Monday, August 24, 2009

Strength In What Remains, A review

Strength in What Remains

This book is a masterpiece. It is possessed of a haunting beauty that gets inside you and won't let go. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Tracy Kidder recounts the true story of Deogratias and his harrowing escape from the genocide that ripped his country apart and his subsequent struggle to build some sort of a life in America. After arriving in the United States with $200 in his pocket with no grasp of the English language whatsoever, Deo, a former medical student in his home country, finds himself homeless, sleeping in central park, and delivering groceries for a living.

The horrors that Deo endured in his home country of Burundi are almost unimaginable. The mere fact that he survived is astounding. However, the true beauty of this book lies in how it cultivates hope. For all of humanity's darkness that threatens to close in on Deo, it is the kindness and compassion of strangers that saves, time and time again. I'm tempted to recount some examples of this, but I'd honestly hate to spoil it for you. It is often said that it is in despair that hope matters and it is only in the darkness that light makes a difference. That is the best way I can think of to characterize this book. It will restore your faith in humanity (even while reminding you how ugly we can be), and posses your heart with a beautiful ache to be a living conduit of hope to the world around you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Donald Miller's New Book

I freely admit that I love Donald Miller's writing style. Since I first read Blue Like Jazz, picking up one of Miller's new books has felt like sitting down for a good conversation with an old friend. His new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, is no different. Written in his typical memoir style, Miller invites us into a soul-searching re-examination of his own life. Apparently, after the success of Blue Like Jazz, Miller floundered a bit. He wrote a few other (in my opinion, excellent) other books, that did not sell nearly as well. He seems to have felt as if his life had lost its direction and momentum. His self-examination began after he was contacted by a movie production company who wanted to turn Blue Like Jazz, into a movie. As he began to work on the script with a couple of guys from the production company, he discovers that they must develop a "narrative arc" for the story. Miller began to learn about what makes movies compelling, and even attended a seminar on "story" by Robert McKee. As the book proceeds, Miller begins to apply the principles of Story to life, and even faith. The results are profound and compelling. Miller's keen wit and unflinching honest will take you from laughter to tears and back again...often in the same paragraph. You will be drawn in as he attempts to find his estranged father and deals with relational commitment issues. I could not put this book down (even as I was scrambling to finish the coursework for my Masters Degree). In short, I loved it. I think you will too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brian McLaren's Open Letter to Conservative Christians in the U.S. on Healthcare

Reposted from


Dear friends,
Although today I would not call myself a political or social conservative, I am grateful for my heritage as an Evangelical Christian: my faith is rooted in a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, I honor and seek to live in harmony with the Scriptures, and I love to share the good news of God's love with others. Since my teenage years when I decided to follow Jesus, I have pursued wholehearted discipleship, and my life has been shaped by that commitment. After completing graduate school and teaching college English, I became a church planter and pastor and served in the same congregation for twenty-four years.

But for almost that many years, I have been growing more and more deeply troubled by the way so many from my heritage in conservative Christianity – in its Evangelical, Charismatic, and Roman Catholic streams - have allowed themselves to be spiritually formed by various conservative political and economic ideologies. It's been disturbing to see how many Christians have begun to follow and trust leaders who live more by political/media/ideological codes than by moral/spiritual/biblical ones.

As a result, I sometimes think that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Fox News may now influence many conservative Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Catholics even more than Billy Graham, Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Pope Benedict, or even the four gospels.

Now in a free country, people certainly have the right to choose their ideology. But Christians of all sorts, I think we all can agree, have a special calling - to increasingly harmonize our lives (including our lives as citizens) with the teaching and example of Jesus. My concern is that many of my sisters and brothers, without realizing it, have begun seeing Jesus and the faith through the lens of a neo-conservative political framework, thus reducing their vision of Jesus and his essential message of the kingdom of God. As a result, too many of us are becoming more and more zealous conservatives, but less and less Christ-like Christians, and many don't seem to notice the difference.

Thankfully, many Christian leaders are far more thoughtful and nuanced in their integration of faith and public life. They don't jump on talk-radio's latest conspiracy theory bandwagons, nor do they buy flippant talk of "death panels" or inappropriate comparisons to Hitler and so on. But still, so many of them remain silent about what's going on, and thereby grant it tacit approval.

I too was silent for a long time during my years as a pastor. But during the lead-up to the Iraq War, as I saw how little discernment was being exercised regarding the moral logic of pre-emptive war, I began taking risks that I hadn't taken before. I was similarly moved to speak out when, in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, relatively few Christians in America took a stand against torture. (In fact, according to survey data, Southern White Evangelicals were the group most likely to support doing unto others as they would never want done to themselves.) And when I heard Christians (mis)using the Bible to argue against environmental responsibility, again, I could not be silent.

Now, in the debate about health care, I am similarly disheartened to see the relative silence of thoughtful Christian voices as counterpoint to the predictable rhetoric of the more reactive voices. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting mass-emails and weblinks from Evangelical and Charismatic organizations that present frightening and outlandish claims about what President Obama is planning to do regarding health care. I’ve checked into these claims, and in case after case, they are simply false. They’re based on rumors spread by certain dramatic radio and cable-tv personalities, but they are not based in truth.

