Sunday, March 13, 2016

Book Review: The Newsmakers, by Lis Wiehl

Engaging book. Nylan Hastings, owner of Global News Network (GNN), is intent on dominating the world of news. To that end, he is looking for a "star" who can be the face of GNN. Greg Underwood has uncovered Erica, currently working at a small town New Hampshire station. She is exactly what Nylan wants — young, beautiful, resourceful, anxious to get ahead, intelligent — and she is hired.

Her first assignment is a rare interview with the Duches of Cambridge. But, as she is setting up the interview, there is a horrific ferry crash in view of her cameras. Erica's coverage of that crash makes her an instant celebrity.

Erica's second major catch is an interview with the likely next President of the US, Kay Barrish … who suddenly dies in the midst of the interview and on live TV. Erica's heroic attempts to revive her boost her ratings to the top.

But, something isn't right about all of this. Odd things begin to happen in the office; there are nagging questions about the ferry crash — perhaps it wasn't the result of external terrorist activity; why would a perfectly healthy Presidential candidate suddenly die; seemingly random deaths begin to appear to have some connections. Erica begins to wonder if she is being manipulated for some hidden purpose.

Wieh does a good job of keeping the suspense high, giving just enough information to keep the reader guessing. It's not hard to figure out who the real evil figure is, but who are Erica's friends? There are moments when the dialogue and events are rather cliche-ish — Greg and Erica have been to dinner and a sudden rain chases them into a tight shelter.

The thing that I found very annoying was Wiehl's use of the present tense throughout the book. It makes logical sense, but somehow the story doesn't flow nearly as well.

Though advertised as Christian fiction, there is little really Christian about it. Erica whispers the "Serenity Prayer" on a few occasions. Some of the things that Erica does verge on New Age practices. Erica has a troubled past and wrestles with strongholds in her life. That makes the book more real but she wins by the sheer force of her will, not by help from the Holy Spirit — and sometimes she succumbs to temptation. Read this book as a good fiction story with well-defined evil but rather flawed good. I enjoyed it very much, but it's not a primer on "The Normal Christian Life" (book by Watchman Nee).

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of The Newsmakers from the publisher as a part of their bloggers' book review programme, BookLook Bloggers. I was free to write the review I thought the book deserved and received no compensation apart from continued participation in the programme.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Book Review: If I Run, by Terri Blackstock … Hooked me from the beginning

First of all, it's irritating to me to read the first book in a series and find out that I wasn't warned that the story would leave me hanging, but, frankly, that was the biggest flaw in this book and it's one that I can overlook.

I was hooked from the first paragraph. Casey is in the room where her boyfriend, Brent, lies after being bloodily murdered. The evidence all seems to point to Casey as the perpetrator, even though no one who knows her can imagine that she would be capable of this kind of brutality. Casey, knowing that she will be the prime suspect and that the evidence makes her look guilty, decides to run and hide. When the police can't find her, Brent's parents hire Dylan to find her and the police, desperate to find Casey, reluctantly agree to work with Dylan. Dylan, though, is an Iraq War vet with PTSD.

This is definitely fiction and it moves fast, so there are some things that defy reality: Who keeps $12 thousand in cash in their house, but it makes it much easier for Casey to run and hide? What innocent, law-abiding person is able to establish a new identity so quickly? Blackstock is able to keep the tension high as she develops the story without revealing everything. While Casey is a larger-than-life runaway, her fear and conflicted feelings are real.

Murder is never clean, but otherwise, this is a clean murder mystery — no gratuitous sexuality or language. It is a Christian novel, but it doesn't beat the reader over the head with stereotypical evangelicalism. At the end of the book, the story is clearly not complete, so be ready to read the 2nd and 3rd books. I liked this book.

DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book through the publisher's BookLook Blogger Review program. I was encouraged to write an honest review of the book. My only compensation is continued participation in the review program.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Best and Worst Books I Read in 2015

So far, as of 19 December 2015, I've read 74 books and 18,615 pages this year and will certainly complete at least one and possibly two more books before the end of the year. That's fewer books and pages than in any of the past 3 years. But, of the books I read, I rated 17 of them as 5-star and no book gets that in my personal rating system unless I found it really, really good. Just as in 2014, I find it almost impossible to rank these books. The Johnstown Flood was probably my favourite book of 2015, but The Germans in Normandy and Chief Joseph… and The Reason for God are only nano-fractions below it. There were also a lot of books that I rated 4-star and I would unreservedly recommend any of them as well — the 17 were just the cream of the crop.

