I can’t recall the last time I shed tears when reading a book (probably Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner?) but Nathan Foster’s book about climbing with and getting to know his dad, left me choked up a few times.
Nathan’s dad is, uh, Richard Foster; he’s the guy who brought spiritual disciplines to the forefront of modern evangelicalism via his 1978 book, Celebration of Discipline.
Seems Nathan and Richard didn’t really get along very well when Nathan was growing up. Typical “daddy issues” (but from the book itself it doesn’t sound that bad). Still, one day Nathan had this idea to go climbing one of Colorado’s many “fourteen-ers” (mountains which rise more than 14,000 feet above sea level) with his dad. One hiking trip turned into more than a dozen and it’s through these hikes that Nathan really gets to know his famous author-and-speaker dad.
So what was so special about this book? Why did I end up staring at certain pages for weirdly disproportionately amounts of time?
1. One reason was Nathan’s story of his addiction to alcohol. In a very tragic chapter called Sometimes the Dragons Win he describes how Richard had to drive him off to a cabin somewhere, away from his wife and newborn, because he’d just smashed his head against the road the night before on a/c of being stone-cold drunk.
Apart from his drinking problem, Nathan also smoked 2 packets a day and cut himself “to paint on the walls in blood” (p.71)
Nevertheless, he shares how his dad, Richard, “didn’t bring talent or theological insight; he brought grace” (p.72) during these terrible times. Richard never shamed Nathan (p.75) for even the worst things Nathan did (which incl puking in front of his wife and kid).
That previous line, methinks, encapsulates the very best kind of humanity we’ll see in this life.
For anyone struggling daily with pain or trauma or a problem we can’t fix, this entire paragraph is worth reflecting on:
“Yet in the midst of my madness, God had been making himself known to me in profound ways. In my drunken prayers, God’s presence was ever captivating. My journal would reveal tears of desperation and longing for God. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was doing something wrong with the fact that God was showering me with love. I have had a tendency to view life in terms of black and white, good and bad, happy and unhappy. I was finding life to be filled with shades of grey, and God ruled over it all. I was starting to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have all the answers.” (p.71)
I think Nathan’s story is one of many in which there are no ‘answers’, and of course it’s “his fault” yet, try as hard as he might he realises his “self-will had run riot” (p.71 again, yeah that page rocks) and there’s nothing he can do except cry out to God about it.
Today Nathan is a professor of social work and certified addictions counsellor helping many others through counselling, rehab, etc. So maybe it helps to view life via a “long game” lens. No matter how sucky things are turning out, as long as hold on with hope God will come through somehow.
2. The second amazing thing about this book is how Nathan shares with us his dad’s almost super-human humility. Richard Foster, although a minor celebrity of sorts, hardly buys anything for himself, spend his life propping other people up, doesn’t like taking on high-profile seminars or interviews, shuns the limelight, refuses to write stuff simply bcos it makes money and even prefers to spend time at home with his family instead of flying around the world.
I also found out from the book that Richard is a relatively slow worker and writer, preferring to take his time on almost everything in life. Even when it comes to climbing mountains, ppl like Richard have no interest in being the faster summitter or in ‘competing’ in any way whatsoever. When climbing with Nathan, Richard’s #1 priority was having fun and being with his son. That’s it.
“In my dad’s innocent laughter I saw a unique strength that I wanted. He didn’t need this experience to define him. It didn’t matter what happened. He just wanted to be with me. He was over himself and had no delusion about who he was. He had nothing to prove!” (p.34)
Eventually, Richard’s approach to life and ‘success’ rubbed off Nathan.
“Watching my dad view his worldly accomplishments as largely irrelevant was having a profound impact on me. I was starting to understand that overcoming my bondage to accomplishment gave me not only freedom but also, paradoxically, the motivation to work hard.” (p.46)
3. My final choking-up moment was towards the closing chapters when Nathan moved to Kentucky for a teaching job. That one line, “Dad passionately sobbed” (p.116), broke my heart. After those years of climbing mountains with his son and helping him through rehab, Richard had to let him go. Wow.
It’s around this part of the book where we find out the meaning of the title. I didn’t expect it; full credit to Nathan for holding it back until then.