The Road to Character – Book Review

road to characterDavid Brooks has always been one of my favorite commentators on public life in America. After reading his new book, The Road to Character, he is now one of my favorite authors as well. His self-effacing style on TV sets him apart from the many loud voices that often sit on the same panels competing to see who can shout the loudest. Though he is a conservative voice, I have always appreciated his even- handed approach to hot topics and his willingness to criticize and complement politicians from both sides of the aisle. I first heard about this book on a podcast from the Gospel Coalition and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

Having read the book now, I think it may be my favorite book of the summer and one of the most important books published this year. While David Brooks is not an evangelical, he is clearly influenced by a number of key people like Tim Keller, James Davison Hunter and others. What is so striking about the book is his willingness to call a “spade a spade” and to discuss sin and repentance as words that need to be reclaimed in our culture. As a public intellectual in America, his willingness to “go there” had real potential for ridicule and scorn from his colleagues. His primary point in the book is that we as a nation have embraced moral romanticism over moral realism and as such are much more focused on what he calls resume virtues – achieving wealth, fame and status than our “eulogy virtues” – kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

A surprising aspect of the book for me was his placing the timing of this shift in our culture to the late 1940’s after World War II rather than in the 1960’s when most evangelicals assumed it was taking place. He makes the case that “it was the Greatest Generation that abandoned moral realism”. He says, “By the fall of 1945, people around the world had endured sixteen years of deprivation – first during the depression, then during the war. They were ready to let loose, to relax, and to enjoy”. Brooks points out that there were several key books that reinforced this shift like Peace of Mind by Rabbi Joshua Leibman that urged people to “engrave a new morality on their hearts” and the work of Carl Rogers who said that the words that best describe human nature are “positive, forward moving, constructive, realistic and trustworthy.” It is amazing how far the pendulum had swung in a world that had just experienced some of the greatest atrocities that man can inflict on man.

Some of the best chapters in the book deal with the life of Augustine and later in the book when Brooks applies his thinking to the way that modern parenting has reinforced the cultural emphasis on “resume” virtues. That said, the final chapter in the book, entitled, The Big Me, is worth the price of the book. It defines his concept of what he calls The Humility Code and is his roadmap for The Road to Character. Here are his 15 principles that provide what he calls “a coherent image of what to live for and how to live”:

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.
2. We are flawed creatures that have an innate tendency towards selfishness and overconfidence.
3. Even though we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed and “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
4. Humility is our greatest virtue.
5. Pride is the central vice.
6. The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life.
7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.
8. The things that lead us astray are short term – lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things that we call character endure over the long term – courage, honesty, humility.
9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.
10. We are all ultimately saved by grace.
11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the soul.
12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty.
13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.
14. The best leader tries to lead along the grains of human nature rather than go against it.
15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature.

While Brooks does acknowledge God as one possibility for helping with the self-mastery concept mentioned in point number nine above, he places far too much confidence in traditions and institutions as the solution for all our moral problems. While most of his fifteen principles are Biblically rooted, he never mentions Jesus Christ in the book nor did I expect him to. As a Christian, it is deeply encouraging to know that I do not have to do all this hard work on my own. In reality, I can’t do any of it by myself. It is no wonder that most people have a morally nuanced view of life when they are rewarded for “the ends justify the means” behavior and tolerance is the highest cultural virtue in our world today. The only hope for our world remains the redemptive work that Jesus did on the cross over 2000 years ago and that will never change.

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Serving His Servants

bethel book tableIt was a warm Friday evening in Philadelphia and people were streaming into the building. There was an excitement in the air. Most were dressed in their “Sunday Best” and had come with a spirit of expectation. Men and women of God were gathering together to learn about preaching and teaching. Bethel Deliverance Church was holding its annual Pastor’s and Preacher’s Workshop Weekend and we were privileged to provide the resource table for the attendees. Bishop Eric Lambert was the host and his team had done a great job in promoting the event as several hundred people from all over Delaware Valley were registered and arriving.

