Remembering John Berlin

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It’s hard to summarize a life, especially one that meant so much to you. But my friend John Berlin had a life worth celebrating and I want to tell you why.

I could go on for days about John’s childhood and the thousands of stories he told about swimming, canoeing, fist fights and car wrecks; I could tell you all about his struggles with alcohol and drugs, or his experiences in Viet Nam, his failed marriages (yes plural), or his many corporate careers; I could tell you about how he found recovery, found Jesus, and found a woman he would be crazy in love with right to the end; I could tell you about the stacks of poems, stories and novels he wrote and was constantly sharing with those who would listen. He had one of the most interesting lives of anyone I’ve ever known.

But his unique experiences aren’t the most important thing about him. To be sure, I had the benefit of hearing many of the stories and gleaning wisdom from those experiences, but John was one of my dearest friends, and just knowing him was its own kind of gift. He was wise and discerning, hilariously sarcastic, but most of all he loved people deeply.

I’ve known John for over half my life. My first real memory of John is from when I was about twelve. John and Audrey came over to take a family picture (Audrey is a gifted photographer), and I remember that we all could barely stand up because John had us laughing so hard (holding a tin-foil covered sheet pan to reflect light in our faces).

John and his wife Audrey have been a constant source of joy and blessing to my family for about as long as I can remember. He was my mentor, spiritual father, and dear friend, the kind of person you call when you’re stuck and you don’t know what else to do.

John gave me more gifts than I can count, but three stand out to me: the gift of wisdom, the gift of belief, and the gift of love.

The Gift of Wisdom. I think I was fifteen when I asked John to be my mentor. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I needed one. He asked me to help him pull carpet at a rental property he owned, but in reality we sat on two folding chairs and talked about life. I told him my life story (which wouldn’t have been that long), and he told me a little about his own life (although I would find out much more in the years to come). We had a connection because of a similar wiring, and John had an uncanny ability to tell you all about yourself. He taught me the power of just being with a person–he’d invite me to tag along on seemingly random errands, which always turned into quality time and great conversation. I could ask John anything about anything, and I knew I would get a straight answer.

Years went on and we would stay connected through meals, phone calls (when I was living in other states) and emails. Later we worked together for a few years in one of John’s little companies. He would tell me things like “You can’t think your way into good living, you have to LIVE your way into good thinking,” that were drilled into my head by repetition.

Regardless of what project we were working on he would ask, “Jonathan, what is our job?” And I knew the answer was not “we fix glass,” or “we build beautiful windows,” but the answer was “we are problem solvers.” John taught me the power of staying in the solution instead of staying in the problem, a lesson I think about almost constantly. He had a spiritual gift of discernment, and could see into situations in crazy ways. He not only passed on this gift to me by osmosis, but would pray that God would give me wisdom and discernment as well.

The Gift of Belief. John was a musician, and music was something we had in common. He loved classical music and would often be “blasting Bach” the way teens would jam to their favorite rock band. He played guitar and led worship so worship was a great subject of conversation in our times together. If I led worship somewhere, he would often come to that church if for no other reason than to support me.

One of the most precious memories I have is of our “art nights” that the Berlins would host at their home. We would have dinner and talk and then everyone would share something beautiful that was meaningful to them. John would read a story or a poem, others might share things that meant a lot to them, but eventually there was music. The music was always special.

We would sing songs that we loved by James Taylor or Van Morrison, but eventually we would worship together. It was always a sweet time of worship together in the living room or the porch.

I think it was on one of those occasions that John brought out his 1965 Gibson acoustic guitar for me to play. I was playing a pretty crummy guitar that someone had given me (long story), and playing his guitar was an incredible difference. The guitar has amazing tone (as old guitars do) and it plays like a dream.

I played a song or two on it and John said “Jonathan, I want you to have that guitar.” I was speechless. I didn’t understand why he would give me such a gift. He went on, “I’m giving you this guitar because I believe in you. You have a gift. When you sing, I can hear your heart’s hunger for God. So I want to give you this guitar as an investment in that gift. Don’t ever lose that when you sing in front of people.”

The only thing he made me promise is that I would never sell the guitar. No worries there, it has priceless sentimental value.

The Gift of Love. Of all the things John gave me, the most precious gift was love. Throughout all of our experiences, I knew that John loved me and was for me.

He demonstrated love in his marriage and set an example that I always wanted to follow. He loved me enough to tell me the truth about myself, even when it wasn’t pleasant to hear it. When I would call, he loved me enough to tell me he loved me, and thought about me all the time. He helped me get ready for being married, and gave the best (and most genuine) advice for loving well.

