20 Years of Marriage, 63 Photographs of Trees

Marci and I flew out to San Francisco last week for a four-day getaway. We arranged for the trip because this month marks our 20th wedding anniversary, and we wanted to do something special together.

Northern California was appealing to us because it provided relatively easy access to both culture and nature. Once we got there, however, we found the city considerably less appealing than the natural areas outside the city. Part of this was due to our natural inclinations towards introversion. Part was due to the fact that we just finished a busy school year, which had taken an emotional toll on our family. And part was due to the fact that we let ourselves be talked into upgrading from our compact economy car rental to a brand-new, fiery-orange Mustang convertible.

We had such a lovely time: cruising the Pacific Coast Highway… watching wildlife (pelicans, crabs, starfish, sea lions, deer)… eating delicious meals in unusual settings… talking together about our past, present, and future… But of all the things we saw and did, the trees of Northern California may have been the most impressive elements of our trip. The Coastal Redwoods and Giant Sequoias, especially. I ended up taking 63 photographs of the trees out in Northern California — and I didn’t get a single shot that fully encapsulated the awe I felt when I looked at those trees with my own eyes.

 

The pictures simply don’t do the experience justice. But I’ve been thinking about this, and I appreciate the way that it’s kind of similar to the way that saying “20th Wedding Anniversary” doesn’t do the experience justice. Maybe there’s some sense of perspective from the aggregate, the juxtapositions, the volume of snapshots each depicting a slightly-different point of view. But not really. It doesn’t feel satisfying for me to attempt encapsulating these experiences in snapshots, but it also doesn’t feel satisfying for me to leave them unmentioned or seemingly-unobserved.

      

I’m immensely grateful for the two decades that Marci and I have spent together. I wish I could show you. I wish I could tell you. But it’s fine. Psalm 115 struck me recently: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name goes all the glory for your unfailing love and faithfulness…” It’s easy to make an idol out of romantic relationships, instead of celebrating the way our human love reflects the Heavenly love that gave us that ability in the first place. “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. Their idols are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands… All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and shield. The Lord remembers and will bless us…”

That’s our prayer for the next twenty years. We want to keep trusting the Lord, relying on him for our help and protection from life’s storms. Whether that’s in Northern California, or Ohio, or Europe, or wherever, we’re thankful for God’s blessings and our ability to keep on walking in wonder.

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Grown Up, But Not Really

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Our youngest child is finished with elementary school! We’re very proud of Cor, especially because he worked really hard to make the Honor Roll (for the first time) this year.

At all of their end-of-the-school-year activities — a “graduation” ceremony, field trips, and such — we parents were inclined to look at each other and say things like, “They grow up so fast” and “We just can’t believe they’re Middle-Schoolers now!”

But I know better.

I know better because I was there earlier in the day, before the “clap-out” and the last of the “last”s, at the celebratory Pool Party / Sports Day at the Kent State University Recreation and Wellness Center.

I know better because I heard the way the boys giggled about seeing the “thing” of a guy in the locker room, while they were getting ready to swim.

I know because I watched them crack each other up with jokes and physical comedy centered around the sign advertising a workout class called “Butts & Guts.”

They’re still growing up. The whole maturity / immaturity thing is fun, in its own, silly way. I’m glad to have kids who are still getting older. But I’m also glad that it takes awhile.

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Mother’s Day Poetry for my Mother

A Haiku for My Mother

Positive, Patient.
Inclement weather check-ins.
I love my Mother

A Limerick for My Mother

So, my Mom’s fav’rite color is red,
Like the rose, like the blood Jesus shed.
Beauteous Grace personified
Mom’s made it as if I’d
Been twice born and twice by her fed.

An Adjectival Acrostic for My Mother

Maternal
Others-Oriented
Thoughtful
Hopeful
Enduring
Resplendent


I’m not a great poet. It doesn’t come very easily, and the material I produce isn’t all that great. Still, I love the way that poetry helps me to distill my thoughts and focus in on the essence of why I love my Mom so much — both on the tangible / practical level and the figurative / big-picture level.

She’s a great Mom, and I love her very much!

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Summa Cum Laude

It’s Graduation Day at Kent State University!

