048: Initiating Five Sons, with Paul Ryan [podcast]

Though it is rare, there are people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul.
-David Brooks, The Road to Character

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In The Road to Character David Brooks explains the crooked timber tradition, an ancient way of understanding human nature. The crooked timber tradition holds two facets of the human person in stable tension: humans have a genuine capacity for goodness and greatness (the timber); and, there are grains within each of us that are inherently “crooked” and must be addressed. If something beautiful, good, and true is to be constructed from a person’s life, the inner “bentness” must be corrected through an intentional process of pervasive inner transformation. In the mission and message of Become Good Soil, we have come to call this traveling the ancient road.  

Brooks intimately scrutinizes key historical figures whose lives exuded a particularly generative power, illustrating how each of these uniquely transformative men and women consciously devoted themselves to an ongoing process of personal reformation. Through his study,  Brooks distills this universal theme: “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside of yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.”

How rare it is to sit with a man who has traveled this crooked timber way, a man who reckons honestly with our God-given capacity to participate with God’s life and offer genuine strength for the sake his Kingdom, and also continually confronts the bent places within. How much rarer it is to lean into a man who has not only been initiated himself, but has also invested much of his strength to initiate five sons over the course of more than two decades. (This video is an example, a glimpse into one of the many initiation stories of Paul’s son Aaron.) Simply put, we are initiated as we initiate others.

Paul Ryan is this kind of man.

As part of the living legend series, I had the privilege to host an initiation conversation with Paul, a Become Good Soil mentor who serves as Director for Ellel Ministries in Australia, and more importantly is husband of Joanne and father to five sons and a radiant daughter.

Join us as we dive deep, excavating another layer of masculine initiation.

Note: In our conversation we reference Healing the Masculine Soul by Gordon Dalbey.

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The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

The story of Elzéard Bouffier, The Man Who Planted Trees, lives in the top five most influential books I’ve ever read, or, better said, immersed myself in. This book slows me down, not just my pace, but my breathing and heart rate as well. It evokes longing and opens up a landscape of soul that defies words. Written in France in 1953, this narrative distills dimensions of the Gospel for the heart of a man to their most simple and breathtaking form. Story is the language of the heart; the greatest truths, those that invite us to be both formed and forged over decades, are often hidden in parables like this. The Man Who Planted Trees stands on its own merit as one of the great exemplars of restored masculinity operating in wisdom’s long view. It’s a book you can pass along to a like-hearted king whose heart burns to become who he was made to be.

Amazon Description: Elzéard Bouffier spent his life planting one hundred acorns a day in a desolate, barren section of Provence in the south of France. The result was a total transformation of the landscape—from one devoid of life, with miserable, contentious inhabitants, to one filled with the scent of flowers, the songs of birds, and fresh, flowing water.

The Road To Character, by David Brooks

The Road To Character by David Brooks

Reading David Brooks is like becoming acquainted with a long lost brother whose heart beats with the same hunger for the restoration of men and women. Though his inquiry is powerfully intellectual, historical, and even philosophical (which makes sense—he is a prolific writer for the New York Times), the sincerity of his quest for personal restoration shines through as well; he is a man who has descended through his own initiation. Through his personal reckoning, he’s become a trustworthy guide and steady clarifying voice. His personal reflections on love and his distilled insight into the texture of humility are without a doubt some of the most helpful guidance I’ve ever absorbed. Devoted to truth-telling, he offers biographical sketches of ten historical figures without minimizing either the strengths or weakness of their character. He presents penetrating narratives of multifaceted people, all of whom bear the image of God and all of whom pass through deeply personal struggles and afflictions. Brooks demonstrates how over time each person matures through failure to become the kind of man or woman whose life has a generative impact that continues to this day. This book is a must for your collection of stories, heroes, and guideposts on the path to becoming whole and holy.

Amazon Description: With the wisdom, humor, curiosity, and sharp insights that have brought millions of readers to his New York Times column and his previous bestsellers, David Brooks has consistently illuminated our daily lives in surprising and original ways. In The Social Animal, he explored the neuroscience of human connection and how we can flourish together. Now, in The Road to Characterhe focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives.