Scott and I set up our table in a prominent spot in the narthex of the church and looked forward to serving God’s servants. Bishop Keith Reid from Sharon Baptist Church was the keynote speaker on Friday night and gave a powerful talk from II Timothy on the primary role of the pastor as a preacher. He exhorted his brothers and sisters to be ready to preach the word “in season and out” and spent a significant portion of his time describing the importance and value of including reproving, rebuking and exhorting during a typical sermon. It was encouraging to hear his emphasis on being both balanced and thorough. Much of what he had to share was very practical like his advice not to preach out of anger at a few people in the church. Far too many pastors are prepared to rebuke the entire congregation for the sins of a small group of people that are occupying his time and energy.

On Saturday, Bishop Lambert taught a powerful session on the importance of preparation for preaching. He stressed the value of creating structure for the sermon, spending significant time in God’s word and keeping the message clear and simple. He had invited Dr. R. Todd Mangum, a professor from Biblical Theological Seminary to speak about Christ in the Old Testament and how to preach Christ in every sermon no matter where the passage was in the Bible. Following these sessions, they opened the floor for questions and answers and spent significant time addressing the varied concerns of the attendees.

One participant wanted to know how much education a preacher or teacher needed to be successful in ministry. This question was directed to Dr. Mangum and seemed to be a “softball” designed to give him an opportunity to promote seminary education. While he certainly gave an obligatory plug for BTS (Biblical Theological Seminary), he also recognized that seminary training was not practical, possible or necessary for every person in the room. Instead, he stressed the importance of personal study, getting whatever theological training that was practically available, such as attending classes at Bible Institutes and Bible Colleges and then determining if seminary training made sense.

As we began to help people during the breaks to find books that might be helpful in their ministry, it became clear that many people were taking Dr. Mangum’s advice seriously. While some were interested in books on practical aspects of pastoral ministry, many more were looking for resources to study God’s word and to be able to teach it more effectively. Bishop Lambert had touched on a key issue when he was promoting the idea of creating structure for a sermon and many people were hungry for resources that would help with that process.

Several years ago, our ministry had produced a resource that was ideally suited to this kind of need called the CLC Bible clc bible companionCompanion. The book is a six-in-one reference guide to the Bible with particularly helpful concise outlines for every book of the Bible and great teaching on basic Bible doctrines. As I was describing the book to one person, it was not uncommon for several people to crowd around to hear what I was saying and discover the value of this book for themselves. While this book was designed with a third world pastor in mind who might have no access to Christian resources other than this book, it is also ideally suited to a bi-vocational pastor or teacher that is looking for one book to “jump start” their preaching. This book proved to be so popular that we had to get more stock from our nearby warehouse halfway through the day on Saturday to satisfy the demand.

At one point during the workshop, I was approached by a woman who I will call Mary. She confessed that she had not always been walking with the Lord, but had recently recommitted her life to Christ and just wanted to learn how to study God’s word once again before she ever considered teaching others. I was delighted to point out that we had included a free copy of our book, Blurry: Bringing Clarity to the Bible, in every attendee packet and that it was written for people just like herself. It was such a joy to see the hunger for learning and spiritual growth that was evident in the people with who we interacted. While it was clear that not every attendee would graduate from seminary one day, it was also clear why our ministry is so vital to those people in ministry who want to learn on their own and are prepared to “rightly divide the word of truth”.

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The Significance of Service

readysIt was loud as we walked in and it looked like nothing had changed since 1962 when the doors first opened. We were in Ocean City, NJ this past week and decided to have breakfast at Ready’s, a place recommended to us by our friends who lived nearby. As we sat down, I noticed that the patrons did not look like tourists and that most of them were smiling. If we were looking for an authentic “local joint” to have a great meal, it looked like we had found it.

