Friday, August 28, 2015

Podcast of the Week (8/23 - 8/29, 2015) Wayne Grudem and Mike Mobley on Creation, Time from Grudem's lectures on Systematic Theology

Last year, I read several books by cosmologists and physicists on string theory, the Big Bang, and the creation of the universe. Recently, I've been reading books that try to advance how we got from our random planet to ever-evolving biological life (these books yet to be reviewed here). Coincidentally, my Sunday school class is starting new Gospel Project curriculum next week starting with Genesis 1, and I'm facilitating the discussion. As such, I thought it useful to go back and listen to Grudem's lectures from his book, which are available for free on iTunes.
In particular, there is one lecture on "The Doctrine of God", four lectures on "The Doctrine of Creation" and one on "What is Time?"

What is Time is actually a lecture and Q&A with Mike Mobley, from the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State Univ, and a PhD in Chemical Physics (he has a great CV). Mobley chimes in on several Grudem lectures as well.

Unlike Stephen Hawking and other string theorists currently, Mobley holds that the universe isn't infinite and has a beginning, roughly 15 billion years ago. A beginning necessitates a first cause. Time, space, and matter must all be created by an entity that exists outside them; he uses the analogy of someone operating a DVD. God can see all points in time because he exists outside it. (Mobley doesn't say it, but the standard model says that all moments in time already exist.) Unlike some young earth "creation scientists," Mobley holds that the speed of light is constant, and notes that if the speed of light were infinite, our world would have existed only for an instant. God must have had a purpose to make the speed of light what it is, so we exist for as long as we do. There is a lot in the lecture about special relativity, I felt he explained it all well.

"God changes the apparent past." Mobley uses the water-to-wine miracle as an example, tests on this likely would have shown that it had always been wine. God has the power to do that.

Many in the audience are young-earth creationists who are somewhat offended by the idea, while Grudem is more sympathetic to the 14 billion year old earth idea (and argues both are acceptable). Mobley believes that if the world is only 10,000 years old, then God made it look like it was 14 billion years old; if he created Adam as an adult, then he created an adult male of an old age who in reality was a much smaller age.

I recommend listening to all the above, along with the lectures on "The Providence of God" which get more into the idea of time and the problem of evil. Worth noting that William Lane Craig debates Grudem on what he has written and said about God and time which you can read here. There are other books mentioned in these lectures which I would like to read one day. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less by Nicholas Boothman (Book Review #67 of 2015)

How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less
Boothman describes best practices for interpersonal communication skills and first impressions. These may seem like common sense but for most people they will require some level of conscious effort and practice. While useful for all, I would recommend this book to someone with Asperger's who struggles with social thinking and reading body language. For a more detailed treatment on various aspects, read Dale Carnegie's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People (my review). But Boothman delves into aspects of reading others' body language that Carnegie does not.

We are subconsciously attracted to people who we perceive to have similar traits as us, who move like us. "I like him" really means "I AM like him." So, subtle synchronization with the opposite party's movements and habits creates a hook, subconsciously recognizing that you are like them will help them be more endearing. Synchronizing the other's attitude may also help, if they're mad show empathy by being mad, etc.

Attitude matters most and should be your starting point. The author uses the acronym of KFC: Know what you want, Find out what you're getting, Change what you do until you get what you want. Let your attitude be a demonstration of what you want, if you want someone to like you do what it takes to achieve that. If you want to get the job, show you care about it. Most people express what they DON'T want-- they don't want their boss to yell at them, or a co-worker to annoy them, etc. Instead, express what you want-- do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

When speaking, keep your body open to the other person, as if you're exposing your heart. Closed body indicates a fight-or-flight posture and is a put-off. Maintain this posture and the right attitude even with people you don't want to deal with, he gives some advice on dealing with people we'd rather not. Engage in active listening and respond to compliments with "thank you" and a smile; do not engage in self deprecating remarks like "it was nothing," or "no problem."

Another key is understanding that people have different sensory preferences-- they are visual, auditory, or feeling learners, that's how they remember things and that's how they communicate. Boothman determine's people's style by observing their eyes when he asks a question. People who look to their left are probably visual thinkings, looking down indicates a feeler, and looking up indicates an auditory thinker. That reaction helps him determine what gestures to use in communication.

