Archives For A Thousand Words

A book review with lessons learned in 1000 words.

Fall Books PreviewThe Bully Pulpit is a riveting tale of two men and a magazine that changed the world. Telling the tale of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and McClure’s Magazine, The Bully Pulpit transports the reader into a surprisingly pivotal time in American history, the dawn of the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a pervasive culture of laissez faire had allowed corporations to run amuck and concentrate incredible wealth at the expense of the common man. Political parties were beholden to powerful corporations. Corporate trusts cornered the market on pivotal goods such as steel and beef and transportation such as railroads. A handful of men, the country’s first millionaires, held absolute sway.

The American economic and political systems were designed to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Many wanted reform, but they could not muster the courage to battle the headwinds needed to see the revolution of change begin. Enter Theodore Roosevelt. A hurricane of a man and a person almost unique in American history, Roosevelt took on the role of reformer and by sheer force of will helped America turn a critical corner in her storied journey.

The bulk of this book focuses on the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and his chosen successor William Howard Taft and their transformation of the American way of life. Along the way the author traces a critical voice that helped crystallize the support of the American public at critical junctures: McClure’s magazine. Called “the golden age of journalism,” the author does a tremendous job recounting an easily forgotten aspect in the battle for modern America. McClure’s magazine galvanized public sentiment and gave Roosevelt and Taft the ammunition they needed to goad an unwilling legislature to pass much needed reform. It’s an amazing tale of the stars aligning for a few short years and meaningful reforms being passed in our country.

At 750 pages, this book is not for the faint of heart, yet it’s a solid read and wonderful reminiscence of the greatness that America can aspire to if she so chooses.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. The power of one person and a vision. I’ve read numerous books about Theodore Roosevelt and continue to be fascinated with him as a man. His drive, his force of will, his determination and buoyancy allowed him to shape the country to his will in a way rarely seen before or since. Can one person make a difference? Absolutely. History has proved this time and time again.

2. All good plans can go astray. Roosevelt had picked William Howard Taft (a close personal friend) as his chosen successor in the 1908 presidential election. Riding Roosevelt’s legacy, Taft easily sailed to victory but strayed from Roosevelt’s vision enough that Roosevelt himself challenged his good friend and successor for the 1912 Republican nomination.

3. Little moments make a big difference. The night of Roosevelt’s presidential victory in 1904, Roosevelt made a declaration that would come to haunt him for years. Fresh off his victory, he publicly vowed to not seek a third term (at that time still allowed). Roosevelt would later say that he would willingly chop off his arm if he could take back that pledge. The secret power behind Taft’s success in his career was his loving, supportive, and incredibly smart and savvy wife, Nellie Taft. She was his rock, his anchor. A few weeks into Taft’s presidency, Nellie Taft suffered a debilitating stroke and never fully recovered. Taft’s presidency was never the same.

4. There can be too much a good thing. This book beautifully captures the arc of Roosevelt’s rise and fall, from eager reformer to overzealous power hog one step away from crazy town. During his final presidential run as a third party candidate, Roosevelt delved deep into demagoguery, proposing to do away with the Supreme Court and putting all national issues up for a vote. In his mind that would work well, because he knew how to galvanize popular opinion like no one else, but it would have been a chaotic step for our country. As much as I admire Roosevelt, I’m glad he was defeated in his final presidential run. Too much power for too long had warped his sense of perspective, with serious possible harm for the country.

5. Roosevelt’s movement was ultimately successful. The progressive movement embodied by Roosevelt led to some incredible leaps forward that we take for granted today, including the 17th and 19th amendment to the Constitution: the direct election of senators and giving women the right to vote. Both more widely distributed power to the people and enabled the general public to have their say in their country’s future.

6. The progressive movement was the golden age of journalism. Never before had journalists been so able to capture and form the conscious of the country than during the years of Roosevelt’s presidency. They were men and women of high moral aptitude with an inner drive to educate the public, not just drive up sales. As others joined the bandwagon this type of journalism denigrated into the muckraking so decried by the President. But for a short span, journalism was a healthy conversation, not driven by deadlines or circulation figures, but driven by a common goal to better the country. Oh even for a hint of that in today’s media wars.

9780801015724God’s Double Agent is a harrowing true life tale that reads more like a James Bond thriller than a run-of-the-mill biography. Xiqui Fu (his English name is Bob) was born into poverty in rural China. Raised in the cloak of Communism, Fu’s life gives an incredibly stark picture of life in rural Communist China. Food shortages, endemic poverty, oppression by the government, all in the name of the greater good. Fu learned early on that his only path to a better life was education, so he made it all the way to college, a huge feat for his family.

While in college Fu got a hold of an evangelistic tract given out by an American Christian teaching English at Fu’s college. For Fu, his initial encounter with the Jesus of the Bible answered the questions he’d been asking his entire life. Fu became a Christian, not even owning a Bible for the first year following his salvation because Bibles were illegal in China. Fu eventually moved to Beijing for graduate work and started an underground church network in the capital city. He also ran an illegal seminary where hundreds of students would gather to learn more about the Bible.

This inevitably put him on the radar of the Communist police. Fu was trailed, intimidated, arrested and tortured for his faith. After being released, Fu and his wife escaped China and found refuge in the United States. Over the past decade Fu has been an ardent activist for freedom of religion in China, and he’s helped dozens of Chinese Christians escape Communist China on an underground railroad.