Our waitress, who I will call Martha, came by quickly to see what we wanted to order and seemed friendlier than normal. We were eating breakfast with our youngest son and were sitting in a booth with an extra seat available on his side of the table. Just like that, Martha sat down and began to take our order. She did not even seem to notice that she was sitting in our booth or act like this was in any way unusual. Her smile and warm demeanor were so disarming that we hardly noticed what had happened ourselves until she got up to go back to the kitchen.

We began chatting about how beautiful the day was when our drinks and food began arriving. Martha had coffee for Deb and all kinds of other things in her hands. As she put them on the table she looked at Deb and called her “darling”. I have been in other restaurants where certain terms of endearment like this were used for the patrons, but that had been in the south, not Ocean City, NJ. As the food arrived, we were already in a good mood and the breakfast did not disappoint. Martha had been careful to point out that everything was made to order and nothing was prepackaged. I had one of the best omelets I have ever tasted and could have eaten more.

As we were eating our breakfast, I overheard a group of men in the booth behind us who were clearly Christians. They probably met at this same place every Friday morning to talk about the Bible, catch up on each other’s lives and to grow in their faith. On this particular day, I heard them mention that “she had stage 4 cancer” and was now in remission. At first I thought they were talking about someone they knew, but soon it became apparent that they were probably talking about Martha as the conversation died down every time she stopped at their table.

It was clear that something was different about Martha. She had an infectious personality and made an impact on everyone she talked to. I am sure that some of the regulars came just to chat with her and see how she was doing. She was not letting her disease get the best of her. In fact she was demonstrating the reality that serving others can transform our outlook on life. Her personal transformation was the highlight of my day and a reminder that while life may be shorter than we would like, we have a choice in how we will approach each day.

Jesus demonstrated this principle so many times in his ministry that it often baffled his disciples. Why did he spend so much time healing the sick, casting out demons and paying attention to children? When he should have been sleeping, he was often praying and constantly demonstrated that other people mattered most to Him. At the last supper, he set the ultimate example by getting on his knees and washing the feet of those that would betray and deny him in just a few short hours. On the very cross itself, as he was dying, he took time to pardon a man of his sins and to welcome him to join him in paradise that very day.

In the face of so many obstacles to the Christian faith in our society today, I am often tempted to withdraw and serve myself.no matter what If the people around me don’t want to know about Jesus, why should I care? As that self-centered thought crosses my mind, I am quickly reminded that I was once one of those people and he died for me anyway. As a wonderful CLC author, Marty Berglund says in his new book, No Matter What, we have been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking God why, we should be asking Him what. What can I do today to serve others and glorify Him? Only as we seek to serve will we ever hope to understand why? Even then, we may only get the answer in heaven and that’s OK.

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From Hubris to Humility

humilityIt was like a dense cloud that hung over the entire proceedings. Somehow it affected everything that it touched and impacted nearly every conversation. How would the combined impact of the bankruptcy of the largest chain of Christian stores in America and a Supreme Court decision redefining marriage impact an industry already reeling from seismic changes? These were the questions on the minds of everyone attending the International Christian Retail Show in Orlando this past week.

The fallout from the Family Christian Stores bankruptcy was evident from the moment that you entered the exhibit hall and saw how small the show had become. It was clear that a large number of vendors had not returned this year and that those who remained were occupying even smaller booths than in the past. Post-convention data revealed a 25% decline in attendance from one year to the next. Many of these Christian product suppliers had been hit hard by the financial impact of not having bills paid and not knowing if they ever would be. This reality had a ripple down effect on all the independent Christian retailers as well as these same suppliers cut back on the advertising in marketing group catalogs. One publisher decided to cut all catalog advertising for the rest of year.