The Awful Books were precisely that. I endured to the end but could not recommend them. There is actually one other book on my Awful list but I have personal reasons for not including it here. The more I read, the more I am finding that self-published books almost always fall way lower in my ratings than others. A major problem is the lack of a tough, honest editor (or simply the lack of an editor at all). The exception to that in my 2015 Awful Books list is the book of short stories by Flannery O'Connor — it was certainly published with the help of an editor (though how willing O'Connor was to allow changes might be up for question) and by a major publisher. I just plain didn't like the book.

[The longer reviews are books that I read as review copies and for which I wrote reviews for the publisher.]

Don’t All Religions Lead to God: Navigating the Multi-Faith Maze, Michael Green — Concise apology for Christianity as the only "religion" that is valid. He tackles the question of whether sincerity is enough, the differences in religious systems, the various views of God and how man can relate to God, the uniqueness of Jesus, the problem of wickedness, eternity, Jesus' presence with his followers, dealing with objections, and the appropriate response to Jesus. Green doesn't get overly complicated. He is a bit unorthodox in his view of hell as destruction rather than eternal torment, the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus, and possibly his view of the Trinity as modalism rather than 3 distinct persons. He also seems not to account for the failings of Christians — the Crusades, justifying slavery. I like his characterization of Christianity as 3 "Rs" — revelation, rescue, and relationship. I think the book is well worth reading as an introduction to or refesher for apologetics.

The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis — I actually started with my rating as 4 stars. But the more I thought about the book, the better it became. The Great Divorce is an allegory. All allegories, just like all illustrations and analogies, fall short at some point of the full truth and the reader must be very careful not to develop his or her theology or worldview from an allegory. That doesn't take away from the value of a well-written allegory, one simply must be careful not to take it literally.

The Great Divorce is Lewis' attempt to counter universalism and the tendency in his day to "marry" heaven and hell and he uses an allegory — a dream of catching a bus to heaven with other travellers, all of whom must decide if they will accept God's grace and stay in heaven or return to Hell. He declares that they are different and distinct from each other. Some commentators have declared that this allegory is Lewis' declaration that Hell is locked from the inside and, thus, those in hell have a chance to escape. I think that carries the allegory to places that Lewis never intended. He does talk about grace and forgiveness and acceptance and trust.

The allegory does seem to say that one is only fully human when one is commited to faith in God. The concept of time in this allegory is very dreamlike — it exists but it doesn't. See, for example, the section beginning at about location 652, where George MacDonald explains eternity to the dreamer.

I felt both sadness and joyful hope while reading the book — sometimes at the same time. There was sadness at the blindness and stubbornness of those who chose to return to the town. There was hope held out to all — they simply had to accept. There was joy promised to all who might choose to stay.

There are some great, thought-provoking quotes in the book, especially the Introduction:
  • There is no heaven with a little of hell in it — no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather. (quoting George MacDonald, loc. 4)
  • Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good. (@loc. 38)
  • If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most initimate souvenirs of Hell. (@loc. 52)
  • Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself. (@loc. 58)

The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, Hans Finzel — I just finished this a second time and it's just as good as a repeat. I think my favourite chapter is #10 — a leader looks to the future. A couple of the mistakes that I need to pay close attention to are "peoplework before paperwork" and "communication." This edition is an update of the original book written in the 1990s. He discusses the problems caused by these top ten mistakes and then talks about how to avoid them. Easily one of the most readable leadership books that I have read. Part of its value is that it’s drawn from Finzel’s experiences in leadership.