I will miss having John in my life, but I have great peace knowing that he is with the Lord. John went through so many incredibly difficult health scares that I often worried that we would lose him. But I’m not worried now, nor do I have any regrets. I decided a long time ago that I would take every chance I could to tell him how much he meant to me, and how much his impact on my lives on in how I lead others. I told him that many times, that he made a huge difference in my life and I’ll be forever grateful for him. I know without a doubt that he knew how much he meant to me. He has left a beautiful legacy that lives on in those he loved.

John went to be with Jesus on Thursday night, but I know I will see him again. And I know he’s cheering for me and for all of us who loved him, as we press on toward the goal of the prize he has now attained. He lived long and loved well, and I’m proud to have been his friend. We’ll sing together again someday soon. As the song says, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”

My Thanks for Three of the Best Lessons I’ve Learned

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Do you ever just feel grateful? I think that gratitude is oxygen for the soul, similar to the effect a timely word of encouragement has on you when you’re feeling spent. Seriously, give it a try. “Count your blessings” is only cheesy because we don’t do it. When we do, we realize it actually works. God designed us to depend on one another and function in community, learning things about him and about ourselves through our relationships.

Today I was thinking about how thankful I am to be where I am doing what I do. But none of us got to where we are without a little help from people who cared enough to invest in our lives. I am, like you, indebted to many dear friends for some valuable lessons that were likely hard to learn but are now a part of who I am. Here are three.

First, I want to thank my dear friend John for teaching me to be a problem solver. “Don’t stay in the problem, stay in the solution” is what he drove into my skull over and over again. It took a while to sink in, but now I know a little bit more of what it means to take action, to move things, to get out there and DO SOMETHING to move things forward. “You can’t think your way into good living, you can only live your way into good thinking.” This wisdom has become a priceless to me.

Second, I want to thank my friend Jason for teaching me to have the hard conversation no matter how difficult, awkward, or otherwise intimidating it might be. I haven’t known many people who are better at this than Jason. I have seen him handle awkwardness, difficulty, challenge, busyness, and what would otherwise be extremely stressful scenarios in every area of life with poise, wisdom and determination. I’m hoping some of that got transferred to me from being around him.

Third, I want to thank my friend Robert for pushing me to set goals and step out and risk. You can’t always know everything about where you’re going or what you’re going to do without starting. I can say with confidence I wouldn’t be where I am today without the pushing and prodding I’ve gotten from this wise mentor. Sometimes you just have to begin, and that releases the knowledge, resources and motivation that you need to accomplish your goal. What a gift it is to have friends who will challenge you.

 

There are many others. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my wife, my parents, my in-laws, my high school English teacher or Dr. Young from my freshman year of college history class. Not to mention the countless authors who feel like they are my lifelong friends and teachers. It helps me to think about them often, to remember their faces and their names and what they did that made such a mark on my life.

Who are your people? What did they teach you? Let me encourage you to make a habit of being grateful. And if you really want to bless the people who have marked your life, share your gratitude with them in a thoughtful way. It’s the kind of habit that binds us together as a people who need each other. And it’s how God made us to be.

The Passive Pop-Culture Male

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I’m going to divert briefly from the typical format of theological reflection so I can rant a little bit on something I’ve had in my craw for sometime. Don’t be scared.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy listening to country music now and then. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to anything resembling country, but alas times have changed. I enjoy (some artists’) country music because it tends to be heartfelt, nostalgic, and story based. I like a good story, and I like celebrating the ordinary, everyday things in life that give you joy.

In some of the recent songs I have noticed a trend that’s a little troubling (although not really surprising). There seems to be a rise in songs that celebrate men who want a woman to sweep in and lead them, call all the shots, and basically initiate all aspects of the relationship. I won’t give any examples but maybe you’ve heard one or two of these radio hits. Even though these relationships are typically shallow and superficial, this is a troubling shift because it represents an issue that I see spiraling out of control in the wider culture, something I like to call “baby-man syndrome.”

 

You know you’re getting older when you start looking at the teenagers around you and think “man, they don’t know how good they have it!” This isn’t quite the “back in my day we walked barefoot in the snow” sentiment of yesteryear, but you may be able to relate to your crazy uncle a little better as you age and take a look around. The teens of today are smartphone carrying, new car “owning” wannabe adults, oftentimes with an attitude. All the rights and privileges of adult life are handed to these humans without the mental or emotional capacity to handle them properly. This false sense of maturity is ironic because as a nation we see the age of  “growing up” is getting older and older. Kids staying home with mom and dad well into their thirties, unable (or unwilling?) to get jobs, many expecting to have an upper middle-class lifestyle handed to them without doing the work. This plays right into the man in the songs.