Growing up in modern America, Fu’s life seems like a haunted fairy tale, something made up to scare bad children. It’s difficult to really grasp what other believers (even today) have to go through. It’s a riveting account and well worth your time to read.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. Communism promised equality to all but was nothing more than a power grab. Historians have documented this over the years, but the first hand perspective of a villager growing up in Communism highlights the truth that while Communism promises equality to all, it’s merely a power grab to enrich a new class of “haves.”

2. It’s amazing how much manpower Communism had to employ to watch its own people. In Fu’s story, the secret police were everywhere. He had dozens of people dedicated to him throughout the years. That kind of wasted manpower is one of the reasons Communism will ultimately fail.

3. One day in heaven, I’m going to feel incredibly guilty for complaining so much about my comfortable middle class life. I’ve got problems, sure. But reading this book put those problems in perspective. My problems aren’t problems. They’re rich people problems. I have food, clothing, housing and freedom of religion. I’m good.

4. People will go to great lengths to sacrifice for the gospel. The prosperity gospel would never make it in China. The Chinese gospel is one of incredible grace as well as extraordinary sacrifice. Here’s an account of the theology Fu learned in China:

“If you want to be a faithful minister and follower of Jesus in China,” [a fellow pastor] said, “you should learn prison theology.” 

I nodded, though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. “In prison,” he explained, “you find out more about God and His faithfulness than anywhere else. Jail is where God prepares his church in China” (161).

5. The persecution of Christians is still very real today. We hear whispers of it, but Fu’s account is a shout that all of us can hear. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being persecuted and tortured for their faith in other parts of the world. They need our prayers and support. Here is one such account, told by Fu:

Not long after the 2002 retrial, I also became aware of thirty-three-year-old Liu Xianzhi (her English name is Sarah Liu), who was one of the four women declared innocent in the retrial verdict. However, she and the other women were sent to “reeducation through labor” camp, a fate worse than prison. They stripped her, used three electric shock batons on her simultaneously, torturing her on all parts of her body. When she cried out, they put the flesh-searing shock baton in her mouth. It burned her mouth so much that she couldn’t eat for several days. They also used this baton on her genitals, which caused so much paid that she eventually was sent to the hospital unconscious (279).

6. Affluence isn’t the overwhelming blessing we think it is for the church. For all the ‘blessings’ we enjoy in America, the church is anemic and flatlining. For all the suffering in China, the church is exploding in growth. Like the first three centuries of Christianity, persecution is actually a catalyst for growth in the church. Should we pray for more persecution in America?

12.9.13If you ever needed an illustration of what it means to literally be the hands and feet of Jesus, read Preemptive Love by Jeremy Courtney. It’s too easy for preachers like me to simply preach about love, cocooned safely away in our air conditioned sanctuaries, knowing we’ll draw a comfortable paycheck twice a month.

The idea behind Preemptive Love is literally loving first, before the other party has the opportunity to earn trust, to earn the love we offer. Courtney found an incredible laboratory to test this dangerously biblical notion: war torn Iraq. Jeremy and his wife moved to Iraq to minister to the Iraqi people through a non-profit organization. While there, Courtney came face to face with an incredible need: heart surgeries for kids in a country with no heart doctors.

Rewinding the clock to the 1980s, Saddam Hussein notoriously used chemical weapons against his own people, the Kurds of the north. Over the ensuing decades, as thousands of people were exposed to not only the original gas attack, but contaminated soil, water and air, children began to develop a much higher rate of birth defects, including heart issues. Hussein’s brutal regime drove out much of the medical professionals, exposing a humanitarian crisis when America toppled the regime last decade.

Simply trying to meet a need, Courtney began the Preemptive Love Coalition, a non-profit designed to help Iraqi children get access to lifesaving heart surgeries. On paper it looks simple, yet in reality the obstacles Courtney faced seemed insurmountable. From finding funding to locating willing heart doctors to organizing trips abroad to navigating local political minefields, Courtney went an extra seven or eight miles (not just the token extra mile) to see his vision become reality.

First the list of candidates was overwhelming. Politicians, warlords and everyone in between used whatever influence they could to try and get their child to skip ahead of the line. The first heart surgeons willing to operate on these children were in Israel, but the Iraqi government put a stop to it because of the religious divide. The next up were doctors in Turkey, but racial tensions almost derailed it.

In the midst of it all, the secret police monitored their movements, and rival politicians tried to use Courtney as a pawn to further their own cause. Many times undercut by the very people he was legitimately trying to help, any sane person would have given up long ago.

And yet Courtney had just enough insanity to trust that Christ-like love could work, even in a war torn area, even among Muslims, even among racial and religious divides that have spanned centuries.

The end result is an absolute beauty that should inspire and challenge all Christians. In the face of incredible odds, Courtney built bridges among cultures, brought peace to religious divisions, and along the way, saved hundreds of children’s lives by getting them the medical care they needed. He doesn’t preach Christ’s love. He does something better. He lives it out.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. Preaching Christ’s love and living Christ’s love are two very different things. Preaching is simple. The audience is sympathetic. The points alliterate. Everyone tells you how wonderful you did on the way out. Living it out is a lot messier, with an audience not quite as sympathetic, with the victories not so clear cut. And yet we’re called to live out love.