This year is extra-special because we have a graduate in our household (thus, our version of the Dutch “backpack on the flagpole” tradition). As of this week, Marci has earned another degree: her Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language!

She’s not the type to make a big spectacle of the achievement. She chose to stay away from the commencement ceremonies at Dix Stadium (even though I was encouraging her to participate). She won’t have any of the formal, cap-and-gown portraits to remember this milestone in her life. The closest she’s gotten to any kind of external celebration was a party we hosted yesterday evening for all her friends and colleagues from the TESL program at Kent State.

Despite the lack of fanfare, though, I’m really, really proud of what Marci has accomplished over these last two years. She’s not just earning another diploma. She’s not just been doing it with honors. She’s done it with the highest of honors! Summa cum laude!

This graduation genuinely feels like a mountaintop, or “summit,” experience. It took a sweat and strategy to get to this point. Exhaustion has been a factor from the very first month. Graduate school is a significant challenge for anyone, but especially so when one is a wife and mother — trying to fit teaching responsibilities and school work in around our family’s transportation needs, and nutritional needs, and emotional needs, and a host of other roles and responsibilities.

Still, Marci has come through it all with flying colors. She’s an amazing academic achiever and an even more amazing person. I’m highly-honored to be her husband.

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Finishing the Race

The Glass City Half-Marathon was hard.

I went out fast, and I stayed fast through the first ten miles: splits consistently between 7:00 and 7:15 minutes per mile. I was pushing the pace, keeping myself in the upper echelons of my ability, but I felt decently strong. My confidence grew as I ran, and I was happy to think that a new Personal Record (PR) was within grasp.

Around the ten mile mark, however, my pace started to sag. It’s not like I hit a distinct wall. I wasn’t in doubt about my ability to finish, or even the likelihood of a PR. But it definitely didn’t feel as fun at that point in the race. My legs were tired. My gut felt uneasy. Mental fatigue set in, too. I kept on slogging, even though there weren’t many spectators — or even fellow racers — in view. I was determined to suck it up and gut it out… But it wasn’t going to be enjoyable. I decided I would lose a bit of pace, if that’s what it took to survive.

Just around that time, on the long straightaway down Dorr Street, I got a boost from a friend of a friend — a guy named Scott, whom I’d just met the evening before, at dinner. He started with a group of guys I had hoped to join, but we couldn’t find each other at the starting line. Thus, we each ran our own races… until that moment on Dorr Street.

Scott came up from behind, and I could tell he had fresh legs before I even recognized him. The cadence of his feet sounded quick and bouncy. He started up a conversation about the home stretch, even as a stranger, when most people at that point on the course were not breathing easily enough to hold a conversation. When we recognized each other, despite our lack of deep familiarity and our different conditions at that point on the course, Scott insisted that we run together — and he basically went on to pace me for the next two miles. I kept telling him to run ahead and finish his race at his own pace, but he wouldn’t have it. He even encouraged me to try and draft off him.

Crazy enough: It worked!

I maintained — and even increased — my pace. When Scott finally surged ahead with a little more than a mile to go (at my insistence), I found that I had enough fuel in the tank to finish strong — even surge to my fastest split in the whole race! And even though my legs started seizing up after I crossed the finish line, I felt grateful and proud to have finished in one hour, thirty-five minutes, and eight seconds. Almost five minutes faster than my previous PR.


What’s most interesting about all of this, to me, is the clear parallel I feel God has shown me in regards to this school year of ministry with H2O Kent. (Beware: another Mara-meta-phor-athon is on the way!).

We started this year of ministry at an ambitious, record-setting pace. Our first worship gatherings of the year were huge. Multiple Life Groups were averaging something like 40 people each week (totally surpassing our expectations or abilities). We set records — by pretty wide margins — for The Well… Fall Retreat registrations… Baptisms… Spring Break trip participation… Estes Park Leadership Training applications… and even new Staff applicants and Pastors-in-Training. All of our metrics have been up this year — and in the early going, it felt pretty fun. We seemed strong. We had (and still have!) plenty of good stuff to fill our prayer letters and such. There have been a lot of reasons to feel enthusiastic about the future, too.