Apparently Boothman speaks to audiences with his techniques, including high schoolers eager to fit in and find jobs. He does give a few exercises to help drive home his point about attitude, handshake, etc. Definitely something to be more conscious about. Short, probably could have been shorter. 3 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Abraham by Bruce Feiler (Book Review #66 of 2015)

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

I checked out this book partly because we are currently going through Genesis at my church and partly because I've been reading a lot of books on the history of the Middle East. Most books dealing with the latter don't go back much further than the time of the Greeks, so I found the author's quest to be somewhat noble-- retrace the supposed origin of three major religions. Feiler is on an ecumenical quest that he admits is hard and not very hopeful-- all three religions teach incompatible truths. But that doesn't stop his quixotic quest.

Other reviewers have rightly critiqued his limited number of sources, his cherry-picking of what he believes about each religion, lack of philosophical depth, and neglecting to mention major parts of the Abrahamic story from Genesis (he skips to Abraham's death after the binding of Isaac [the Akedah]).

 But I did find the book interesting, particularly the tracing through history of how Abraham has been reinterpreted, particularly by Jewish Rabbis and Islamic commentators since the Middle Ages. For more on how these traditions have changed in Islam, I recommend Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword. I am not as familiar with works on Jewish tradition. FWIW, I think Feiler understands orthodox Christianity and biblical theology correctly, although he rejects the Gospel as possibly true. He quotes extensively from Paul and understands the Gospel and how Isaac prefigured Jesus and how Jesus supercedes him. He also accepts conservative dates for the authorship of New Testament books. He has some good commentary on Genesis that you might find in any text on historical or biblical theology. But his main source on Christianity appears to be the head of the Eastern Orthodox church in Jerusalem, which is problematic.

Feiler concludes early on that the tale represents mutual dependence "God needs Abraham," and "Abraham needs God." God chose Abraham to make Himself known, and Abraham needed God in order to have offspring. Feiler claims only 1% of known traditions regarding Abraham are found in the Bible. The Quran contained other traditions that circulated orally in the Middle East and since then Islamic and Jewish scholars have added some stories. The Quranic stories tend to show Abraham as having earned merit with God by being smarter than his relatives, knowledgeable about astronomy, and rejecting their idolotry. In the Quran, he smashes his father's idols. Islam sees Abraham's submission to God first, and then God's reward to Abraham. Judaism and Islam both focus on this internal action-- submission-- with Jewish rabbis in the Middle Ages holding Isaac up as a symbol of submission as well, preaching him voluntarily sacrificed and even resurrected, in order to encourage Jews being slaughtered by European Crusaders.

The author rightly notes that in Genesis there is a simple call and an immediate response. Moses' call, in contrast, came in the form of the miraculous, and he even asked for further signs as confirmation. Abraham's departure from his home as a sojourner is fundamental to the Christian identity that we are pilgrims on the earth (1 Peter 2:9-12). It is Hagar, and not Abraham, who is the first in the Bible to receive a messenger angel (Genesis 16:7-11) who calls her by name, and gives name to her child (Ishmael). Like many Christian commentators, Feiler notes God's mercy to Hagar demonstrates God's care for other nations than the heirs of Abraham. The "wild donkey" of Ishmael would be dependent, like Abraham, on God to find water and blessing (Gen. 17:20, 21:17-20). (Feiler ignores or misses that the information given in Genesis would make Ishmael a late teenager in Genesis 21.) Isaac being the second-born heir with an eternally uncomfortable relationship with his brother prefigures the relationship of Isaac's children Jacob and Esau.

Feiler does focus some on the traditions of Hagar, Muslim commentators later claimed Hagar as a princess or some sort of royalty. Feiler interviews a scholar on biblical women who notes that the reader of Gensis is asked to sympathize doubly with both barren Sarah (who is given away by Abraham twice out of fear, which Feiler skips over) and the rejected handmaiden Hagar. God blesses both children into great nations which sets the stage for a later clash. Josephus specifically traces the Arabs to Abraham, as do other Jewish sources, but apparently there is little evidence that Arab scholars claimed the same lineage until Mohammed made the claim. In the Quran and various later traditions, Abraham and Ishamel built the Kaaba in Mecca, and then God ordered Abraham to leave Hagar and Ishmael there before returning to Canaan.

The importance of the "Akedah," the binding of Isaac is given its due by the author and brings him to a specific conclusion. Feiler (who is Jewish) interviews rabbis and gives information on how this story has been reinterpreted through the centuries, I recommend reading up some on it.
The Quran is unclear as to who was to be sacrificed, the story is changed to be a dream had by a son, and the son is not named. Perhaps the earliest Muslims assumed this to be Isaac in keeping with the well-known Jewish tradition, but historical documents suggest Islamic scholars being roughly split on whether it was Isaac or Ishmael until a later period when it became generally accepted.