While the FCS bankruptcy was a major point of discussion, it was overshadowed by the news that we now lived in a country where same-sex marriage had just been legalized by the Federal government. For some Christian retailers that were still trying to be relevant in a world that has largely rejected the need independent Christian bookstores, this was like a gut punch. What now? Are Christian stores now going to become targets for protests? Will Christian retail stores be perceived as the source of materials for bigots and the place to acquire “hate speech” in print? What does our future look like when we move from being irrelevant to being dangerous?

One thing was very clear – we could no longer do business as usual. Everything has changed and these were just evidences of the new reality that we all live in. Our job now is to learn to live a land where we no longer have “home field advantage” as Ed Stetzer from Lifeway research has recently pointed out. Instead we are going to have to learn to live as “elect exiles” and sojourners in a foreign land. All cultural superiority that has been such a part of evangelical conversations will need to be abandoned and a new spiritual humility will need to be our hallmark. We will need to follow Paul’s advice to the persecuted Thessalonians and “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with our hands”.

While the desire to do battle with the forces of darkness may be quite strong right now, that would only feed into a narrative that our enemies have already created for us. When evangelicals in America gave into the temptation to gain power and control over the governmental institutions in this nation, we made a grave mistake and have been paying the price ever since. God has called us to be salt and light, not to be the enforcers of morality in a pluralistic nation. As we spent all our time and energy fight a culture war, we lost a generation of young people who were appalled at our hubris and hypocrisy. Many of those young people were once in the church and how now left in droves.

As we mourn the evil that in encroaching all around us, we need to recognize the evil in our own hearts. Our God has allowed these things to happen and we must ask ourselves some tough questions. Were we more concerned about creating a Christian products industry than being a part of a real move of God? How did so many of us that started as committed ministers of the gospel ready to share the good news become culture warriors and part of a reviled Christian subculture? Did our desire to stay in business change our product mix and methods of doing business in way that it is no longer honoring to God? Did the difficulty of doing business in an increasingly competitive and hostile environment steal our joy? Have we lost our first love and become “the grumpy old Christians” that we used to criticize?

There are clearly challenging days ahead and choppy waters to navigate. Like Peter, we must recognize that our only hope is in Jesus who will rescue us from the drowning sea and that we cannot save ourselves. It is time for revival once again, but that will not happen until repentance becomes a reality. We must embrace 2 Chronicles 4:17, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” As we read that verse, we must remember that it was written to God’s people and not their enemies. We must turn from our wicked ways before we can ever hope to see that happen in the world around us.

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Expecting Serendipity

road markerI knew this was going to be a long trip, but I did not know that it would take almost two full days to get to my destination. Scott and I headed out early on Friday morning from Philadelphia to Orlando with an overnight stop planned in Columbia, SC at my parents’ house. Hoping for better driving conditions, I avoided I-95 and went down I-81 and everything was going great until we hit 10+ miles of traffic around Charlotte. After losing over an hour in that mess, we finally made it to my sister’s house for a dinner after over thirteen hours on the road.

We had a great time with my family, ate lots of food, got some much needed rest and planned for an 8AM start this morning. Right before I left my Dad made sure that I understood that I needed to take a side road to the main highway to avoid construction delays at their exit. As a dutiful son, I did just that and thought I must have been seeing things when we had to stop for a construction crew on the side road and nothing was happening on the main road. Was this a cruel joke? Had I misunderstood my Dad’s instructions? Within a few moments, I realized that in a bizarre coincidence, I had driven down that side road at just the time when a local foot race was being run and the police had everything stopped to let the runners go by. How could this have happened? We were going to waste precious time sitting there watching dozens of people go by and some of them (truth be told) were not even running at all.

As we arrived at the convention center many hours later for the trade show we are attending, I backed our van up the ramp and prepared to unload when I noticed something odd. Most of the doors to the building were closed and nobody else was coming or going. At just that moment someone came out of the doors and I asked them what was going on only to learn that the unloading period had ended at 5PM and nobody was being allowed in until the next morning. I could hardly believe my ears, but realized that I had no other choice but to come back when the doors would be open again. How could this all have happened? Was the world conspiring against me? My expectations of getting things done according to my schedule had been shattered and I was going to have to recalibrate.