Again, people are free to disagree humbly and respectfully with their fellow Christians and their government. (As readers of my books know, I take this freedom seriously in my own life). But we Christians, it seems to me, have a high calling – to be radically committed to integrity and civility, even (especially) with those with whom we disagree. God, after all, is merciful, generous, and kind to "the just and the unjust": how can we not have that same obligation regarding those with whom we disagree? Even if others resort to dirty political tricks and distortion of the truth through exaggeration and fear-mongering, we simply cannot. At the very least, we should be seekers of truth, seekers of wisdom, not consumers (or purveyors) of propaganda – even if it comes from members of our own political party and people who quote a lot of Bible verses (often out of context). We have a higher calling.

So, without going into health-care reform specifics (which is still difficult to do, since there are many fast-changing proposals in play and the process of developing a vote-able proposal is far from over), I would simply like to plead with conservative Christians – conservative Evangelicals, conservative Charismatics, conservative Catholics, and so on – to take a stand for integrity and civility in the health care debate, alongside and in solidarity with those of us who love Christ just as you do but do not rally around the conservative political banner.

If you take this stand, you will be heard by your fellow conservatives in ways that some of the rest of us can’t be heard. And lives could be saved as a result of our joint calls for Christian integrity and civility: we've already seen what happens when people translate religious and ideological passion into violent action. Recalling the words of that great 19th century British conservative Edmund Burke, think of what could happen in the next few years if too many good conservative people sit back and do nothing ... while less scrupulous and more desperate conservative people whip their followers into a frenzy through fear and inaccurate information.

I will continue to speak out on these issues as I have done in the past. But I don’t expect the most extreme Christian conservatives to listen to me much. Since I was an outspoken supporter of President Obama’s candidacy, and since before that I was equally outspoken against torture, against the invasion of Iraq, for environmental stewardship, etc., many of them have written me off (sometimes with quite spicy language). But if you are a conservative Christian who cares about integrity and civility in communication and debate, perhaps they will still listen to you when you call them to a higher standard. I hope you will take the risk of speaking out with that in mind.

As my friend Jim Wallis recently said so eloquently (, we may have honest differences with our fellow Christians on the issue of health care and many other issues too, but even in our differences we can agree that debates should take place in the light of truth and civility, not in the shadows of misrepresentation and prejudice.

Be assured, I am no uncritical supporter of health care reform. I am no more in favor now of rushing into expensive health care reform without sufficient debate than I was a few years ago when we rushed into an expensive pre-emptive war without sufficient care and discernment. I’m eager, like many of my conservative friends, to see the kind of reform that encourages small business and entrepreneurship. I'm interested in the kind of reform that reduces the power of both unaccountable mega-corporations and unaccountable government bureaucracy. I’m eager to see the kind of reform that doesn’t pave the way for powerful health insurance companies to do to the public in the next few decades what "too big to fail" Wall Street debt-repackagers did to us over the last few. I’m eager to see the kind of reform that in the long term reduces rather than increases our growing national debt and that truly helps our poorest neighbors without creating reductions in real service for our more prosperous neighbors.

Getting the kind of reform we need won’t be easy, especially with so many powerful interests spending huge amounts of money to achieve their own ends, with too little concern for justice, the common good … or the truth. That’s why, for there to be the kind of debate that produces good results, we who call ourselves Christians - conservative or otherwise - need to stand for full integrity in communication, whatever our political leanings. We need to be sure that the best arguments on both sides are heard ... not being satisfied to compare "our" best with "their" worst, as unscrupulous politicians and media personalities so often like to do, and not reducing the views of others to absurdity, even if we disagree with them vehemently.

The moral authority of Christians has been severely compromised in our culture in recent years. The most serious kinds of sexual scandals have rocked the Catholic, Evangelical, and Charismatic communities, not to mention financial scandals, ugly denominational lawsuits, and high-profile divisions. Studies have shown that some kinds of Christians are not only more likely to support torture - they are also more likely to hold racist views, to engage in domestic violence, and to end their marriages in divorce. No wonder young people are turned off as never before to a hypocritical face of Christianity that radiates shame, anger, and judgment rather than grace, love, and truth.

Even if we disagree on health care reform and other political issues, I hope we can agree that it is time for us to start walking - and talking - more worthy of the calling to which we have been called, to use Paul's words, to speak the truth, and to do so always in love. Or as James said, we must remember in this fire-prone political climate that the tongue can set off tiny rhetorical sparks that create huge flames of unimagined and unintended destruction. It can spread a false wisdom that sounds good on the surface, but beneath the surface is driven not by love but by bitter envy and selfish ambition. In contrast, he said (3:13 ff),

"The wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise of harvest of righteousness."

Wise and needed words to guide us in the weeks and months ahead as health care reform is debated for better or for worse. May both the debate and the outcome bring us to a better place.


By the way, if you’d like to do some fact-checking about the health care debate, here are some faith-based sources that I believe can be trusted to avoid uncritical and inaccurate reporting about health care. I understand they will be offering correctives to rumors and misinformation in the months ahead.