Looking to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders, Brooks explores how, through internal struggle and a sense of their own limitations, they have built a strong inner character. Labor activist Frances Perkins understood the need to suppress parts of herself so that she could be an instrument in a larger cause. Dwight Eisenhower organized his life not around impulsive self-expression but considered self-restraint. Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic convert and champion of the poor, learned as a young woman the vocabulary of simplicity and surrender. Civil rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin learned reticence and the logic of self-discipline, the need to distrust oneself even while waging a noble crusade.

Blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and confessional, The Road to Character provides an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities and strive to build rich inner lives marked by humility and moral depth.

“Joy,” David Brooks writes, “is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But it comes.”


The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

It’s rare I find myself laughing out loud and crying in the same chapter of a book. It’s even more rare that I go to Amazon and order every book written by an author, before I’ve even finished reading his first. J.R. Moehringer is that kind of writer. Few authors have taken me more vividly into the dignity and depravity of the human experience, while leaving room for the process of coming to informed conclusions over time. This is life. And there is nothing like a great story of masculine initiation to access the ache and longing over the same themes in our own story. J.R. was raised in a bar, in the company of messy men. If seeds of desire to respond to God’s initiation are rooted deeply in our hearts, especially through the failures, the parables and personalities J.R. narrates can help us find our way toward true north.

Amazon Description: The New York Times bestseller and one of the 100 Most Notable Books of 2005. In the tradition of This Boy’s Life and The Liar’s Club, a raucous, poignant, luminously written memoir about a boy striving to become a man, and his romance with a bar.

J.R. Moehringer grew up captivated by a voice. It was the voice of his father, a New York City disc jockey who vanished before J.R. spoke his first word. Sitting on the stoop, pressing an ear to the radio, J.R. would strain to hear in that plummy baritone the secrets of masculinity and identity. Though J.R.’s mother was his world, his rock, he craved something more, something faintly and hauntingly audible only in The Voice.

At eight years old, suddenly unable to find The Voice on the radio, J.R. turned in desperation to the bar on the corner, where he found a rousing chorus of new voices. The alphas along the bar—including J.R.’s Uncle Charlie, a Humphrey Bogart look-alike; Colt, a Yogi Bear sound-alike; and Joey D, a softhearted brawler—took J.R. to the beach, to ballgames, and ultimately into their circle. They taught J.R., tended him, and provided a kind of fathering-by-committee. Torn between the stirring example of his mother and the lurid romance of the bar, J.R. tried to forge a self somewhere in the center. But when it was time for J.R. to leave home, the bar became an increasingly seductive sanctuary, a place to return and regroup during his picaresque journeys. Time and again the bar offered shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak—and eventually from reality.

In the grand tradition of landmark memoirs, The Tender Bar is suspenseful, wrenching, and achingly funny. A classic American story of self-invention and escape, of the fierce love between a single mother and an only son, it’s also a moving portrait of one boy’s struggle to become a man, and an unforgettable depiction of how men remain, at heart, lost boys.

Cultivating a Love Language [Video]

Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion. Let this become the most important thing in your life.

Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child

When we excavate our layers of defenses, we find a longing for more. C. S. Lewis put words to this deep longing in The Weight of Glory:

“In speaking of this desire…I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both…The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

To be fully known and fully loved is perhaps the deepest desire of the human heart. What if so many of the conscious and unconscious choices we make throughout a day are shaped toward its fulfillment, and our gladness or despair the fruit of how it is all playing out?

Is there a different way forward, a path to a reliable Source of being known and being loved? What if our deepest need could be met by the One whose great gladness is to know us and engage with us in every moment of our lives?

Friends, I invite you to pause. To be still, to be seen, and to receive a glimpse into the promise that we are indeed each God’s favorite.

You are.

Enjoy this video from a recent teaching I offered.

For the Kingdom,

Context Is Everything

It is the pungent aroma of elk that catches me first, a musk unlike any other in the wild. And it is intoxicating to a bowhunter. The prehistoric smell is a sure sign of close proximity to these giant ghosts of the forest.