It’s been hard, though. The fatigue started setting in about a third of the way into the school year (even sooner than the physical fatigue of my race set in). By late-October, I felt weak, discouraged, and lonely. I didn’t know what to do about all the people who seemed to be slipping through our fingers as the school year wore on (percentages relatively comparable to most years, but still a larger overall number). It felt like bad shepherding. Depression set in, and I struggled to stay engaged with family, ministry, and my own walk with God. By the time Spring Break rolled around, ministry roles were producing pretty significant levels of insecurity: feeling old, out of touch, unwanted, unloved, ineffective… Even though all the metrics were up, I felt pretty discouraged about H2O stuff. I didn’t feel like I’d given my best to the Life Group leaders I’ve been coaching or the interns I’ve been managing. Many weeks, it felt like I put in the bare minimum to keep things moving and mediocre.

In the last few days, though, it seems like God is allowing me to get a broader perspective and push to the “finish line” with one last surge of strength I didn’t know I had.

Looking back at the year of ministry, it really is remarkable what God has accomplished. I knew (and should have remembered!) that it was going to be a stretch to just turn in passing grades, or to function as a serviceable part of the rotation. With Marci in her last year of graduate school and our kids scattered across three different schools and a couple-dozen extra-curricular activities, it was never realistic to make the “Honor Roll” or turn in an “All-Star” campaign. It just wasn’t. Compound our family’s situation with the situations of my co-pastors’ families (new babies, shifting job responsibilities, financial stresses, etc.) — and it’s really pretty unbelievable that the church even survived, much less thrived in the way it did!

Praise God!!!!!

We had key contributions from the rest of our staff, interns, and student leaders — even so, it’s really quite illogical that we had such a good year. A record-setting year! Clearly, God is bigger than our limitations. It’s just good to be reminded of God’s glory. 2 Corinthians chapter four says, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart… But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

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Spring Break in the Great Smoky Mountains

We’re back from H2O’s Spring Break trip to the Great Smoky Mountains! Fifty-four of us traveled from Ohio to Tennessee to learn and practice spiritual disciplines in the wilderness, like Moses, and Elijah, and John the Baptist, and countless others before us.

One of the fringe benefits of the trip was a flash-forward to Spring, getting a sneak preview of the climate conditions that should be filtering into Ohio over the course of the next month. The grass was noticeably greener. Wildflowers were blooming. The sunlight and air temperatures even made it comfortable to walk around in short sleeves a couple of afternoons!

And just as the natural world came to life, so did our spiritual lives, as we practiced the disciplines of reading the Bible, praying, solitude, community, rest, serving, and worship. One of my most memorable experiences during our week in the Great Smoky Mountains was a 9-mile hike from Newfound Gap to Charlie’s Bunion and back. We got to see why they call them the “Smoky” Mountains, but we also got some clear views of some pretty dramatic vistas — all while talking about the intricacies of our lives and working through the things we were learning during the week.

We spent an hour each day together in worship and Biblical reflection. In the middle part of each day, everyone was encouraged to seek God individually or in unstructured community time. And then at the end of the afternoon, people met with a handful of others to process their experiences with the spiritual disciplines.

Over the course of the week, one young woman decided to get baptized (in a very cold mountain stream!), and another young man made a decision to start following Jesus. It was everything our leadership team was praying the week would be — and then some!

Of everything that happened in the Great Smoky Mountains, I’d have to say that one of the most encouraging developments for me, personally, was to see the way that God was made real to my kids and through my kids. They practiced the spiritual disciplines along with the college students, and the experiences seemed to affect them in a meaningful way.

But it wasn’t just limited to them having their “kids version” of the week. They took the things they were learning and applied them with everyone else who was there for the week. They served others. They prayed for others. They worshiped with others. They offered emotional support and practical help for others. And they had so much fun, being welcomed into full-fledged community.

I think we’re all glad to be back in Kent now, sleeping in our own beds and enjoying reliable internet access and such — but I pray that the week left an imprint on each life that will carry into everyday life here, and beyond. At the very least, I got some good pictures! For anyone interested, I’ve created an online album with all of my best pictures from the week in downloadable form.