The Johnstown Flood, David McCullough — This was a powerful book about an unimaginable event. I've liked everything that I've read by David McCullough (Truman 4-stars, John Adams 5-stars, 1776 5-stars) and this did not disappoint. Even if you don't know the history, it's clear that this book is about an awful flood and the flood is the main character and he develops that character well. While McCullough doesn't develop human characters to any depth — that wasn't his purpose — he does skillfully weave together the stories is both survivors and deceased. Without being morbid, he managed to stir up emotions of sympathy, anger, and admiration — sympathy for those who lost loved ones, even whole families; anger at the intransigence of the "club" management to do a thorough evaluation of the dam and hiring an incompetent non-engineer to repair it; admiration at the resilience of the townspeople during and after the flood and for the way the nation rallied around the valley to go help and to send help. I also felt like I was there — I don't mean to be trite and realize that what I felt was way, way short of actually being there, yet, my heart was pounding at times as townspeople attempted to escape and as others watched the destruction. Good book (and not as long as it appeared to be because there is an extensive bibliography and index).

God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understanding the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book, Stan Guthrie — Great idea and execution. Guthrie makes a rather outrageous and bodacious claim in the subtitle, Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book, but has succeeded in his goal by choosing a key verse from each book of the Bible, one that captures the core message of the book. Then he gives a 2-3 page overview of each book. He has managed to capture the message of the Bible clearly.

This is an excellent overview and would be a good introduction for a new believer or for anyone who is not familiar with the Bible. It's also a good reminder for mature believers and helpful in pointing out the key themes — something that can be difficult if one gets caught up in the details of each book. Mind you, the details are important, but this book helps one to step back and see the whole of each book before digging into the details. For my first time through the book, I read 2-4 chapters per day as a part of my personal devotions and it was helpful. However, I think a better us of the book is to use this as one reads through the Bible — getting an overview and then memorizing each key verse while reading that particular book of the Bible.

The Sentinels of Andersonville, Tracy Groot — Andersonville Prison, Americus, GA — at least 45,000 Union soldiers passed through the prison in 14 months and at least 13,000 of them died, mostly from starvation and exposure. In the final chapter, Groot, through Emery, makes a point to say that Union prisons were sometimes no better or, as she says, "gave Andersonville a run for its money." Though a novel, it's surely built on fact — this is the first book I've read on the Andersonville Prison, so I can't comment on the accuracy of the historical content. Wirtz and Winder were, apparently, very real Confederate officers in charge of Andersonville who did nothing to improve the sorry conditions of Andersonville and likely actively interfered with civilian attempts to provide food for the prisoners.

Violet, the daughter of a local doctor, joins forces with a prison guard, Dance, and an Alabama militiaman, Emery, to form the Friends of Andersonville society to try to wake up Americus to do something. Not only did they fail to waken more than a few, they were looked on by many, both military and civilian, as Yankee sympathizers and traitors. Emery has made a vow to Lew, a Yankee prisoner, that he will get him out — interesting twist on how that is attempted. While perhaps not the best example of high-quality writing, Groot brings her characters to life and gives excellent descriptions of the conditions of prisoners in Andersonville.

Killing Jesus, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard — Not a theological/doctrinal study of the life of Jesus but an historical study. I thought it was very well done. The authors used multiple sources, not relying strictly on the 4 gospels in the Bible. They made an honest attempt to sort out dates and sequences of events. In order to put Jesus' life in context, they gave a background of the Roman Empire. They did fill in some blanks on conversations, but all seemed in keeping with the biblical record. The book ends with Jesus' crucifixion, burial, and the disappearance of his body. Those expecting a theological/doctrinal approach will be disappointed and, perhaps, disturbed by that, but their purpose was to examine the historical record that was reasonably verifiable. I would recommend this as background reading for teachers and students of the Bible as well as for agnostics.

Serving God in Today’s Cities: Facing the Challenge of Urbanization, Patrick Johnstone and Dean Merritt — The thing I really liked about this book was the 8-part urban strategy. Johnstone doesn't lay out details but a series of facets that he says must be incorporated into any strategy for a 21st century urban setting — and I think he's right on target.

Angels of the Appalachians, Deanna Edens — Not what I expected from this book. I expected stories, but it is a delightful biography-memoir of Erma and Ida, unlikely lifelong friends from the time that Erma and her mother and brother left the coal mining camp and ended up at Mrs. Jones' farm. Annie, the narrator, is a doctoral student of Ida's and becomes a friend of Erma. Angels of the Appalachians gives a compelling picture of life in the W Virginia Appalachians in the first half of the 20th century.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien — My umpteenth time to read this classic and it never fails to entertain. An unadventuresome hobbit sets out on an adventure with a group of dwarves and a wizard to reclaim an under-the-mountain kingdom and recover lost treasure. On the journey, the hobbit discovers he's made of sterner stuff than he or anyone else imagined. The dwarves, on the other hand, discover the corrupting power of wealth. My favourite quote from the book: Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you, but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all! (Gandalf to Bilbo at the very end of the book.)

Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, Kent Nerburn — Narrative history of the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho and their betrayal by white America that resulted in hundreds of miles of flight, accusations of barbarism, and the loss of their homelands. Debunks the myths surrounding Chief Joseph, putting his contribution in a true historical context. Left me very sad at the treatment of minority groups by majority groups.

The Germans in Normandy, Richard HargreavesThe story of the struggle for Normandy is an appalling one; the battle was, in Erwin Rommel's words, 'one terrible blood-letting'. (from the Introduction) Both the Allied and German forces put most, if not all of their hope for ending World War II on the attempt by the Allies to free occupied France.

Hargreaves does a masterful job of writing the history of D-Day to the final liberation of France from the German perspective. He talks about the logical hopelessness of the German defense, yet portrays the sheer will-power of the German military that, at times, threatened to thwart to Allied invasion. Germany missed its opportunity in so many ways — megalogmaniacal leadership of Hitler and Goebbels who refused to face the reality of the Allied superiority and the complete exhaustion of their own troops, uncoordinated strategies, woefully insufficient front line and reserve forces, inadequate hardware (or, as Hargreaves terms it, "material"). Though Hargreaves doesn't explicitly make the connection, the attempted coup by top military leadership in the midst of the defense of France had to have been, at the very least, a distraction.

Hargreaves succeeds in portraying the tenacity of the German military as time after time they were defeated but continued to fight on in spite of overwhelming odds. It's terrifying to think what might have happened if the German military had been anywhere close to being as prepared as were the Allies.

Whether Hargreaves intended it or not, one result of reading this book is a fresh realization of how horrible war is — 240,000 or more people killed in a 2 1/2 month period and many of the bodies so damaged that they could not be identified!!

I do have some criticisms of the book.
  • First was the overuse of the phrase "material supremacy". Often, this was quoted from German sources, but there could (maybe) have been some variety in how the German phrase was translated and Hargreaves, himself, could have used a different phrase when he wasn't quoting.
  • I found maps difficult to decipher — the quality of the graphics in the Kindle version was really good, but they lacked legends that would have made them more understandable to someone who, like me, has neither a military background or more than a cursory knowledge of French geography.
  • There were some minor quirky (to me) errors — for example, "The 6 June cost the Panzer Lehr thirty vehicles." Phrases that introduced quotes often ended with a period rather than a comma. Several times, a phrase like "It was gone midnight…" was used. Or, a phrase like, "Thus at the age of thirty died Michael Wittmann…" Or, "Paris not only lacked the men to defend it to the last man…" — how many more than 1 does it take to defend to the last man? Hargreaves is, apparently, British and perhaps some of these are simply differences in how Amis and Tommies (the terms the Germans used in Hargreaves book) express themselves. None of them take away from the book.

I think Hargreaves sums up the essence of Germans in Normandy with this section at location 5628 (Kindle): For the Landser, there was the bitter taste of defeat, and yet the German soldier refused to accept he had been beaten. Events had conspired against him, but the Landser held his head high. Like Untersturmführer Riegamer, he struggled to accept his sacrifices had been in vain. This could not be the end. 'German soldiers have once again acquitted themselves superhumanly in battle,' Hitlerjugend commander Kurt Meyer wrote bitterly in his diary. 'They do not deserve the terrible defeat. The defeat cannot be blamed on the frontline soldiers as this bitter cup was served to them by a gambler at the map table.'

Butterick’s Practical Typography, Matthew Butterick — An online book about typography — Practical Typography. Butterick’s goal is to make good typography accessible to the layman and I think he succeeds quite well. Clear, concise (except when he starts talking about Pollen, Racket, and Lisp or his rant about Medium in the Appendix). Good, practical, relatively easy to implement advice. Definitely opened my eyes and changed my mind about how I lay out things I write.