2. Preemptive love will always encounter strong headwinds. In our idealized notions of love, we think that once we try something noble, all obstacles will magically disappear, while people line up to applaud our valiant efforts. Bringing light into a dark place will always encounter entrenched obstacles. Victory is very possible, just not easy.

3. Seeing a vision come to reality will always take relentless devotion and unwavering fortitude. Too many times we want instantaneous results. Seeing a vision come to reality will come to those willing to make the hard slog, the ones committed with unwavering devotion to their cause.

4. Sharing the gospel in foreign lands requires much more than just preaching. Courtney got to share the gospel because he wasn’t preaching it. He was living it. Whenever the gospel is preached, actions must accompany the words to have true and lasting power.

5. Love can truly cover over a multitude of sins. If preemptive love can tear down walls between Arabs and Kurds, between Muslim, Jew and Christian, then love truly is the most powerful force in the world. My favorite stories in the book weren’t just the lives that were saved, but the healing and reconciliation that took place in the hearts of factions divided by centuries of conflict in the Middle East.

10.30.13Growing Up Amish is a moving memoir of a life and lifestyle that is foreign to most of us: the Amish. Ira was born and raised in the Amish tradition, leaving and coming back several times before leaving for good when he was twenty-six. Years later, Wagler writes this heartwarming memoir that gives us a vivid picture of Amish life.

That’s the greatest aspect of this book. Wagler writes in a captivating style that explores the Amish life he left without condemning it. It’s not a polemical tirade against his heritage but an honest look (from his perspective) at the world he was raised in.

One of the many interesting things in this book is his exploration of faith. You would think growing up in a strictly religious community that he would have a strong belief in God. Not so. “I probably always believed there was a God, a sort of dark and frowning force. I just didn’t believe in him, not to the extent that I thought he could or would make and actual difference in my life” (198).

His description of Amish religious services is almost suffocating in its monotony (at least from the perspective of a born and raised Baptist). You think Baptists are traditional? Think again. Their hours of singing and preaching, with no attempt to do anything creative was difficult even to read. It’s almost a point of pride that their services are an endurance test for the faithful to sit through.

Why would folks willingly sit through monotonous services and oppressive rules and regulations? Because Amish believe that’s the only way to get to heaven. “The only way I could ever make it to heaven was through the Amish church. That’s what I had been taught all my life, and that’s what I believed” (210). Baptists don’t feel they’re the only ones going to heaven. They just feel they’re the only ones doing it right. The Amish take it to a whole new level, teaching that the only way to heaven is through the Amish church. Even the Mennonites, a similar faith that is still very traditional by modern religious standards, are too worldly for the Amish.

Against this rigid and oppressive way of life, Ira rebelled, leaving the Amish way of life three times and coming back. Each time he left, it was an attempt to find freedom, to escape the suffocating nature of his life. Each time, he came back out of fear, or habit, concerned for his salvation, yearning for the structure he’d known all his life. He couldn’t find lasting happiness inside or outside the church.

How did Ira’s life finally find resolution? The third time he returned, Ira encountered an Amish man who was different, an Amish man that pointed Ira to Christ, not just a forbidding and demanding God of the Amish. He helped him wade through religious rules and rituals and (for the first time) discover the beauty of Christ. “By quietly showing me Christ’s love, my friend had led me to the Source of that love. For the first time, I truly grasped that Christ had died for me–suffered, bled, and died–and that I could be his through faith. I was amazed at how simple it really was. Why had it always seemed so hard, so impossible before? (258)”

After a radical encounter with God’s grace through Jesus Christ, Ira felt the freedom to leave the Amish community once and for all, not out of spite, bitterness, or anger, but out of freedom. Salvation didn’t come through the Amish church, it came through Jesus. “The box of Amish life and culture might provide some protection, but it could never bring salvation” (265).

LESSONS LEARNED

1. The Amish church is a fascinating culture. They are unknown, an oddity. It’s been a fascinating experience to peek behind the curtain and get a first hand account of Amish life. Although the Amish pursue life in a different way from the rest of Americans, they are humans who love, grieve and worship, just like us.

2. The Amish church reminds me of the Pharisees in the New Testament. From the portrayal of this book, the Amish church seems to be all about rules and regulations. God is portrayed as a distant and angry God. The Amish use condemnation and fear (as opposed to grace and love) as their religious fuel. They are quick to condemn the outside world to Hell, even those who would claim to follow God as well. The exaltation of rules and requirements reminds me of the Pharisees. I know it’s not a kind portrayal of the Amish, but thankfully they’ll never read this blog because the internet is from the devil. :)

3. The Amish are in for a rude awakening in heaven. The Amish think they’re going to be the only ones up in heaven. I would beg to differ from their assessment. If Jesus truly is gathering people from every tribe and nation and tongue and race, then heaven will be much more crowded and diverse than they’re expecting.

4. The Amish life is a heavy burden for those who follow it. Ira was consistent in his portrayal of families he knew that were Amish. It was a hard life. There was an absence of joy and laughter. It was a heavy burden, physically and emotionally. And yet, they believe it’s the only way to heaven.

5. We shouldn’t dismiss the Amish. We should learn from them. Their devotion to family and their hesitancy to be corrupted by the world are commendable. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to echo their assessment that the rest of the world (outside the Amish church) is going to Hell, I would agree that the rest of America has become much too friendly and comfortable with worldly things.