Having made this trip to various cities around the country once a year for the same convention, I had lots of experience doing road trips and learning an important lesson that was reinforced again this year. While things may not always go according to my plans, if I am willing to listen and watch carefully, I am often astounded that God is in the midst of everything that is happening to me. He is still sovereign even when things don’t go my way. He will use all of my circumstances for my good and growth if I am willing to trust and obey.

As we were driving over the last couple of days, something wonderful was actually taking place inside that van. God was helping me to get to know Scott in an even deeper way and I discovered that Podcasts are a great way to spend time listening, learning and laughing while waiting. Candidly, I did not even know how Podcasts actually worked until Scott showed me that I had a Podcast app on my phone and it was actually quite easy to use. Suddenly, it all began to make sense why our President met a Podcaster in his garage recently to record an interview. Apparently there are quite a few other people listening to these fascinating shows and almost all are free.

I have often wondered why God seemed to have skipped the “patience” gene when he created my DNA and I have always been carefulserendipty not to pray for it either. Despite this, God is constantly at work in this area of my life chipping away at my desire for control and certainty. Little by little he is replacing those tendencies with a willingness to embrace flexibility and accept uncertainty. Slowly, I am seeing the joy that can come from unplanned moments when serendipity is allowed to flourish in my life and I can’t take any credit for it.

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The Favor of the Father

MomAndDadBeach2001It was a hot day, I did not have a hat on and I was beginning to sweat. I was standing next to the grave-site of one of my CLC colleagues who had died on the island of Trinidad and was listening to people sing hymns. I was still in shock that she had died and was getting more and more uncomfortable in the black suit that I was wearing. As I stood there, I could not help but remember that the person we were burying was hired by my Dad many years before and how much he and my mom would have wanted to have been at this event. Somehow, in a strange way I was now his representative and was walking in his shoes. In a great irony, it was only a few days earlier that I had watched with sadness how hard it was for him to walk at all.

It was on the island of Trinidad that I first remember understanding what my Dad did for a living and really being fascinated by his work. Our family had moved to the island to serve as missionaries and my Dad was learning a new skill. He had been a printer for almack familymost of his life up until that point, but was now learning how to run a bookstore. This was what God had called him to do and he took it on with gusto. I am not sure how hard this was for him to switch careers midstream in his early professional life, but I am guessing it was not easy. Despite that reality, I never heard my Dad complain about his work and instead saw a man who loved a challenge and embraced it wholeheartedly.

My Dad saw something unique in me from an early age. He knew that I loved to read and encouraged that habit by getting books for me and even reading to me himself when he could. Our family had a commitment to family devotions on a daily basis. One way that my Dad kept me interested in what could have become a tedious routine was to have me read the Bible story to the rest of the family. Sometimes he let me lead in prayer and always he made sure that we understood that this time was sacred and even more important that our meal times. He was deeply concerned about my spiritual welfare and let me ask him the thousands of questions that kept popping into my head as a child about life, God and what it really meant to be a Christian.

As I got a little older, I wanted to hang out with my Dad more and he found a way to make that possible. Despite the fact that he worked on Saturdays, he regularly allowed me to help with whatever he was doing. Sometimes I tagged along as he was setting up a bookstall in the local farmers market and on many occasions I just went to work with him and got lost in books, comic books and reading the newspaper in his office. Instead of considering me a nuisance, he embraced me as something of an apprentice. I learned what it meant to experience the favor of my father and began to grow in wisdom and stature as my heavenly father had done two millennia earlier.

dad in hospitalMy Dad no longer works in a bookstore, but he is no less of an example to me now than he was then. In humility, he asked for my help when he had a recent back surgery and I was delighted to be there for him. It was not easy to see him is so much pain, but I realized that the favor and love that he had bestowed on me was now coming back to honor him through the legacy of his four children and many grandchildren. I think the hospital staff must have wondered what celebrity they had on their ward as so many people came to see him, pray for him and wish him well. To God’s glory my Dad is recovering now and is in a lot less pain and walking far better than he had just a few weeks ago.