I appreciated Butterick’s list of good fonts versus awful fonts, but I wished he had talked about why, for instance, Avenir is better for headings than Helvetica or why Equity is better than Times New Roman. Granted, it’s likely that the number of people who care about that is pretty small.

The Complete 101 Collection, John Maxwell — This "book" contains 8 books from John Maxwell's "101 Series" — Attitude 101, Self-Improvement 101, Leadership 101, Relationships 101, Success 101, Teamwork 101, Equipping 101, and Mentoring 101. A ninth book, Ethics 101, is not included in this collection. This is a great starter set for a young leader and for an experienced leader who wants content for conversations in a mentoring relationship.

Each of these books is intended as an introduction to its topic. Don't expect to learn everything you need to know as a leader, despite the subtitle, What Every Leader Needs to Know. However, do expect to get a good introduction to the things that a good leader needs to know and do. There are numerous references to other books by Maxwell, each of which goes into greater depth on a given topic. In typical Maxwell fashion, these books have plenty of quotes from historical figures as well as some of the best current writers on leadership. There is some overlap between the subject matters of the books, so there are sections that are repeated in different ones of these books. For example, a significant minority portion of Mentoring 101 is included in Equipping 101. That's not bad because equipping leaders and mentoring leaders have similar characteristics.

I think one of the best uses of these books (or this collection) would be for an experienced leader to mentor a young leader. And, in fact, 5 of these books (Mentoring 101, Relationships 101, Equipping 101, Attitude 101, and Leadership 101) are available as a part of Maxwell's Lunch & Learn series which includes a discussion guide.

Some of the themes that run throughout all of these books are:
  • Trust
  • Loyalty
  • Choosing people based on leadership potential, not followship
  • Passing on responsibility.

While every one of these books is helpful, I thought the best sections were:
  • Leadership 101, Chapter 9, How Can I Extend My Influence
  • Teamwork 101, Chapter 2, What is the Impact of Good Teamwork, especially the section Great Teams Create Community.
  • Equipping 101, Chapter 5, What Does It Take to Equip a Leader, especially the section Check on Them Systematically when Maxwell talks about working with "a person whose progress is repeatedly poor."

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Heidi W. Durrow — Liking this book as much as I did was the surprise of 2015 — certainly in terms of books. Angels of the Appalachians was a close second.

The theme of the book was intriguing — a blue-eyed biracial girl, Rachel, ends of living with her African American grandmother after her mother and siblings die in a horrible event. For the first time in her life, she is in predominantly African American surroundings. As a 12 year old, she has never thought of herself as "black" and she doesn't know how to talk or act "black" (not intended as a racial slur, but this is one of the major themes of the book). One of her problems is that everybody around here now assumes she should act black. The major theme is her struggles to either live up to or fight against the stereotypes of race, stereotypes that are assumed by both races.

A sub-theme is her growing from childhood to adulthood. The second sub-theme is learning the truth about her family and learning how to deal with that truth. There are elements that I expected and didn't particularly care for — the sex, primarily, but it wasn't graphic. In the end, Rachel says to herself, "In [Brick's] eyes, I'm not the new girl. I'm not the color of my skin. I'm a story. One with a past and a future unwritten." She is at peace with who she is. Ms. Durrow is uniquely qualified to write this story as she is biracial and this is, in large part, her story.

The Reason for God, Timothy J. Keller — Really good. Challenged me to think through some things. I really liked the way he dealt with Kierkegaard's definition of sin. Best chapter.

Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand — Ms. Hillenbrand has written only 2 books — this one and Unbroken. But she has proven to be an almost magical writer. Just as I did in McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood and Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, I felt like I was in the story. She skillfully weaves the lives and experiences of all the characters — owner, trainer, jockey, and horse — into a coherent, compelling, easy-to-read story. Though she includes tons of details about each, the book is not tedious in the least. She uses the details in a way that enhances the story rather than bogs it down. In some ways, this is a classic underdog succeeds story, but she avoids clichés (I want so badly to add, “like the plague”).

AWFUL BOOKS READ IN 2015 (1-2 Stars)

The Speechwriter, Sid Crowe

The Wisdom of a Cobbler, Sid Crowe

The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor — I know an awful lot of very smart people who really like the stories of Flannery O’Connor. I simply didn’t like a single one. I was so lost after the first 8 stories, that I started over and reread them. I read a Cliff Notes introduction of O’Connor’s writing and while that helped, I still didn’t get her stories.