10.25.13David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is another triumph from acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell. (I’ve reviewed his other book Tipping Point here). Starting perhaps with the iconic underdog story of our generation: David vs. Goliath, Gladwell begins to challenge our assumptions and force us to look at challenging situations from a different perspective.

For instance, in the classical biblical story, David is the outright underdog when he faces the giant Goliath, a mighty warrior over nine feet tall. Through the miraculous help of God, David emerges victorious. The danger in oversimplifying the story is that we build David’s feat up to mythic proportions, a level that none of us could dare to achieve. Yet, according to Gladwell, Goliath was in fact the underdog. He makes a convincing case from history:

  1. Goliath was heavy infantry, slow and cumbersome, ready to duel hand-to-hand with another heavy infantry warrior. David was artillery, a slinger. Historically, slingers were known to decimate the ranks of infantry in battles. David’s slingshot was not just a backyard toy. According to modern ballistics experts, a well trained slinger could hurl a rock with the explosiveness and impact of a fair-size modern handgun.
  2. Many believe that Goliath might have suffered from acromegaly — a disease caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. It causes abnormal growth for those who suffer from it, but another dangerous side effect is that it impairs eyesight. Notice in Scripture how someone had to lead Goliath onto the battlefield, how slowly he moved, how late he saw David charging, and how he saw two sticks come at him when David was only carrying one shepherd’s staff. Not only was Goliath cumbersome and slow, he couldn’t see well.

When David charged Goliath, he trusted in his God, but it wasn’t a blind trust. David wasn’t suicidal; he knew what he was doing. Goliath was the true underdog.

This role reversal drives the crux of this book, as Gladwell looks at conceptions we have about life and turns them on their head. He explains how a newcomer to basketball took his underachieving girls team all the way to the state finals, all by looking at the game from a different perspective. He challenges the assumption that smaller class sizes in education is always a good thing.

A fascinating topic for me was his discussion of higher education. For so long, we’ve held to the belief that the better the college, the greater our chance at success. If we had the opportunity to attend an Ivy League university or a state college, for instance, we should always choose the Ivy League school. Gladwell begs to differ. He notes that the average ACT scores of Ivy League attendees are always higher than those attending state colleges, yet the dropout rate is the exact same. The lowest tier of test scores at an Ivy League school are higher than the highest scores at a mid-level college, yet the dropout rate is the exact same. The answer? Sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. Your sense of achievement is determined not by your actual success, but by how successful you are in comparison with those around you. Although the bottom tier of students at Ivy League schools would have been the star students in a mid-level college, they viewed their success as compared to their immediate environment, and saw only failure. Thus, they dropped their chosen major. Sometimes, bigger isn’t always better.

Gladwell tackles this issue from two sides: sometimes things we think are advantages are actually disadvantages. For instance, he spends a chapter showing how kids raised in homes that are too affluent tend to struggle more in life than those that aren’t. But the opposite is actually true as well. Sometimes things we think are disadvantages can actually become advantages. He looks at the disproportional amount of business leaders, CEOs and iconic figures that are dyslexic, something we would all think is a disadvantage. What he discovered is that in the process of overcoming a difficulty, these figures developed a deeper strength that propelled them to untold heights. He also looked at the fact that a large majority of recent British Prime Ministers lost a parent growing up, something we would all hold to be a disadvantage.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book, if for no other reason than to challenge your view of the status quo.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. I am a huge Malcom Gladwell fan. I’ve read several of his books now, and one of the things that separates him from the millions of pages of copy out there is his ability to challenge our assumptions and shed light on what seem to be unexplainable mysteries to many. Reading his works will keep your mind fresh and sharp.

2. Gladwell punched through the myth of David and Goliath without questioning its veracity. I’m thankful for that. After reading Gladwell’s explanation of David and Goliath, David looks much less like a myth and much more like a man. I think that’s needed. The heroes of Scripture can too easily become larger than life, leaving us to feel like we could never accomplish what they did. Although Gladwell’s theories about Goliath are just that, theories, they make sense to me.

3. I was challenged to try and see my disadvantages as advantages. An invigorating exercise took place among my staff after reading this book. We took time to list some of the greatest ‘disadvantages’ facing Mt Vernon. Then, in the spirit of Gladwell’s book, we discussed how those disadvantages could turn out to be advantages for us. It was a worthwhile exercise that helped us see some of our biggest challenges from a different perspective.

4. A book doesn’t need to be overtly Christian to be helpful. I read a healthy diet of Christian and non-Christians books. I’m not ashamed to say that I gain just as much benefit from those books written for the secular marketplace. All truth is God’s truth.

10.14.13Holly Burkhalter’s unusual journey to faith is a refreshing reminder that God is always at work in our world. Growing up in a religious household, Holly moved away from faith as an adult and for years had nothing but judgment for the evangelical community. Her arrival in DC coincided with the rise of Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority,’ and it left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Yet at the same time, she was at the front lines of social justice, advocating for those around the world without a voice. In effect she was doing God’s work without believing in God. She was a witness to the brutalities of genocide, sex trafficking, rape, slavery, greed, and injustice. In her words, the injustice in the world cemented her disbelief in God. It was the classic, “If God is a good God, then why would he allow such evil in the world?” A moral dilemma that many have debated, for Holly it was more than hypothetical; she was a first-hand witness to the brutality of the world. In her own words:

I’m not sure I was an atheist. No self-respecting atheist would bother to curse God daily for misery and injustice as vigorously as I did for forty years. I must have believed in something good to have felt so betrayed and heartbroken by every day’s fresh load of cruelty and suffering around the world . . . I wanted there to be a God who was good and whose creation mirrored it, and it just wasn’t there. So perhaps the term for me was ‘twisted, pissed-off, betrayed, former Christian.’ I can’t find that in the dictionary, but it’s what I was (3).