As least it should be.

But at this moment, I’m not confident about much of anything in this land. It has been more than a year since I’ve been overnight in wilderness (painful confession), and my mind, heart, and body are rusty, stumbling to find their way. Thankfully, some file deep in the archives of my soul kicks in, and I am able to enter into the thrill of chasing wild for Colorado’s opening of archery season.

I am fully immersed in the rare experience of days without a single spoken word. No human interactions. No fences. No technology (with the exception of an emergency location device should all go sideways). No luxuries, unless you count the toothbrush (minus the handle I sawed off to conserve weight) or the micro flask of Fireball (a longstanding element of backcountry liturgy that joy alone insists upon). For three days, I immerse myself in a choice parcel of Colorado wilderness that stretches over more than 100,000 acres: cascading alpine meadows; rugged rock escarpments; ancient, towering aspen stands; and scores of wild animals that rarely encounter the presence of humans. In the brilliant words of Dan Flores, it is a sensual feast of the minimal.

I confess I find myself on edge as I fumble mentally to select a reliable camp site. I am clumsy with my tent’s guide wires as I work to brace for a potential storm like the one that destroyed my first backcountry tent many years ago. The awareness of three fresh piles of bear scat within a stone’s throw of this spot keeps me more punchy than I’d like to admit.

The first night I lie awake for hours as the light of a full moon holds time in a perpetual twilight. I must finally doze off, because I’m awakened in the dead of night by a magnificent bull elk sounding off with bugles somewhere close enough for me to feel his guttural chuckle shake the earth. Making his bravado known in every fold of the landscape, he calls out to potential mates and challengers alike.

In the predawn hours of opening day, my steps are heavier, noisier, and more awkward than in years past. I feel untested; I have grown softer than I realized from living in a more manicured world than my soul is meant to live in. As I begin to formulate my strategy, it is clear that once again, the advantage goes to the elk and not to me with bow and arrow.

Sweat builds as I work my way across a rugged rock face, hoping to gain the ridge before break of day. As I exert my body, I can feel my soul steadily detox from a plugged-in and instant world. I laugh out loud at the contrast between my life and the simple, rhythmic life cycle of bull elk. When I eventually gain the ridge, I take in the nearly endless expanse of wilderness below and the September thunderheads amassing above.

And I am reminded of this simple reality:

I am utterly dependent.

Through the unknown expanse of this place, the starkness of my dependency leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable. I consider my dependence on the water I filtered from the creek, my dependence on a flimsy one-man tent at risk of deadfall and underated for late-summer hail storms, my dependence on my minimal food rations, on weather, on survival gear, and on meticulously packed first aid materials.

But it’s more: I am dependent on God. And it is this revelation that causes part of me to recoil.

A wise mentor in the ways of the ancient path often says to me, “Context is everything.”

I think of the past several weeks and how I experienced the truth of this:

  • It was the context of a broken air compressor belt on my truck that created the necessary initiation I needed into deeper agency and fierce mastery in my domain.
  • It was the context of a date with my daughter this week that taught me that, at her age of 11, it’s still more fruitful to be playful and curious about her world than to try to dive deep into the Scriptures.
  • It was choosing the context with my kids of chasing wild in Wyoming that allowed them to step out of their insulated world and experience dependency on food, water, shelter, and God, in the moment-by-moment but also in unexpected challenges like getting stuck in the mud 21 miles from civilization.

And it is in this context of wilderness that I wake up to the truth of my ultimate situation: I am utterly dependence on a Source beyond myself.

Confession: I live the majority of my days within the comfort and convenience of modern life, and dangerously within the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency. And in this context of wilderness, I feel like I am back in confession in the truest sense of the word: each step into this expansive unknown exposes me and requires me to admit to the truth of utter dependency.

I, like many modern men, have been steadily distanced from many important things that were intended to form and forge my masculine soul. Yet as I have watched the wise men who have gone before me choose, I am reminded that I too can create context—trading the insulation of my daily life for experiences of the dependent life that comes only through chosen vulnerability.