The importance of Isaac to theology is interesting. Feiler asks if Abraham was "testing God" with Isaac or trusting him, and that this event "brings God down to earth" in a unique way. Feiler writes that the tradition of Abraham and Isaac was essentially lost or did not exist until the period of Babylonian exile when the Talmud--the Mishnah and the Torah-- were written and codified during the Babylonian exile. When the scribe Ezra returned to Jerusalem with the exices in the 5th century B.C., these were read aloud and had to be interpreted (Nehemiah 8:8) which Feiler takes to mean the people were hearing these things for the first time. The sojourning Abraham became a necessary figure to the origins of the sojourning exiles in Babylon. Abraham and Isaac are invoked throughout the Old Testament, but Feiler (citing scholars) can ignore this because he apparently believes these were inserted into stories later. He claims the Isaac sacrifice was not found in known Jewish writing again until the first century BCE, and were written in a persecution context. Every persecution and exile seems to bring a new interpretation of both Abraham and Isaac.

Feiler cites evidence from Quran and the Essenes of the Isaac-as-martyr motif in Jewish thought, and the importance of Abraham. Jewish scholars by this time had improved on Abraham, writing that he had not died, creating the idea of Abraham as the coming Messiah as late as 100 BCE. Isaac became a self-sacrificing role model rather than the object of Abraham's obedience, and this sentiment was rekindled again during the persecution of the Middle Ages. It was into this context that Jesus was born, and why Jesus' claim to be before Abraham was immediately heretical (John 8:58, but note that in 8:53 the Jews state that Abraham "died," which runs contra to Feiler's thesis). He ignores any mention of the resurrection or the change of Jesus' followers from defeat to eager evangelists, adopting the stance that they needed something in Jewish history to link Jesus to, and Paul chose Abraham. The geneology in Matthew's gospel likewise includes Abraham, and the Luke's includes the parable of the righteous poor going to "Abraham's bosom." This section seems to contradict what he wrote above about the relatively newly increased importance of Abraham in BCE Palestine. Feiler also makes the claim that "Jews didn't come" to Christian thinking, ignoring that all of Jesus' disciples were Jews, that Jews were the first converts, and the seemingly most important body of believers for the early church was located in Jerusalem (Acts 11 & 15).

Nonetheless, I think Feiner understands Romans 4 and Paul's explanations of the faith of Abraham and what it means for Christians very well. He interviews Richard J. Wood, former Dean of the Yale Divinity School on this subject and gets some decent explanations. However, later Christian apologists and theologians like Justin Martyr, Eusebius, and Irenaeus made claims that Abraham was not Jewish, and the antisemitism that spread in the first few centuries seemed eager to deny any links to Abraham.

After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and Christianity was becoming widespread, Rabbis began to teach that Isaac had died and been resurrected. This was to counter the Christian's claim that Jesus was superior to Isaac, whose near sacrifice had simply prefigured Christ's as the Lamb of God. Rabbis facing persecution in the Middle Ages also rekindled the self-sacrifice story, claiming persecution showed God's favor.

Feiler reaches hjis own conclusion that Abraham's decision to sacrifice Isaac is a sign of fanatical devotion, each religion's history would suggest they are all willing to sacrifice their own children out of devotion to God. He asks a Rabbi whether he would devote his own son and gets an immediate "yes," a sign of piety and unattachment to this world. In the Hajj to Mecca, the sacrifice ceremony is the climax, and the history of Islam and Sura 15 of the Quran's exhortation to spreading the faith by the sword is further evidence of at-all-costs violence. "All three religions place the father's willingness to sacrifice his son at the center of their identity."

This is problematic in that Feiler does not note that God in the Torah forbids child sacrifice and repeatedly judged nations that engaged in such practices. In contrast with the Code of Hammurabi, for example, under Mosaic law each is accountable for his own sin, not children for their parent's sins. Under Hammurabi, if a man accidentally killed another man's daughter he responded by sacrificing his own daughter-- not so in Mosaic law, the man himself would be held liable. It is contrary to God's nature to sacrifice innocent blood. Thus, Christ had to "become sin" for us, from which God had to look away. The Bible says Jesus became cursed and suffered God's wrath just as we all would without Christ's atoning for our own sins (Galatians 3).