From this background, God led Holly on an improbable journey to faith. How she arrived? A mixture of ‘pivotal circumstances’ and ‘providential relationships,’ to use Andy Stanley’s terminology. “I had met three deeply faithful people: a Ugandan land mine survivor, a Roman Catholic bishop, and a heart-on-her-sleeve evangelical doctor. They were spending their lives entering into others’ suffering, and they believed that is the great and good mission of the Christian church” (67). Holly’s turning point was her relationship with Gary Haugen and the International Justice Mission. Their witness to her provided the support needed for Holly to walk across the line of faith.

All in all, the book is an incredible read to gain insight into someone struggling with, and eventually overcoming, some of the toughest barriers one can put before faith.

Lessons Learned

1. It’s refreshing to hear of someone’s story outside the evangelical ‘bubble.’ Growing up inside the evangelical bubble, it’s easy to assume that our persuasion of faith is the only (or at least preferred) way for people to find God. Holly found God without ever sitting in a Sunday School class or walking down an aisle. Her closest spiritual influences are from ‘mainline’ denominations, denominations that many evangelicals quietly look down their noses at. And yet God is there, working in places we might not expect. I love that.

2. I have unending respect for those who work with social justice causes. Hearing Holly’s work with various organizations continues my unending respect for those who work on behalf of ‘the least of these.’ For many Christians, the Bible’s commands to look after the widow and orphan are metaphorical. For folks like Holly, it’s a literal way of life. Anyone who works in her field should be commended by Christians and non-Christians alike.

3. Holly Burkhalter cannot pinpoint the exact moment she became a Christian. I respect that. As uncomfortable as it may may some evangelicals, Jesus never commands his followers to ‘pray a prayer,’ ‘ask Him into their hearts,’ or ‘walk an aisle.’ He asks us to follow Him. Salvation is both a moment and a process. It’s something that began before creation and won’t complete until we’ve left this world. Many times, we like to dumb down the process, to the detriment of the act itself. Holly knows she’s a Christ follower, but she can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened. That’s okay with me.

4. Her faith has survived one of the greatest moral questions posed by this generation. “If God is a good God, then why would he allow bad things to happen to good people?” A variation of this question has been posed by millions of people over the years. Considering the onslaught of evil in the world today, it’s one of the greatest arguments skeptics have to battle against God. Holly Burkhalter wrestled with this very question, in a tangible way that most armchair philosophers never will. And yet she came through the other side as a believer. If there’s hope for her, there’s hope for anyone.

5. Her belief in God was destroyed and then restored by other Christians. Her faith in God was destroyed by Christian relatives who walked through some very difficult times. Her belief in God was restored by other Christians who lived out their faith for her to see. As believers, we can never underestimate the impact our actions will have on the belief journey of those closest to us.

6. Be a Sharon. Sharon was the Christian friend instrumental in Holly’s salvation story. Sharon didn’t preach. She didn’t argue. She was present. She listened a lot. She displayed selfless love. She simply lived out her life and joy in Jesus, and she presented a peace that Holly longed to have. It’s a beautiful picture of how our lives should lead others to a relationship with Jesus.

8.14.13Piercing and convicting, this book is a must read for anyone who’s been in church life for more than a few years. This book explores the dark side of doing good, something seldom discussed yet distractingly dangerous for the committed Christian. Peter Greer is president of Hope International, a charity that provides microfinancing for the poor in developing parts of the world. He’s literally on the front lines of being the hands and feet of Jesus.

And yet, serving Jesus full-time has its own share of temptations, just not the ones that we normally think about. In essence, he argues that sometimes we can do the right thing while at the same time allowing our hearts to stray. “The church today is zealous, and we are doing great things. But my concern is that in doing great things for God, we will forget who we are becoming. Without a clear understanding of why we serve, we risk a backlash of relational ruin, spiritual disillusionment, and personal burnout (18).”

The layout of the book is simple. He shares fourteen spiritual dangers that we expose ourselves to when we serve others. As a full-time pastor, I have experienced each and every one of these dangers:

Giving leftovers to loved ones – the church is a mistress to too many pastors. We can become so caught up in our zeal to serve the church that we give it our best, leaving our family with the leftovers.

Doing instead of being – it’s easy to begin to find our value in what we do an accomplish as opposed to who we are in Christ. Although we preach faith over works, sometimes we don’t live it out.

Justifying minor moral lapses for a good cause – here’s what Greer says, “The spiritual danger of doing good is to think your service entitles you to make minor moral lapses, whether it’s stretching the truth or justifying guilty pleasures. Right after moments of significant service, my heart is most unguarded. Often doing good things makes you believe ‘I deserve just this little thing because of all my sacrifices’” (63). Very true.

Using the wrong measuring stick to define success – metrics are helpful in giving us a better picture of a church, but numbers alone cannot define true success. It’s tempting, however, to assume that we’re doing something right when attendance increases that that we’re failing when numbers stay flat. God gives us a different measuring stick of success.

Friendship superficiality – this is something that a majority of pastors struggle with, including myself. Moving around a lot and being the leader of those we interact with don’t lend themselves to developing deep rooted friendships.