As I follow in my father’s footsteps and get older each year myself, it will be my joy to walk where heDad and I walked and to serve where he served. Some of the people at the funeral that day even commented how much I look like my Dad these days and I could not help but smile at that comparison. Though I know that my Dad would chuckle at that comparison too, he would also have another concern. He is far more concerned that I should look and act like another Father that we both serve and love. My greatest tribute to my earthly father will be to learn daily what it means to embrace Jesus more and more as my primary model for life and faith on this earth. Thanks Dad for making that your life’s greatest ambition. I am forever indebted to you for showing me an example of a life transformed.

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Finishing Well

finish lineThere are moments in our culture where things shift at warp speed and this was one of those weeks. It was bad enough that most of the secular culture was consumed in discussing the transformation of Bruce to Caitlin Jenner when the Christian blogosphere started buzzing about Tony Campolo’s publically coming out in support of gay marriage. The news about Tony was sad but not surprising as he has been moving in that direction for some time. What was much more surprising was that David Neff, who was the Editor-in-Chief for Christianity Today magazine until 2013 came out in support of Tony and his new views. Apparently, this caught CT by surprise as well and required a full blown public statement of their support of traditional/ Biblical marriage written by Mark Galli.

My friend Walt Mueller captured some of my own feelings on all this in his blog, Learning My Lines, and this is what he had to say,

“This morning, I looked across my desk at my book shelves. I looked at the shelves that are loaded with Bibles, commentaries, and theological texts. I realized that everything I learned in all those years of reading, listening, education, discussion. . . all those things that have shaped me, what I believe, my commitments, and how I do ministry. . . all those things are being called into question. Seriously. . . I wonder if I have wasted all my time, my money, even my life on errors and lies. I don’t believe I have, but the culture and even respected brothers and sisters in the faith would, I think, have me believe it’s all for naught.”

TransGlory2Glory_3D coverIt is at time like these that I am so blessed to be working in a ministry that is committed to publishing books “With a Clear Message” by “Trusted Authors”. One such book came out just this week called Transformed From Glory to Glory which was edited and compiled by Christopher Little. This wonderful new book is a tribute to the life and work of J. Robertson McQuilkin, former President of Colombia International University in South Carolina. Robertson was a leader with clear convictions about important topics like Bible Interpretation, Victorious Christian Living, World Missions, Christian Ethics and Christian Leadership. As I have been reading our published version of this book, I am struck by the consistency of his life that did not waver as he got older. In fact, it was in his later years that his Biblical convictions worked themselves out in practical ways that stand as a testament to us all. He will probably be best known for his sacrificial decision to give up the Presidency of the University to take care of his wife Muriel who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease as described in his best-selling book, A Promise Kept.

IWA-cover_3DWe will be publishing a book this fall entitled, Improving with Age by Stuart and Jill Briscoe. It is their manifesto on aging well and focuses on the reality that the last season of a Christian’s life can be the best. All too often, however, this is not the case. Many well-known Christian leaders have faltered in the latter stages of life and occasionally this can occur in areas of their theological convictions. Far too many have found it tempting to take a Universalist or relativistic view of salvation right before they die. While it is admirable to want all people to make it to heaven one day, it is sadly misleading to make a Biblical case for this where there is none. Now we have Christian leaders taking positions on sexual ethics that are not just contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, but are at odds with thousands of years of teaching in the Christian church as well.

As I get older, I will be looking to the examples of people like Warren Wiersbe, Stuart and Jill Briscoe, J. Robertson McQuilkin and others like them so that others may say of me what Paul said to Timothy,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

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