Feiler includes other historical criticism of Islam, writing that the Arabic language itself keeps the Quran from the same textual criticism that the Bible is subjected to. While attending Friday prayers at a mosque in East Jerusalem he has a disturbing conversation with Muslims intent to kill Jews. Undeterred, Feiler writes of ecumenical councils and the attempts to reach a common ground on Abraham. He notes that at Abraham's burial in Genesis 25, Isaac and Ishmael are both present to bury their father, suggesting peace and unity. (He doesn't mention Abraham's other children and how he sent all them away from Isaac, or how he got a wife for Isaac and other aspects of Abraham's life.)

The Tombs of the Patriarchs located in the West Bank used to be a site of ecumenical worship and respect, but it has more recently seen riots and social unrest. This does not bode well for the future of ecumenicism. After 9/11, the author attempts to see Abraham as the way to create tolerance and peace, as representing "all men's desire to be connected to God," but is able to reach no conclusions other than his own undying hope for peace. While not a great book, it did add some to my understanding of the development of religious thought and tradition in the Middle East and made me curious to read his next book, where he attempts to walk the Bible and retrace Abraham's footsteps. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Family. Money by Parker, Sperry, & Willis (Book Review #65 of 2015)

Family. Money.
David Willis, Terry Parker, and Greg Sperry of the National Christian Foundation (2008)

The best books are free, this one is a free PDF although it is also available as a small hardback.
The authors get five stars for succinctness and theological soundness. They do not get bogged down in details, nor do they preach or inject politics. They get right at the core problem of family financial planning and propose a solution. This is a book I would recommend reading before doing Financial Peace University or other course. Dave Ramsey may give you some steps to follow, but never really addresses the core of the matter and how to make your financial intentions sustainable. The book is really a first step towards estate planning.

"The Great Taboo" - p. 11-12
there is an invisible boundary in our Western culture when talking about money, just like talking about the bedroom. There is a shame attached to what we earn, our purchasing decisions, our lack of knowledge about saving and investment. We don't talk about our views of money with our family because those conversations are uncomfortable. "Some fear talking about inheritance because it will spoil the motivation of the inheritor." But that's silly, one should prepare the inheritor for what he is about to receive. "Failing to discuss your thoughts with loved ones leaves them to assume the worst about the reasons for your choices (when reading your will for the first time after you die)."

The authors note that a parents' attitude about money will be remembered as a defining attribute, and definitely will shape their kids' attributes. Did you have the freedom to ask about finances at home when you were growing up? Wouldn't you like to foster that freedom in your own home now? How can we make money something "safe" to talk about?

"Wealth should be viewed like a family room where everyone gathers to enjoy each other" (p. 17). Families desire harmony, and a goal should be to harmonize views on money (p. 24). What is your family's "Stewardship Philosophy?" All wealth and possessions ultimately belong to God; we are God's agents, stewards who will give an account (p. 19). But the details of our attitude about spending, saving, and estate planning need to be understood as a family in order to reduce conflict and eliminate unpleasant surprises.

The leader of the household should examine how he feels about money, journal it out. Then, look at the checkbook: does the reality match the philosophy? Ask five questions:
- Who really owns the things you own?
- What assets have been entrusted to your care?
- When is it "enough?"
- Where should it go in the end? (family, charity, or taxes)
- Why will your children's children share in your stewardship philosophy?

Include kids in your stewardship discussion. Clarify your own belifs first, and then communicate your knowledge and beliefs about money in an open, friendly, listening session with your family. Once everyone is on the same page, make a written statement about your philosophy. Then, make commitments which demonstrate your decisions and objectives.

I particularly like the authors' attitude that "stewardship is an act of worship" (p. 28). They call the phase of wealth acquisition "wealth reception," (p. 38). God sees our earthly and heavenly wealth, he knows what we've given up in faith and our hearts. The authors give some questions to ask about wealth acquisition, using John Wesley as an example but noting the deficiencies of the example. They include some questions to ask to determine if wealth is an idol (p. 42-44): Do you feel closer to God when financially successful? Are you happier? Are spiritual and financial success linked in your mind? If so, these are signs of idolotry. Do you want more of what you have enough of? How do you "affair-proof" your relationship with God?

It's tricky to draw a line between building wealth without hoarding, the authors write that God can show you through His word (and I would add other believers walking with you in your local church). But a Family Stewardship Philosophy sets guidelines so you know when "enough is enough," for your lifestyle, savings goals, etc.