Posted in Children, Church, Family, God, H2O Kent, Ministry, Photography, Prayer, Recreation, The Bible, Travel | Comments Off on Spring Break in the Great Smoky Mountains

To Elliot, on the Occasion of His 16th Birthday

Dear Elliot,

It’s a pretty decent possibility that this is the last year of me being taller than you. Probably also the last year (and maybe even the last month!) of me being a faster runner than you. You’re already more advanced than I am at hair-styling… soccer skills… abdominal muscle definition… affinity for contemporary musical trends… and all the strategy, tactics, and technique in the gaming world of Fortnight.

You’re surpassing me.

In my line of work, I guess I’ve kind of gotten used to the sensation. Sometimes it feels as if I’m merely jogging in place while all these young college students race past me in their social, emotional, and physical development. It’s weird, though, when this happens with a young man who used to be a young boy in our household, and even a tiny infant in our arms. What an absolutely breathtaking experience, to watch your life unfold in real time! In just a minute, it would seem, this cycle will reset and you’ll get to experience some of these same dynamics for yourself.

For now, however, you are sixteen years old. And even if another sixteen — or even sixty — years pass, I’ll still be proud to call you my son. My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

I really do love you, Elliot. I am proud of the person you are, and the person you are becoming. No matter how much adolescent angst, aggression, impatience, indecision, and insecurity may occasionally get layered upon our interactions in these short years of our lives, I still see greatness in you.

I know about the difficult decisions you’ve made to steer clear from the classic pitfalls of high school social life. I’ve been observing at the way you treat the young women you’ve taken to school dances and such. You are a man of character.

I’ve watched you bear the burden of difficult decisions and absorb criticism from others like the time when your classroom geopolitical strategy backfired, as you tried to bring Portugal to the brink of world domination. I’ve seen you set goals, establish new habits, and push towards those goals. You are strong.

I love to watch you light up a room with your social energy. And on a more subtle level, I’ve observed the way you look out for your sister when she’s in an unfamiliar environment. I’ve seen how you throw your brother a rope of laughter, when he needs to be pulled out of a pit of discouragement. You bring peace and joy to others.

You’ve set yourself apart at Roosevelt High School, in academics, and music, and sports. You play a key role in the youth ministry at Riverwood Community Chapel. You take command of neighborhood sporting activities. You are a leader.

You are something truly special — and I’m not just saying that because it’s your birthday! I probably don’t tell you these sorts of things often enough, but it is evident to me that You are full of the surpassing power of God.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). We’re all too aware of our imperfections, aren’t we? Even as I was writing out the thoughts above, it occurred to me how it can be tempting to dismiss words of affirmation, when we’re painfully acquainted with our deficiencies and shortcomings. I know that you’ve got cracks in your earthenware, Elliot. You’re not perfect because no one is perfect. But God is with you and in you, my son. You are a vessel for his glory and power.

I’m praying for you, this year, that you will be able to keep God at the center of your universe, more than yourself, or a girl, or an academic pursuit, or whatever… I’m praying that you will invite Him into your areas of insufficiency and insecurity, to remind you of His truth and power… I’m praying that you will use your areas of strength to serve others… I’m praying that you will continue to grow and surpass all of us in more and more ways.

But I am hoping that I can keep beating you in basketball for one more year.

Happy Birthday, Elliot. I love you more than words can ever say.

Much love and prayer,

Dad

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park Coloring Project

I love the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). I’ve come to know it as a place for exercise and rest. It’s a setting for fun with friends and family as well as spiritual solitude. It feels both very close and very far away from my everyday life here in Kent. And yesterday, I reached an important milestone in my relationship with the CVNP.

The official National Park Service (NPS) website for the CVNP says, “Over 125 miles of hiking trails are available for your hiking pleasure in CVNP” — and I can now say that I’ve hiked them all. At least all of the ones marked on the official map of the National Park Service.

I think the idea for coloring in all the trails on the CVNP map came from my friend, Chad. He once talked about trying to do it all in one summer, though I’m not sure how that worked out for him. In my case, anyway, it’s taken way longer than a summer to finish. I’ve been coloring in all the trails on my map with a red Sharpie. I’ve been at it for a couple of years, with a pretty persistent push over the last six months. So I was pretty excited when I got to walk the northwestern-most segment of the Towpath Trail yesterday afternoon — and when I got to color in my map today.