David and the Old Man, William Zemba — The biography of an overbearing, narrow-minded father and a son who rebelled against his father in rather bizarre ways. It’s told from the perspective of a younger brother, William (the author).

Run (and read) well, y'all,
Bob Allen, Kampala, Uganda

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Book Review: Churchill's Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government, Larry P. Arnn

Arnn sets out to show how Churchill saved free government. He attempts to do so using three macro-themes: War, Empire, and Peace. In each section, Arnn uses Churchill's writings and speeches to decipher his thoughts on these issues and how he influenced England and the world.

I really can't decide how I think about this biography, Churchill's Trial. It would have been better for me to have read a more traditional biography first, before tackling this political/sociological biography. I needed more background on Churchill the man before trying to understand Churchill the politician. Essentially, all I knew about Churchill was his strong leadership of England during the darkest days of World War II.

I don't think he succeeded in demonstrating that Churchill saved free government — no one person could accomplish that. He did succeed in showing how Churchill stood against intrusive, big government … mostly. And, rather than stretch history and force Churchill into a single line of politicial thought throughout his life, Arnn was willing to show how Churchill adapted to the needs of his time. While Churchill might not have been a saviour, he was certainly influential and many of his themes are echoed by conservative politicians of the early 21st century.

It seems to me that Churchill was a pragmatist — he was against socialism as an overarching political and social philosophy, but he was willing to adopt and adapt some elements of socialism because they were the right things to do. Churchill's biggest fear about socialism was that a socialist government would ultimately and inevitably insinuate itself into every nook and cranny of the life of an individual citizen and Churchill believed that the root of a strong nation was its citizens, not its government.

The best chapter was the last: Conclusion: Churchill's Trial and Ours. Arnn summarized well the things he tried to point out through the book. For me, at least, many of those things were less than clear until this point. In the second section of this chapter, Churchill's Lessons, the phrase "Churchill taught" was way overused — to the point that it was obnoxious to me. Churchill was not a teacher or master or sage in the traditional sense of those words. His teaching was through his volumnious writing.

I also appreciated the Appendices which were significant articles or essays written by Churchill. The best of those was the first, Fifty Years Hence, published in December 1931.

All in all, this is a book worth reading. Churchill was remarkably insightful about the dangers (as he saw them) of big, socialistic governments. Churchill lived and was in positions of political influence during a critical period in the history of democracies. I felt like Arnn's treatment of the themes were difficult to follow and absorb. Be prepared to read, reread, and to spend time mulling over what Arnn (and Churchill) are trying to communicate.

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, via their bloggers' review programme,  BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review. I receive no additional compensation except for continued participation in the programme.)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: Serving is a Pilgrimage … it's not always easy, but it's always worth it

John's book gives great insight into the life and thinking of a missionary who is committed to taking the gospel to some of the most resistant people groups on earth. Using short vignettes from his 30-year career as an international missionary, John illustrates his theme — that serving other people is a process of growth. Most chapters end with a succinct statement clearly showing what God has shown John about service in that particular time in his life. He also shows very clearly that following God's will doesn't mean that life is easy. In fact, it may be quite the opposite, but John affirms that any difficulty, any sacrifice is worth it because of the joy to be found in seeing God work.

I've known John since shortly after he and Janie arrived in Kenya to teach at the high school in Mombasa. The stories are true … if anything, he has understated what he has experienced. No matter what they faced, John and Janie courageously and faithfully served God and other people.

It's worth reading.

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Kampala, Uganda

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Crippling Crisis or Open Opportunity? Voluntary Retirement of Hundreds of SBC Missionaries

The International Mission Board (IMB) is the core business of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). All human efforts and institutions are marred by sin and the SBC has not been immune to that. It is no secret that the beginnings of the SBC are tainted by connections with slavery as the SBC was formed in 1845 with the express purpose of allowing slave-holding Baptists to be sent overseas as missionaries. Southern Baptists have long since repented for that sin and have denounced slavery and racism in any form. I don't know what the current statistics are because I have lived outside of the U.S. as a Southern Baptist misisonary for most of the past almost 30 years. However, in the early 1980s, Southern Baptists in the U.S. worshipped in more than 80 languages on any given Sunday. But, the primary focus of the SBC has remained taking the good news of Jesus to the world.