Moving from "reception" to "preservation." Is your motive in preserving your wealth love? Love to be able to help your parents pay for their retirement home? Love to help your kids pay for college or their first home? Love for your community that you use the funds to assist it? Love helps you determine how much you really need. Five minutes with your checkbook will tell you where your heart is. "Giving determines your lifestyle, not the other way around" (p. 62). 

Don't ask "Who needs my resources?" ask "How can I glorify God?"  We are not expected to meet every need, as this would not be good stewardship. "Give until it hurts" is unbiblical, write the authors. The better advice is "give until it feels good."
The authors wisely quote John Piper's Dangerous Duty of Delight on this. Pursue pleasure in God in giving, otherwise it's idolotry. Not pursuing pleasure in this activity without pursuing pleasure in God is "not optional."

Moving to the "transition" phase of retirement and asset withdrawal. What needs stir your heart? Are the people you're passing assets to prepared to steward them properly?  The authors recount the story of a woman who included stipulations in her will about the inheritance-- the inheritors must first use money to go on a mission trip. Setting up trusts that have such stipulations help the recipient be disciplined to appreciate the inheritance and increase the likelihood of good stewardship going forward.

The authors close with tips on how to converse with your families and introduce the idea of a Stewardship Plan. With a plan in place you don't have to ask "should I buy this?" "Is this too expensive?" etc. It is a very practical book.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Sermon of the Week (8/16 - 8/22, 2015) Damian Kyle on Matthew 8:1 - 9:13

Damian Kyle has been going through Matthew for a while, and I have learned a lot from this series. Here he is specifically looking at the calling of Levi/Matthew the tax collector and makes interesting points both about historical Roman tax collection and the text that were new to me. He points out that Matthew uses "hypocrite" more than any other Gospel, and that as a tax collector Matthew would have known more about hypocrisy than most. In this text, Jesus is relentlessly loving and pursuing sinners who have shunned from Jewish society and it's a reminder for us to do the same (particularly for those who have been expelled due to church discipline over sin issues).

There is also discussion of the impossibility of building a Christian subculture that hides from the world. The false separation touted by the Pharisees was really an expression of weakness. Their Gospel-less religion ultimately wasn't strong enough to come into contact with the world.

Enjoy (on iTunes, you can subscribe to the RSS at the link above).

Thursday, August 20, 2015

On Blades of Blue Grass by Neil Harrod (Book Review #64 of 2015)

On Blades of Blue Grass: Stories of Nicholasville, Kentucky
This is a two-star book partly due to the many grammatical errors and typos. The author is an aspiring writer in need of a proofreader. I noticed it was offered free for Kindle and took the chance to support a local author.

I grew up in Lexington, of which Nicholasville has basically become a suburb. There was greater distance between the two when the author (just a few years older than me) was growing up in the 1980s. This book is the author's recollection of childhood memories, telling mostly unconnected stories. Most of it is mundane, and the early memories are likely embellished. I do not believe someone called him a "snake-handling cracker" when he was five years old. He grew up in a dysfunctional home witnessing domestic violence and always tempted to run away. Much of the book is a tribute to the friends and families who loved him through that time.

The final chapter is actually a good essay, recollecting the author's near-death experience with a train on High Bridge and its consequences for his life. Like me, the author has returned to central Kentucky after a long absence, although he draws a different conclusion from that outcome than I do, personally. This is a beautiful paragraph:

"I never came back– to either High Bridge or my homeland and though I would move somewhere and then come back for a while; I was never really back when I was home. It was like, that night on the bridge, instead of walking to my car after the train passed by; I actually jumped on board and went with it...It was that bitterness that allowed my mind to believe there was some place better than Nicholasville and that there were people better than the ones in Nicholasville, and that if I just kept running away from home, then I would find a home elsewhere...I am who I am today because of the fact that I grew up in Nicholasville, Kentucky. For I was born a simple Kentucky boy who had a heart full of love and mind filled with optimistic invention and by the simple act of forgiveness I became that boy once more.""