To quote again from the NPS website, “These trails range from nearly level to challenging, and pass through various habitats including woodlands, wetlands, and old fields. Some trails require you to cross streams with stepping stones or log bridges, while others, including the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, are nearly level and are accessible to all visitors. A portion of Ohio’s Buckeye Trail also passes through the park.”

I definitely have some favorites, among all the different trail segments and landmarks I’ve experienced. In fact, I spent some time today thinking through something of a preliminary ranking of my “Top Twenty,” which I will list here below (both for my own reference, and for anyone else who might like a glimpse into some of my recommendations):

  1. Back Door entrance to the Great Falls of Tinker’s Creek off the Buckeye Trail in the Bedford Reservation
  2. Deer Lick Cave Trail in the Brecksville Reservation
  3. The segment of the Valley View Bridle Trail, starting from the barn and trails immediately to the north of the elbow on the closed-off section of Stanford Road
  4. The segment of the Valley View Bridle Trail, between its crossing with Riverview Road and the Vaughn Road trailhead (the western half of the linked map)
  5. Blue Hen Falls and the segment of the Buckeye Trail immediately to the north (the western half of the linked map)
  6. The segment of the Buckeye Trail between Snowville Road and Parkville Road, running roughly parallel to Riverview Road (the southeastern section of the linked map, plus a bit further to the south)
  7. Hike upstream through Brandywine Creek to Brandywine Falls
  8. Ledges Trail (probably one of the trails I’ve hiked the most!)
  9. Tree Farm Trail, especially a space I call the “Pine Cathedral”
  10. Wetmore Trail (I always seem to run into some great wildlife on this trail)
  11. Salamander Loop in Bedford Reservation
  12. The segment of the Buckeye Trail which runs alongside the falling waters of Tinker’s Creek in the Bedford Reservation
  13. Pine Lane disappearing brick road out of Peninsula up to Buckeye Trail
  14. Sylvan Pond Area around Plateau Trail and Oak Hill Trail
  15. Bridal Veil Falls in the Bedford Reservation
  16. Averill Pond, between Stanford House Trail and the Brandywine Falls Trails
  17. Old Carriage Trail (the eastern half of the linked map)
  18. Mars Quarry Trail in the Bedford Reservation
  19. Daffodil Trail, just off Brush Road (in a very out-of-the-way portion of the CVNP)
  20. Twin Sisters Falls, an unofficial trail off the Towpath Trail, just north of the Brecksville Train Station

As I list out these hikes and review my own memories of each experience, I’m filled with a desire to go back and try them all again to make sure that I’ve got my ranking right. But that may have to wait a little bit longer.

According to other sources available online (particularly through GaiaGPS.com), there are still at least twenty other trail segments that do not appear on the official National Park Service map, which I have not hiked, but which nonetheless exist within the boundaries of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It may still be awhile before I can get to all of them and officially claim that I’ve hiked every known trail within the park — but I don’t mind. I’m enjoying the journey.

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The Making of Men

It starts with me and Elliot: a 40-year-old pastor and his 15-year-old son. We pull out of our driveway and head to the gas station to fuel up for the drive to our church’s men’s retreat. Before hitting the road, I cue up the stereo system of our Honda Odyssey to play Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” — and then we’re on our way to start assembling our motley crew for the journey from Kent to Columbus.

Our first stop is to pick up Alex. He’s a professional designer in his mid-20s, soon to be a first-time father. He slides into the passenger seat as the song switches over to “Movin’ Right Along,” and then we move right along, over the river, across town to the campus of Kent State University.

At a residence hall on the east side of campus, we pick up two freshmen — Hunter and Josh. As we pull away, I explain to the group why I’ve chosen to play the soundtrack from “The Muppet Movie” (1979) on our way out of town. It’s a film about origins and ambitions. It starts with Kermit the Frog plucking his banjo in the swamps of Florida, when a Hollywood talent scout happens upon him — paddling a canoe through the bayou, as of course Hollywood talent scouts are wont to do. Kermit gets the idea from this agent to give show-business a try and sets out for Hollywood, picking up a bizarre collection of bears, pigs, hippie-musicians, and ‘whatever’s along the way. They all learn about each other and their inner selves along the way — and I wish for us to be able to do the same.