Elevating the sacred over the secular – too many full-time Christian professionals are guilty of this, elevating their vocations as more important than those who work and witness full-time in the secular marketplace. Both sides are equally important in God’s eyes.

Thinking you’re the superhero in your story – when things go well, it’s tempting to forget that God is the superhero of the story, not us. Many Christians who serve full-time begin to feel that they’re absolutely vital to God’s plans. Bad mistake to make!

Not having ears to hear the uncomfortable truth – like all those engaged in areas of their passion, ministers can become immune to any type of criticism, wrapping themselves in the flag of God’s will and choosing to think they’re infallible. Hubris is always the first step to calamity.

What’s the danger of losing your perspective in serving others? “A study by Fuller Seminary professor Dr. J. Robert Clinton found that only one out of three biblical leaders maintained a dynamic faith that enabled them to avoid abusing their power or doing something harmful to themselves or others. Only one in three finished well” (16). What a heartbreaking reality!

At the core of this dangerous trend in ministry is a lie. As Greer describes it, “I had fallen for a dangerous lie in ministry. If Serving God Through Service = Good . . . then Serving God Through More Service = Better” (42). His counsel to those who serve full-time is to regain perspective and create margin.

Lessons Learned

1. The truth behind this book is something I need to continually remember. I have stumbled in all of the areas Greer talks about in his work. It’s too easy for me to get caught in my work. I pastor a growing church. Lives are being changed. I love what I do. Yet the demands on my time and attention are only increasing. Fighting for margin and the proper perspective is a continuous battle.

2. Leaders who win in ministry but lose at home, lose. Ministry cannot be my mistress. I have a wonderful wife and three (going on four) kids who don’t see me as a pastor, but as a husband and dad. If I lose at home, I lose. My first calling is to my family, not to my job.

Question: What spiritual danger do you struggle with?

Originally posted August 7, 2012

Young Patriots is a riveting account of the creation of the Constitution. No seriously, I think this stuff is interesting.  The Constitution, which modern Americans take for granted almost as an afterthought, was and continues to be a revolution in the grand scope of human history.

Many modern readers assume that the Constitution was in place immediately after Americans won their independence in 1776. Not so. The Constitution wasn’t written and ratified until 1788, a full twelve years after Americans declared independence from Great Britain. In the few short years after the Americans won their independence from Great Britain and made peace in 1781, the young American nation immediately began to fray at the edges.  Americans, so afraid of centralized federal power (which abuses they lived through under Great Britain), created a weak and lackluster Articles of Confederation with a single legislature. The central government was nonexistent, leaving states to do what they wanted with no uniformity. Large states (such as Virginia and Massachusetts) shoved out the smaller states when it came to lucrative trade deals. States made separate trade treaties with European nations. The southern states were already considering secession to be able to preserve their slave trade. European nations had even made offers to smaller states such as Delaware to rejoin a European nation in offer for protection. In short, the first few years of American existence were absolute chaos.

In the midst of all this, two young men (early 30s), Alexander Hamilton from New York and James Madison from Virginia joined together with a vision for a new government. They called and gained support for a convention which eventually became the Constitutional Convention that attained mythic proportions. Hamilton was a self-made immigrant who rose to fame in George Washington’s revolutionary army, and Madison was a well-to-do thinker and politician who flew under the radar of Virginia politics because he was overshadowed by stars such as Patrick Henry, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yet these two inspired the convention that set the course of American history.

The book covers the process of the convention itself, which took several months. The debates and compromises made are intriguing when read (once again, yes, I really think so). The first subject they tackled was the legislature, where they assumed all of the power would reside. A compromise was made between big states and large states with the House of Representatives and Senate. The creation of the Senate kept the smaller states from walking out. As much as the northern (abolitionist-leaning states) hated it, they also made compromises to ensure the free importation of slaves for twenty years, thus keeping the southern slave states in the convention. Although Madison personally hated slavery, he knew that if the southern slaves walked out, the convention would be over and the southern states would most likely secede.

The most wide-ranging debate in the convention concerned the Executive branch. There was no real precedence for what they were creating, so options ran from a lifetime president to one chosen at random by casting lots. The modern make-up of a four-year term was a last minute compromise. The judicial branch was created quickly and easily.

Within a few weeks of being there, even the convention members themselves (fifty-five men) knew that they were a part of something special. As the framework of an entirely new constitution began to take shape, they knew that they were a part of something much bigger than themselves and felt honored to be there. After the convention, much of these men went on to live unspectacular lives. But for these few short months, they lifted themselves to another level of capability, achieving beyond themselves to produce something that has withstood the test of time.

Although we see the Constitution as near perfect, many of the delegates did not see it that way. They saw too many compromises, in one section or another. Even the ratification process (where the Constitution had to be separately ratified by each state) was arduous. Several small states ratified early because they knew it was their best shot to gain some sense of equality in this new Union. Several of the slave states threatened not to pass it because of perceived infringements on slavery, and New York barely signed it because the then-governor was absolutely opposed to any change that might lesson his power. The Constitution did pass all thirteen states, but with bare majorities, not overwhelming mandates. Nevertheless, the Constitution became the law of the land, and within a century the United States became a player on the world stage.

