One word summarizes 2014 for the Smith family – transition. Last April our family moved back to the States. One of the best things my family did this past year was attend a week of debriefing and renewal (DAR) for cross-cultural missionaries in Palmer Lake, Colorado. One of our counselors recommended a slew a books that I normally would not have picked out for myself; books on soul care, counseling, and rest. I’m so glad I read out of my comfort zone and took my counselor’s advice. I feel like I’ve entered 2015 a healthier, more holistic man with a more integrated mind.
1. Adrenaline & Stress, by Archibald Hart M.D.
While at DAR, I was told that if I don’t change my lifestyle, that I will have a heart attack in 10 years. We took many tests, one of them was the well-known Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale. For those who’ve never heard of this test, it measures the amount of stress you’ve experienced within the past year. The total score is on a scale from 0- 1,000.
- If you score zero, you’re not living. If you score 1,000, then you’re about to die.
- If you score below 150, then you’re not experiencing much stress.
- If you score above 300, then you will get ill soon.
I became a believer in this stress test when Sandi & I took it our first year in seminary. We both scored over 300. Just weeks later we celebrated the big Y2K New Year’s Eve sick as dogs. Instead of parting with Prince like it was 1999, we were tossing and turning on our bed with fever. They said at DAR that the average missionary scores between 800-900!! Thankfully, this time I scored 481 – although it was still way over my score back in 1999. Our counselor recommended a book I would have never picked out for myself. This might sound stupid, but the cover was completely stuck in the 80s, which whispered to me: “out-of-date, and out-of-touch.” Boy, was I wrong. Dr. Hart’s book was written for type-A personalities who are addicted to adrenaline. I had no idea I could get high from cortisol. I won’t go into all the details of this incredible book, but it is key for preventing a heart attack. Let me just mention a few important points:
- Most adrenaline junkies don’t know they are addicted because they enjoy being under positive stress – it makes them feel alive.
- Stress is not bad and can’t always be avoided; the key is to learn how to come down off your adrenaline buzz and REST. Many times this down times feels more like depression – which is completely normal and necessary for the body to reset itself.
- If I do not proactively fight my “hurry sickness” and learn what triggers my stress and learn how to bring down my adrenaline levels, over time I will have a heart attack. Bottom line. Simple as that.
If you are a thrill junkie and/or a workaholic, consider giving this book a read. You’ll finish it in a day or two. And it just might save your life!
2. The Emotional Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero.
Like so many Americans, I was taught to ignore my feelings, especially the not-so-fun emotions like sadness, fear, and anger. In this book, Scazzero argues that “emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable… it’s not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature” (pp. 11, 17). And that dichotomy explained much of my walk with Christ – rigorous to love God with my head and hands, but not really knowing how to love with my heart. So when I read in the beginning of the book that “to the degree that we are unable to express our emotions, we remain impaired in our ability to love God, others, and ourselves well” (p. 26), I was resolved to explore the uncharted waters of my emotional life.
After addressing in the first three chapters the problem of an emotionally unhealthy life, Scazzero shows us a way to live a more integrated, healthy life. He does so by teaching on basic counseling topics such as the necessity self-awareness (ch. 4), family of origin patterns (ch. 5), the unavoidable ‘wall’ (ch. 6), dealing with loss (ch. 7), sabbath and the daily office (ch. 8), and embracing conflict (ch. 9). In fact, this book has become the basis of Peter & Geri Scazzero’s ministry to help church leadership integrated emotionally healthy spirituality principles into the fabric of church culture. On their website, they have provided many great resources and tools. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality laid a great theological and practical foundation for me to journey deeper into my heart as well as the hearts of others. I need to re-read this book!
3. The Rest of God, by Mark Buchanan
Dr. Hart taught me all sorts of methods for resting and Scazzero reminded me of its practical importance, but Mark Buchanan’s book gave me a biblical theology of its beauty. On just an artistic level, Mark is an incredible writer: profound, poetic, honest, and charming. Although the subtitle states: “Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath,” this book is much bigger than a mere biblical argument for sabbatarianism. I guess he hooked me in the intro when he said, “I became a Sabbath-keeper the hard way: either that, or die.” That’s where I was when our family moved back from Peru.
The style and cadence of this book made me want to rest. God used this book to slow me down and discover the deeper rhythms of sabbath woven into the very fabric of our world. It stretched and renewed my understanding of sabbath than merely stopping for 24 hours each Sunday. For example, a theology of play is necessary for recovering Sabbath (ch. 9). Most strict sabbatarian views would see rest and play at odds with each other. Mark helps see that sometimes we rest the best at play. Also, I loved that each chapter ended with a “sabbath liturgy” – a suggested practice to help the sabbath sink in deeper into our soul and rhythms of life.If you are already convinced that you need to rest more, but need a book to help you to rest better, this is the perfect book for you.
