creeps closer every day, and if you’re like me – a terrible combination of a procrastinator and bad gift-giver – there’s a certain level of panic starting that’s starting to rise up. And if you’re also conscientious, which I’m sure you are, you also feel a pressure to find the “perfect gift.” The gift that, for $20 or so, says “this is how much I value you and your friendship.”

Ugh. Come Lord Jesus.

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My friend Steve’s first book, Beginnings: The First Seven Days of the Rest of Your Life is coming out on January 1st. I got my copy over the weekend and started reading. I’m forcing myself to only read a chapter a day, treating it like a good scotch and not cheap beer. (I’ll write a lot more about the book and post about it the first week of January.) But this line is something Steve has asked me before about my own life:

“What is your great gift you bring to the world?”

To someone, somewhere, you are a gift. The words you say, your actions, your laugh, your smile, your listening ear, your presence, your music, your art, your cooking skills, your willingness to show up is a gift to someone.

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I gave a Christmas gift to some friends last weekend. I know, it’s early. But when I get excited about something, I can’t hold back. Before we had children, Jennifer and I had usually opened all of our gifts by about the 20th of December! So this year, I had made something – put time and energy into it – and I was really excited to deliver.

And my friends said, “We didn’t know we were doing gifts!”

And I said, “We aren’t! No gifts! I don’t want anything from you, but what you already give.”

See, from these friends, there is no gift they could give us greater than their willingness and insistence on showing up in our lives, of listening, of chasing us down when we were in our darkest spaces. The gift is their friendship. And it’s more than enough.

When you’re in that kind of relationship, there is no quid pro quo to gift giving, there’s no scorecard. Gift giving just overflows out of the heart, it’s just what you do.

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It’s always a little awkward for people, I think, when pastors talk about sex. But it shouldn’t be.

Anyway, I tell people in pre-marital counseling sometimes, if we’re talking about sex, that this spirit of giving is at the heart of great sex. When two partners have lost themselves in the act of giving to the other – if both partners are in this place of giving – then sex becomes something more than just animal instinct. It becomes something mystical, transcendent, beautiful and, well, spiritual.

And the reason I’m talking about sex (besides, well, duh!) is that sex is just the most intimate of a range of intimate relationships. When two friends have this spirit of giving at the heart of their friendship, when business partners have this kind of giving at the heart of their partnership, magic happens.

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So, go ahead, search for the perfect gift. Stress yourself out. Give your all to taping neat corners and tying perfect bows. Giving gifts is a good thing. (And, yes, some gift giving is obligatory, and you only give some people gifts because you ought to. Seriously, spend as little time and emotional energy on these gifts as possible!)

But don’t be confused. To some of the people on your list, what they want most is you – all of you. They want your time, your voice, your ear. They want you to become the best version of yourself, no strings attached, no manipulation. They want to be in the same room as you as often as they can. They want you to write, to speak, to paint, to sing, to do what’s in you, and while it may not be “good,” while you may never get a book deal, and no one may give you money for what you paint, to “your people,” it will mean everything because you ARE a gift and what you do matters to them.

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So, today, or at least sometime in this Christmas season, be a gift to someone. Give someone a piece of yourself that you wouldn’t share with just anyone. And while you’re at it, let someone else know that they are a gift to you – that when they show up, it’s enough.

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