Our last stop in Kent is to pick up Nick, a college senior planning to go on staff with H2O following graduation in May. He settles into the backseat next to Elliot — though we still have one seat to be filled on the far side of Akron.

After 35 minutes of westward progress, Phil completes the set as our “Gonzo” with his goofy jokes, overly-affectionate manner, and general wackiness that can make him both endearing and exasperating. As we head south on Interstate Route 71, I tell the guys to each think of a song to program into our Spotify playlist, which is individually-appealing but unknown to everyone else in the car. As a result, we end up with a delightful mix of soul, country, hip-hop, pop, and acapella choral music.

We hit Mansfield around dinner time, so we detour slightly from the interstate to get dinner at a classic diner I know called Porky’s. Five minutes after our arrival, we’re joined by another car-ful of guys from H2O: Josh, Jake, Dylan, and Steven. We mostly order cheeseburgers, french fries, and milkshakes, though some also order more obscure items from the menu. It’s fun to eat and talk and gear up for the weekend.

When we finish our meal, we load back into our cars and drive the last hour and a half to New Albany (just outside of Columbus). There we haul sleeping bags and pillows and duffel bags from our cars into a sprawling Baptist church, where we’ll spend 24 hours with 350 men from 9 different churches in our network. Musical worship… Bible teaching… team-building activities… sports… games… workshops… meals… informal conversations… small group discussions… and even a little bit of sleep. We fit a lot into 24 hours.

I think it’s crazy that everything works together the way it does — but it does. It works.

It doesn’t matter if we’re high school sophomores, college freshmen, college seniors, young professionals, middle-aged pastors, or Muppets! We all have something to offer each other. Men are motivated and mobilized by spending time with other men. There are unique elements of affirmation, challenge, and life-transformation that happen in this setting more than in any other. I believe that the foundation for solid marriages and families are laid in weekends like this. I believe that missionaries are mobilized in this weekend. I believe that churches are planted out of weekends such as this. I believe that men are made — or at least catalyzed — at this annual event.

I’m so glad that we organize these “ManMaker” weekends. They take a good bit of time and energy (and so, so much food!)… But they’re worth it. To see the way God moves all these lovers, dreamers… And me.

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How to Read a Book in One Hour

I’m a slow reader, by nature. I like to absorb every word and thought, as much as possible. I appreciate the ways things are written: the language, the pacing, the artistic imagery. I prefer to be thorough, when I read a new book. I’m also something of a rule-follower — and this also comes into play with my slow reading. If I’m going to say that I’ve “read a book,” I feel like I need to have read the book. In its entirety. Cover to cover. Because that’s how books work, right?!?

Well, the trick is that a lot of books don’t actually work that way! Especially in today’s publishing industry, relatively-large books are often designed to convey relatively-small ideas. Form is not as important as function, except perhaps when it comes to page count — helping consumers feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. “True literature” is not dead, of course, but it’s just one “genre” among many other types of books that tend to serve more mercenary purposes. This may sound like a cynical take on today’s book scene, but for me it’s more practicality than cynicism. I’ve simply realized that I need new rules to interact with the new (non-literary) books being put out.

That’s why I was especially interested to hear Mike Smith talk about how to read a book in one hour. He shared these “rules” at a conference for the Collegiate Church Network (really, as an aside), about a year ago, and they’ve stuck with me ever since:

  1. Read the Introduction.
  2. Read the Conclusion.
  3. Read the Table of Contents.
  4. Read the most interesting chapter.
  5. Read the first sentence of each paragraph.
  6. Never use a highlighter.
  7. Write your own summary of the book on the inside front cover.

When you’ve got a lot of material to absorb in a short amount of time — particularly when the material is more conceptual and didactic — these steps can be extremely helpful. I don’t use these steps when reading histories or biographies. I don’t follow these directives when I want to soak in a good novel or collection of short stories, over vacation. But for business and ministry reading, I’m incredibly thankful to know how to read a book in one hour.

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