The worldwide economic crisis of 2008, combined with dramatic changes in the culture of churches affiliated with the SBC, led to a financial crisis for the IMB. Over the past 6 years, expenditures by the IMB have exceeded revenues by approximately $35 million per year. (Disclaimer: While I would like to give exact figures, I don't have those. These are round figures.) A large portion of that has been covered by the sale of property around the world — houses that were not needed, offices that were no longer being used, etc. The remainder of the overexpenditures were covered by spending crisis reserve funds. In addition, there were efforts to reduce expenditures by reducing appointments, by making huge reductions in overseas budgets, by offering a voluntary retirement package to some US staff in 2010. The number of overseas missionary personnel had been reduced from a high of 5,600 to the current 4,800. Those measures were not close to being sufficient.

While the IMB has not been in debt in many, many decades, it was clear to leadership that a crisis point had been reached as there were no longer sufficient reserves to cover the overexpenditures nor was there sufficient remaining property, the vast majority of which is currently being used, that could be sold to provide resources. Something had to be done and had to be done right now!

Much to the surprise and dismay of hundreds of thousands of Southern Baptists, on 27 August, the IMB President, Dr. David Platt, announced that it was necessary to reduce IMB staff, both in the US and overseas, by 600-800 people (that's approximately 17%). To accomplish that, a Voluntary Retirement Incentive package was to be offered and those who accepted would be retired as of 3 December 2015. No other details were announced and no one outside, perhaps, of senior leadership knew who would receive that offer. Two weeks later, Southern Baptists were again shocked to learn that the VRI package would be offered to all US staff and active, long-term missionary staff who were 50 years old as of 31 December 2015 and who had served with the IMB for 5 or more years.

Though it is a tragic and devastating decision to have to make, it is not my purpose to oppose the decision. Given what I know, I don't know what else could have been done. However, the results of the decision are huge — morale overseas is very low, I hear that morale among US staff is also low. There are many reasons for that — the dramatic reduction of personnel available to share the good news of Christ with a dying world, the loss of so many experienced colleagues, the disarray this has introduced into the lives of those asked to consider retiring and, to an even greater extent, the lives of those who are accepting retirement much earlier than anticipated and without adequate time to prepare.