The two men’s unique contributions helped make the Constitution a reality.  James Madison was the architect, the brains behind the Constitution. His handprints are all over the Constitution. He helped guide debates and frame arguments that made the Constitution what it is. Alexander Hamilton sparked the idea for the convention in the first place. Then, when the states were loathe to approve a Constitution that represented such radical change, Hamilton worked overtime through a series of articles and personal appearances to help sell the Constitution to the American public. Without his tireless work, the Constitution would have never been passed by the states.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. Men have the ability to rise above themselves and achieve something monumental, when inspired to do so. The constitutional convention consisted of regular men, yet they produced something far beyond any of their individual ability to produce. That’s why Jesus prays for unity for his future believers in John 17. If believers became united in purpose, what we could accomplish would amaze even us.

2. The resistance to change is universal. Even after producing a document that has been described as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, it barely won passage because of an entrenched leadership dead set on the status quo. Men like Governor Clinton of New York were willing to trade their country’s long-term success for their individual ability to hold onto whatever tainted power they have. This vice is seen too often in churches, which is why so many of them are plateaued and declining. Clutching onto power and outdated methods of ministry at the expense of reaching the next generation for Christ does nothing but condemn another generation to Hell and break the heart of God.

3. Our modern legislature could take a cue from the Constitutional Convention. One of Madison’s greatest victories came at the very beginning: he held the convention’s proceedings in secret. No publicity, no visitors allowed.  The anonymity allowed the legislators to consider new ideas and compromises without being handcuffed by an angry populace at every new turn. So much of our legislation is done in public, and much of that is to keep people informed and to keep back room corruption from seeping in. But it’s also taken our legislator’s ability to wrestle with new ideas and unpopular compromises away from them. Who’s going to even bring up the idea of tampering with Social Security or Medicare when modern media would transmit that call back to his or her home district before a serious conversation could be made? Too much transparency keeps our legislators from tackling big issues, which we see today.

QUESTION: How do you think our Founding Fathers would respond to the politics of today?

7.3.13The Savior Generals is an incredible perspective of a unique set of generals: five men who saved wars that were lost. While military commanders such as Napoleon, Washington, or Eisenhower all deserve their due, the five chosen for this book all came into wars at the point where they were all but lost and salvaged incredible victory from certain defeat.

Themistocles – This ancient Athenian general saved classical Greek civilization from annihilation by the conquering Persian army. King Xerxes and his insurmountable Persian army had staged an invasion of Greece that simply seemed unstoppable. Themistocle’s foresight to raise an armada of Greek trirenes and his ability to draw Xerxes into a favorable naval battle won a war (and classic Western civilization) that all believed was lost.

Flavius Belisarius – By the time Belisarius enters into world history, the western portion of the great Roman Empire had long since rotted away. The eastern portion of Byzantium had stood for centuries but faced decline on all front. A general of the Emperor Justinian, Belisarius had a successful military career in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Europe that saw the empire expand in the face of profound opposition and ensure the longevity of the Byzantine Empire for another 900 years.

William Tecumseh Sherman – This side of history it’s too easy to assume that victory for the North was assured in the Civil War. Far from it. In the summer of 1864, with a presidential election coming in a few short months, virtually everyone had written off Abraham Lincoln’s reelection chances. The war had gone on for four years with no end in sight. Horrific battles such as Antietam wiped out tens of thousands of troops with nothing to show for it. Even the recent promotion of Ulysses S. Grant hadn’t seemed to turn the tide. Lincoln was dangerously down in the polls to the Democratic candidate, who was under pressure to make peace with the South (and continue slavery) upon election. The only thing that could salvage Lincoln’s reelection was a major victory. Sherman gave him just that. By marching successfully to Atlanta, occupying it, and destroying the second largest transportation hub in the South before Election Day gave Northerners the hope they needed to reelect Lincoln and see a successful end to the war.

Matthew Ridgway – In the winter of 1950, Korea was all but lost. The seesaw war had gone back and forth. Communist North Korea’s surprise attack had pushed the allies to the southern most tip of the peninsula. Only a daring attack by Douglas MacArthur turned the tide, with the Allies pushing the North Korean army to their border with China. Victory seemed to be assured. And then the Chinese army poured across the border with hundreds of thousands of soldiers. All momentum was lost. The allies were being pushed back. The capital of Seoul was lost again. The allies were contemplating evacuating the whole peninsula. Some even claimed the only way to win the war was to bomb China with nuclear weapons. And then Matthew Ridgway took command. By inspiring his troops and making sound tactical decisions, he turned around a war that all had assumed was lost.

David Petraeus – Iraq in 2007 was a deadly place to be. A three-week war quickly led to claims of victory by the Americans, but the unending sectarian violence and terrorist attacks slowly drained away the support for the war. By 2007, body counts were lining up, many said that Iraq was in the midst of a civil war, and foreign insurgents were pouring into Iraq to kill Americans. Everyone had given up on Iraq. Then President Bush approved a very controversial “surge” and the champion of it to command the forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus. Through a change in military tactics, Petraeus snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and helped the Americans conclude their war on somewhat favorable terms.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. These men exhibit greatness for securing victory from unenviable conditions. It’s one thing for a general to go in and win a war with better troops, training, and resources. It’s even more remarkable for men to stand up where others failed and achieve victories from what everyone assumed could only be defeats.

2. The backgrounds of these men were average at best. None of these generals graduated at the top of their class. Many had mediocre lives before their wars. For many, the wide-range of real world experiences and failures helped prepare them to meet conventional problems in unconventional ways.