Over these days, as I begin to consent, I notice the telltale signs of life returning the confidence in competency. My external world slows to a soul’s pace, and in time, my internal world follows suit. Conversation with God—listening, asking, becoming curious—begins to flow in like a much anticipated tide. The familiar pattern of alignment slowly takes place. I find myself thinking of the people I love and wondering what stories I would share if given the opportunity to honor them. I write the stories in my soul of men I know and admire who are going before me choosing the vulnerable path of initiation. With each passing hour, curiosity about God and his Kingdom takes over my thoughts and imagination. And for moments, here on this uncivilized landscape, it is well in my soul.

Whatever else we need as men, we must sacrificially choose and fight to place ourselves in an environment designed to mature our utter dependency. There is a particular grace (God acting) that flows only in a context of vulnerability. I spend much of my time observing older men, and I see the convergence of increasing time, money, experience, and knowledge that affords many of them to experience ever-increasing self-sufficiency. When exposure and dependency become unpracticed, something goes to sleep inside the soul of a man. I feel this at stake in my own story. Experiences of vulnerability, exposure, and dependency are not only to be found in wilderness. Vulnerability can be found in risking intentional descent into the unknown terrain of our kids’ hearts. Vulnerability can be found in admitting we know little about our vehicles (and other specific dimensions of our unpruned kingdoms), suffering the exposure and experiencing the reward of taking a step to expand our mastery. Exposure can be found in risking to lay off, for a time, the alcohol or other substances we use to manage how we feel in our bodies in order to experience the vulnerability, press through the anguish of powerlessness, and experience once again the restorative power of our utter dependence on God.

It’s the second day. Mid-morning on a clock, perhaps, but I’m spent from having put in a full day’s energy chasing elk. I make my way to camp, lower my bear bag that’s suspended out of reach of other hungry hunters in the area, and fire up the camp stove. Ravenously, I put down calories and settle into a morning coffee. I pause, breathe in the smells, the air, the ancient trees, dead and alive.

And then I hear them. First one, then multiples. It is clear as day: these are elk chirps and meows, just a stone’s throw away. I thought I was done for the day, but my Father has other plans.

I remember dependency…I return to my first love.

I dump my coffee and drop everything save bow, arrows, and range finder, plunging into the dense, dark timber north of the meadow in which I’m camped. The Author of my story is a wild one, and I’m eager to participate in this next chapter.

But it is more than chasing wild. It’s bigger than hunting for an animal and the hope of putting meat in the freezer. It is a hunt to know union.  To bank on the reliability of my Father. To both practice and learn in the deep recesses of my masculine soul a strength that only flows from dependency on the One from whom all strength is resurrected. God, you have my yes. Let’s go…

Friends, context is everything.  

The goal is dependency and the fruit is union. What will you do today to choose to engage your courage and your strength—sacrificially—in order to access the depth of the Kingdom of God known to the masculine soul through utter dependency?

Aldo Leopold reflected in his later years, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”

I am among those who cannot.

And there are also some who can settle for a life without dependency, and some who cannot.

I am among those who cannot.

Perhaps the deepest cry of the heart of God comes out in Jesus’ prayer: “Father, I pray that they might be one with you as I am one with you.” Oh, my friends, let us choose to respond to the invitation to go deeper into this oneness.

What context can you pursue to place your masculine soul in intentional exposure and dependence, in order to experience the reward of strength through the One who is inviting us into more?

For the Kingdom,


God, you promise in your word that I honor you when I call for help.

Oh, God, may my yes be yes.

Oh, God, may my no be no.

I give my heart to you and you alone.


I call for help in my trouble and choose to trust that it’s in crying out for help that I honor you, God.

It is through this ask, through turning to you in my deepest and darkest need, that I honor you.

I need you.

More of me penetrated, intoxicated, consumed by your love.

I choose to be completely dependent upon you.

Be a river of life streaming out of me.

Flow into me so that you may flow through me.

You are water.

You are life.

I choose strength through dependency.

I give you my need.

I honor you.


(A prayer applied from Psalm 50, MSG)