Don Dent, a former missionary and field leader with the IMB, has expressed the challenge well … how will Southern Baptists respond to this?
Too Valuable To Lose - Our Core Business 
When the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, our Baptist predecessors were primarily motivated by a vision to fulfill the Great Commission by sending missionaries to the nations. Other convention ministries were added as needed, but missions was the core business and the FMB (now IMB) was the primary channel. For the past 170 years sending missionaries has been the primary strategy of the IMB. From a small start in 1845, the IMB has developed over the past 40 years into the largest, and one of the most effective, Protestant mission agencies in the world. Sending God-called, long-term missionaries is the heart of the IMB and the SBC. We are presently in danger of losing our core business. That loss, which we can still avoid, will be irreversible and unrecoverable. 
I am not an insider and do not have the latest statistics, but let’s project a bit about missionary personnel gains and losses at the IMB these days. 
  1. We know that we are losing approximately 800 mission veterans, many at the height of their expertise. Only a handful of mission agencies even have that many missionaries or committed staff. The sudden loss of thousands of years of mission experience is a catastrophe, in spite of the positive spin we put on it. This drawdown of personnel and ministry follows one just as large seven years ago. Only time will tell the consequences in terms of missionary morale, values, and ethos.
  2. At the other end of the personnel spectrum is the constricted channel for sending new missionaries. We must continue to send new missionaries, but far more are called and equipped to go than there are openings to send them. We have the resources to send them, but our personal and church spending is way out of proportion with God’s priority of reaching all nations. Praise the Lord we can send about 150 new long-term missionaries per year, but that will likely only sustain a total of about 2200 missionaries over the long haul.
  3. In addition to the catastrophic exit of hundreds of veterans and the constrictions on new missionary appointments, many IMB missionaries in the middle are experiencing a loss of morale, trust, and focus. So, what happens now when the 40 year old missionary with 10 years experience who has reached full effectiveness gets an offer to pursue ministry in the US? What will he do considering he wonders when the next cutbacks will happen and that they may not allow for adequate preparation? I pray that it does not happen, but it seems likely that missionary attrition in the middle stages will increase unless Southern Baptists turn this around.
Unless the churches show increased support in prayer and LMCO, then we will likely not stop sliding at 4000. It might not take long to drop to 50% of our high mark of 5700 in 2008. This pattern of mission decline mirrors that of mainline denominations after WWII as a result of liberal influences. Southern Baptists have largely avoided outright liberalism, but the results look the same. Our denominational withdrawal from the nations is happening largely because Southern Baptists do not recognize the treasure we have in the International Mission Board. 
Recently, I had the privilege to read a detailed study of several church planting movements taking place in one of the most unreached areas of the world. In each of those movements a long-term, extremely well-trained, deeply experienced, language fluent, passionate, Spirit-led, sacrificial IMB missionary family is the human catalyst that God is using to bring honor to Himself. No other form of mission service comes close to this model in terms of effectiveness. 
The new IMB vision emphasizes increased engagement of the nations through short-term service, missionaries sent directly by their churches, and tentmakers. These are not new concepts or channels for the IMB, but IMB vision now emphasizes these “non-traditional” forms of service. I wholeheartedly believe that all three of these types of service are important and need to be increased. However, field experience of hundreds of teams shows these mission approaches rarely reach the level of effectiveness of the long-term, supported missionary. If these are added as affiliated subsidiaries to the core business of sending supported missionaries, then that maximizes their potential. If our core business is neglected to the point of continued drawdown, these other forms of service will also suffer. God will know, but we may lack the corporate expertise to know how ineffective we will be. 
Business leadership books emphasized risk taking and constant innovation back in the financially exciting 1990s. Then the IT bubble burst and many of those popular authors lost their shirts and businesses. Later studies of great companies published by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen in Great By Choice explain that companies that thrive in chaos show great discipline and make careful decisions based on empirical info. They also stay focused on their traditional values and core business while innovating at the edges. Change is needed to face the challenges of today, but if we lose our core business we will likely not thrive in the future. 
Southern Baptists can continue to thrive as a missions force in the years ahead by valuing and supporting long-term missionaries. If losing 800 personnel is a wake up call, then we can get back on track and even expand our kingdom impact. If we continue to devalue and neglect our long-term mission force, this present crisis will continue as a slide into ineffectiveness and decreasing mission impact. It really is up to us to determine which way we are heading. If we increase our Lottie Moon giving over the next few months and pray more passionately for our missionaries, things will look up quickly.

It's something worth thinking about … in fact, it's something that Southern Baptists and other Christians must think about.

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Kampala, Uganda

Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: David and the Old Man

In a nutshell, David and the Old Man is the story of a dysfunctional family that struggles with a conflict between a father who has a very narrow view of what it means to be a man and a son who simply cannot live out those values. The father, most often referred to as "the Old Man", is from an immigrant family who made their way by hard manual labour on a farm. When he moves his family to California, the father continues to farm his relatively small plot, often providing fresh produce for neighbours and others. The Old Man's oldest son, David, just doesn't fit the mold -- he has a more creative, artistic bent that the Old Man just cannot accept. While I'm not a psychologist, it seems to me that this conflict is what drives David to anorexia and bizarre life behaviours that only serve to further divide him from his father.

The book was painful to read. First of all, it suffered from a clear need for an editor. The story was disjointed, the writing was inconsistent. It made for difficult reading. My first thought was that I could not believe that Thomas Nelson and Zondervan would release a book of this poor quality under a subsidiary publishing branch. Then I discovered that WestBow Press is the self-publishing arm of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan and the poor writing made sense — there was no editor.

But, the story itself was painful to read. It did show clearly that an unwillingness to let go of stereotypes can lead to great harm. It was hard to read about a young man who had such low self-esteem that he could not or would not care for himself. It was hard to read about a father who could not accept that his son, who so desparately wanted and needed his father's love and acceptance, was different and pushed him away.

I really can't recommend the book.

DISCLAIMER: I was given a free copy of this book to review as a part of the publisher's BookLook Bloggers programme. I was free to write the review that I thought the book deserved and received no compensation other than continued participation in the review programme.