4. Anatomy of the Soul, by Curt Thompson, M.D.
Of all the books I read this past year, this one was the most interesting. Dr. Thompson integrates the latest findings in neuroscience to show how the mind actually changes. Thompson borrows John Calvin’s description of the Psalter as an Anatomy of the Soul. His book illustrates how our minds embody our physical self, that is profoundly relational, regulates our flow of energy, and is interconnected with other’s minds. He goes on to say that the biblical concept of the “heart” is manifested most profoundly at the level of the prefrontal cortex (the front part of our brain).
Basically, this book explains neurologically how people change. Thompson’s premise is that a healthy, mature person has a fully integrated mind. Half of the book reads like a scientific text book for dummies and the other half reads like a guide for holistic, biblical change.
One of the most shocking moments in the book is when Thompson says, “there is no such thing as an individual brain.” I’m still trying to sort that one out. He continues: “transformation requires a collaborative interaction, with one person empathically listening and responding to the other so that the speaker has the experience of feeling felt by another” (p. 137). In other words, storytelling is essential for making disciples in community. He explains that by telling and listening to each other’s stories, it opens the door to a different future. When we tell our story and others empathically listen, our brains become more integrated by forming new neurological pathways which then changes how we think and feel about our memories. Crazy stuff! An Anatomy of the Soul is a very stimulating read.
5. A Loving Life, by Paul Miller
In this follow-up book from A Praying Life, Miller’s A Loving Life is really a devotional commentary on the Book of Ruth. As I read through this book, I realized that the story of Ruth is about the heart-wrenching transition of Naomi & Ruth. This book drips with the gospel; Miller beautifully shows a cruciform life reflected in Naomi, Ruth, & Boaz. I was greatly helped by his definition of hesed love as a “one-way, stubborn love… that isn’t centered on fairness” but centered on death and ends in resurrection.
I began to read this book on my darkest day in 2014. Much of this book was read with tears; and I found a very healing read about God’s hesed love in the Gospel according to Ruth. To give you a taste of Miller’s mastery of gospel-centered living, consider his conceptual model he calls the “J-curve“. Christian Scholars say that a biblical worldview of history is linear instead of cyclical; but the line is not flat, says Miller; “it is actually shaped like a J, beginning with life and then going down into death and then upward to resurrection, a J-curve. Jesus lives a J-curve. He describes his life as a seed dying and rising again (John 12:24). Gospel stories are possible only because God actively shapes history, bringing life where there is death” (p. 68). What a great teaching tool! I agree with Miller that our hearts were made for gospel stories. All of our lives must go through the dip in the J, what Peter Scazzero calls “the Wall” and what David calls “the Valley” in Psalm 23. Before there is new life, there must always be a death. Miller provides extremely helpful pastoral insight to living-out this J-curve shaped life:
“[God teaches] us to love by overloading our systems so we are forced to cry for grace. God permits our lives to become overwhelming, putting us on the downward slope of the J-curve so we come to the end of ourselves. I encouraged my friend to embrace the downward path, not to push against it or worry about where his feelings were with his wife… Seeing the gospel as a journey remaps our stories by embedding them in the larger story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. His normal becomes our normal” (p. 69).
Miller then shares what he has learned by going through the J-curve:
- We don’t know how or when resurrection will come. It is God’s work, not ours.
- We don’t even know what a resurrection will look like. We can’t demand the shape or timing of a resurrection.
- Like Jesus, we must embrace the death that the Father has put in front of us. The path to resurrection is through dying, not fighting.
- If we endure, resurrection always comes. God is alive!
“We can’t do death. But we can’t do resurrection. We can’t demand resurrection—we wait for it” (p. 71). I was at the bottom of the “J” when I picked up this book: I had to die to a vision that I was not willing to let go. Watching Ruth die over and over, helped me die; and I found that my heart was re-oriented to love again. Resurrection quietly came. If you find yourself fighting in the bottom of the J, and you are confused about what is coming next in your life, then this book might really encouraged your soul.
Sandi’s Pick: Notes from a Blue Bike, by Tsh Oxenreider
From Sandi: “Notes from a Blue Bike was such a wonderful book to drape the transition from our South American life to begin living in North America again. We have come back mostly Peruvian, especially our four daughters who had spent the entirety of their lives in Peru. I knew I had to help our family incorporate much of our beloved Peruvian culture into our new life so that we might successfully thrive, live simply and maintain a healthy lifestyle and worldview. I had traveled back and forth between continents enough times to know that blending two cultures into our new life might be tricky: we wanted to maintain many of our ways in Peru while avoiding many of the North American vices. Tsh addresses the issues of food, work, education & travel and how to practically incorporate the goodness of what was learned living internationally into our new North American life.”
So if you are an expat looking for practical ways on how to incorporate lessons from cross-cultural into your new life (things like eating fresh, living simply, and prioritizing travel), this might be a great book for you.