3. The key to their success was how they dealt with people. One of the most fascinating things to discover was how strong people skills ran throughout these five generals. They walked into situations that many others had tried before and failed. When they turned around their wars, it wasn’t because of a new piece of technology. It wasn’t because of a massive wave of reinforcements. They simply knew how to treat people. They knew how to inspire their troops. They knew how to empower their subordinates. They knew how to treat the locals. With the advancement of technology and weaponry, the difference between success and failure many times comes down to how you deal with people.

An incredible lesson for the church can be drawn from this. For most pastors, success or failure is not determined by your training, your education, or your position. It comes down to how you treat people. If you can lead, inspire, and empower people, you will be successful.

6.17.13Ok history buffs, this one’s for you. Back a few years ago I was able to visit Boston and the Bunker Hill memorial. Touring the city, I was amazed at how Boston has preserved so much of its colonial history. Boston really was the little city that ignited the Revolutionary War.

Philbrick writes about an oft discussed period in our nation’s history, the events leading up to the Revolutionary War. What makes his book unique is that he focuses solely on the city of Boston and the events that transpired there during those years. Even when the historical gaze shifts southward to Philadelphia with the First and Second Continental Congress, Philbrick keeps his focus on this unique city of firebrands that had the audacity to stand up to the most powerful empire on earth: Great Britain. As Philbrick notes, “In the end, Boston is the true hero of this story. Whether its inhabitants came to view the Revolution as an opportunity or as a catastrophe, they all found themselves in the midst of a survival tale when on December 16, 1773, three shiploads of tea were dumped in Boston Harbor” (xvii).

He walks us through some familiar moments in history, such as the Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. His genius comes from the familiarity he develops between the reader and the subject. His extensive research and use of personal letters, combined with his fluid narrative writing style, makes this an easy read for those even remotely interested in this period of history.

Lessons Learned

1. It’s amazing how one city can change world history. Boston wasn’t the largest city in colonial America, nor was it the wealthiest. Yet it still changed the course of world history by igniting the American Revolution. Their unity of purpose (behind the patriots) and their unflinching courage in the face of intimidation led the way for the other thirteen colonies to follow.

2. The American Revolution was not an inevitability, but a result of a series of easily-avoided mistakes. Boston had been in the practice of resisting English laws and practices for a decade before the first shots of the Revolution. During that preceding decade, Boston wasn’t seeking independence as a nation, but fair representation and local autonomy. Only through a mixture of stubbornness, ego, and miscommunication (on both sides) did the two parties come to blows.

3. American colonists had morphed in 150 years into a culture completely foreign to imperial Europe. When the Mayflower landed in 1620, it carried English settlers with English thoughts and customs. Over the course of the next 150 years, these colonials morphed into something completely foreign to their European counterparts. Through continual warfare with the Indians, the constant lure of expansive virgin land, and freedom created by the Atlantic Ocean, the psyche of the English colonists morphed into something distinctly American.

4. The American revolution could have easily been snuffed out in its infancy. Looking back through history, it’s easy to assume that victory in the American Revolution was guaranteed. Far from it. Philbrick does a great job of detailing those first few days and months, when infighting, lack of leadership, lack of coordination, lack of supplies, and rivalry between colonies nearly derailed the Revolution in its infancy. In many ways, it was the hubris of English rather than the ingenuity of the Americans that secured the early victories.

5. The Battle of Bunker Hill was never supposed to happen. In a great historical moment still shrouded in mystery, the American commander in charge of fortifying Bunker Hill instead fortified Breed’s Hill. Bunker Hill was a safe move, outside of the range of the British cannons. By (intentionally or unintentionally) disobeying orders and fortifying the much closer Breed’s Hill, the Americans provoked the British into a fight. The British eventually won that battle and conquered both hills, but at such a steep price that they eventually evacuated Boston.

6. The unsung hero of this time period is Dr. Joseph Warren. He goes unnoticed by many of the history books, overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries, including Samuel and John Adams and John Hancock. And yet his leadership was integral to Boston during these years. He was the day-to-day leader of the Boston patriots during the formative years of the Revolution. During the Continental Congresses, when leaders such as the Adamses and Hancock left for Philadelphia for months at a time, Warren stayed behind and led the Revolution in Boston. If he wasn’t tragically killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill, he might well have gone on to lead the Continental Army, and George Washington would have been the historical footnote.

7. Philbrick does a great job conveying George Washington’s growth arc at the beginning of his leadership. When Washington is introduced in Philbrick’s narrative, he isn’t the mythical figure that graces our dollar bills. George Washington grew into an incredible leader, but when he enters the scene after Bunker Hill, he has just begun his growth arc. Some early missteps by Washington could have nearly undone the great work accomplished by the Bostonians. It’s refreshing to see Washington as a human who makes mistakes rather than a mythical creature of legend.

8. Boston’s fight for independence from Britain looks eerily similar to “insurgents” fighting against America in Iraq and Afghanistan. An uncomfortable parallel formed in my mind while reading this book. Bostonians were the native citizens, fighting for their rights and independence against an overbearing imperial power from across the sea. We cheer for the American colonists and demonize the overbearing English, yet there are eery similarities to our ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Understandably, the aspect of terrorism makes the comparison break down, but what we view today as “insurgents” in those two countries may be looked at as “patriots” later on by their own historians.