I’m not trying to pick on these artists. As I said, the songs only highlight the underlying problem. See, men who want nothing more than for a woman to come in and take them by the hand and sweep them away into some pseudo-romantic sexual fantasy are doing just that–living in a fantasy. These songs make it sound so magical and romantic, but in reality it sounds a lot like a celebration of laziness. I wonder if women are listening to these messages and thinking, “Mmm, that sounds great! I’d love to do all the work!” If I had to guess, I’d say no way. You can call me old fashioned if you want, but I just don’t think that God designed us that way.

My understanding of how God made men is that we are to be leaders. We carry responsibility to make decisions, set vision, be the protectors and leaders of our families. We do the hard things in order to be servants to the ones we love. My (limited) understanding of women is that they want to be led by the right kind of man, to be treasured, loved, and chased. When women do too much of the chasing you sir are in big trouble. This doesn’t mean that men have license to oppress or take advantage or are somehow better than women. But we have a big responsibility to love like Christ loved, which as we know means to give it everything.

Now I don’t plan to boycott the radio or start listening to only instrumental elevator music. I just think it might be helpful for some of us to be aware of the subtle messages that are coming our way and could affect our worldview. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that waiting around for someone else to do all the work for you is a good idea. It’s not.

It doesn’t matter if you are single or married, take my advice: man up and lead. Take that girl on a journey that assures her that you’ve got her best in mind, that you want her and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to win her heart. Then do that over and over again. And please, somebody out there write some songs about being a godly leader. You can still talk about trucks, beer, fields of corn and all the rest if you want, but there’s a lot of people out there who need to know that it’s still ok for a guy to chase a girl. That might just be a little bit closer to what God intended.

 

 

Don’t Let “Can’t” Ruin Christmas

The way I see it, there are two ways to look at it:

“Christmas is ONLY seven days away.”

                     Or,

“Christmas is STILL seven days away.”

As much as I hate holiday traffic and won’t set foot in a mall between Thanksgiving and December 25th if I can help it (and I stand by that), I recently realized something that I need to confess. I’ve had a pretty “Grinchy” attitude toward Christmas, especially when it comes to giving gifts. When December rolls around, my first thought is not excitement at the thought of giving wonderful presents to the ones I love that will bring joy to their hearts. My first thought is, “Dangit, more money to spend!”

Yeah. Bah humbug. 

But let’s think this through for a second. Who really has piles of money lying around that they can’t wait to throw onto other people, and some out of pure obligation, just because it’s a certain time of year? ANYBODY with ANY money can think of a hundred ways to spend it…and most of the time that doesn’t include buying a tie for Uncle Harry or socks for your cousin Frank. I don’t think Christmas generosity is convenient for anyone. 

But isn’t that the point? Christmas is about the gift of Jesus. When you read the story, NONE of it was convenient! In fact it was EXTREMELY inconvenient. Everyone involved, Mary, Joseph, God himself, went WAY out of their way to make this all happen. But the gift was still worth giving, precisely because it cost something to give. When I think about it that way, it makes me want to put a little more effort into making Christmas special by embracing the inconvenience in order to bless others. 

Jesus said that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Instead of thinking about what you can’t do this Christmas, why not think about what you can? It’s not too late to get a little giddy, to brave the crowds and pick out a little something special for a special someone. I think you’ll be glad you did. 

 

Seeing Through Another’s Eyes

As much as I like to secretly laugh at the somewhat dramatic Dove “True Beaty” commercial (apparently I’m not the only one, judging by the number of parodies out there), there is admittedly truth to the thought that we often don’t see ourselves as others do. We see ourselves through a lens of negativity that impacts every area of our life.

One of my favorite singer-songwriters David Wilcox wrote a song that I love called “Burgundy Heart-Shaped Medallion:”

If I had a spell of magic,

I would make this enchantment for you:

A burgundy heart-shaped medallion,

with a window that you could look through.

So that when all the mirrors are angry,

at your faults and all you must do,

you just peek through that heart-shaped medallion,

and see “you” from my point of view.

Isn’t that a great thought? We have the power to help shape someone’s perspective of themselves, all with the power of our words. It’s great to know that others see more good in you than bad, because we know ourselves better than anyone else, and see all the ugly things that we often hide.

Of course, we have no control over hearing these things from our friends (unless we go fishing for compliments all the time, which ironically will help you lose friends), but we can control being a friend and giving the people we care about a new perspective of themselves. Today, make it your goal to help someone see that they matter.