If you grew up in Jessamine Co., then you might know the names and places in the book. Otherwise, pass.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Built to Last by Collins and Porras (Book Review #63 of 2015)

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials)
To differentiate my review from the myriad others, I try to relate it to church and faith-based organizations. Collins has written his own summary on his website, which is handy. Really, this book is a study on management and organizational behavior in competitive by firms who went from a garage idea to income equivalent to the GNP of small countries and kept growing there for decades. I don't find the commonalities in practice between the 18 super companies different than you might find advised in a Blanchard or Maxwell leadership text. Reading this book you often think "Man, I wish my church/school/company/office would do these things." The list:

  1. 3M
  2. American Express
  3. Boeing
  4. Citicorp (now Citigroup)
  5. Disney
  6. Ford
  7. General Electric
  8. Hewlett Packard
  9. IBM
  10. Johnson & Johnson
  11. Marriott
  12. Merck
  13. Motorola
  14. Nordstrom
  15. Philip Morris (now Altria)
  16. Procter & Gamble
  17. Sony
  18. Wal-Mart

I've read both Levitt and Kahneman, I'm very familiar with their critique of Collins' hindsight bias, the halo effect, and the understatement of luck. But these types of studies are common in all fields where you want to compare entities over time. How would you have gone about it? Whether you're reading Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel; Thom Rainer's Autopsy of a Dead Church; or Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order or its sequel-- they're all basically doing the same thing. Americans watch former Governors debating on stage to be President, boasting of their states' economic and employment growth during their terms, as though they had something to do with it. What are some possible hypotheses for why certain institutions thrive and never regress to the mean, and why do some never make it out of incubation? If there was a clear answer, everyone would do it (and then it would't work). The authors do write, however, that following this patterns of the other companies may paradoxically make you more successful or less successful. It makes sense once you read the book.

This was the 2004 version, which was updated from the 1994 version and is now seems written to go logically after Good to Great. I liked this book much better than Good to Great, which I think suffered from the above much more and suffered the reader to remember their made-up jargon. Half companies in Good to Great have either gone bankrupt or fallen much further back to "average." The 18 "visionary" companies in BTL are mostly still household names, and while some have not thrived in the Internet and mobile age, they still thrived through 50+ years of technological change and economic churn, and while their benchmark competitors have also, not to the same extent. These firms were picked by a survey of 165 CEOs, not by cherry picking stock data. However, the firms identified each generated at a return to investors of over 15 times what investing in the entire market would have gotten, while the comparison companies outperformed the market, but at roughly only twice the market average. Over a 50-year time horizon (more since this book was updated in 2004) most are still performing well.

My biggest critique of the book is that they do not look at the rent-seeking behavior of these companies. Boeing, for one, is the multi-billion dollar recipient of tax incentives and subsidies in the states they operate. So, they used their market power to leverage government help. It is similar with the other entities in this book, if we agree with Kahneman that randomness explains the > 2sigmas above the mean returns over time, then perhaps when these companies achieved that return they were able to cash in by lobbying for trade protection, Ex-Im Bank favor, etc. Motorola and Sony had connections with the Japanese government that goes mostly unexplored. Controlling for that, you might have a different picture. But the authors would likely argue that competitor companies received just as much, and probably sometimes more, taxpayer help but without the same results.

Lessons from the book:
The core values of the organization are what matters, nothing else. "Your core values are your non-negotiables," what principles would you not give up even if it meant higher profit? This core is what you build around, regardless of what the profits will be. All 18 visionary companies do this, return to it continually, and success follows later.

The values are something every member should know, something everyone should be able to recite when asked. Just like America has the same Constitution whenever a new Congress or President is elected, visionary companies don't fundamentally change when a new CEO is appointed. Likewise, a church with a plurality of elders should transition fairly seamlessly if the lead pastor leaves, the vision and core values of the church shouldn't change.

Principles and processes more important than leaders and personalities. Most of the visionary companies did not have charismatic, salesman-like CEOs. Nor were their CEOs mostly outsiders-- most came from within the company already steeped in the values and the core business. Healthy organizations have a team of leaders that complement each other's weaknesses, if your organization is depending on one dynamic leader then it will fail when he leaves, retires, or dies.

There is no "tyranny of the 'or,'" if someone else can make your core business offering better than you can, move on to something else. Your core values are "the only sacred cow," you must be willing to change anything and everything else. American Express was once a delivery service like UPS, for example. But you must "preserve the core AND stimulate progress." "To be built to last, you must be built to change." The elephant must dance. Each of the companies had an ability to come back from difficult times better than before by changing what it made, "selling the mills," (story not included in this book), etc. When the PC market seemed to savage IBM, it rebuilt its core around servers and business services, dominating its chosen market. The business changed because the economy changed, but the values didn't.

The authors actually find a negative correlation between early success and later success. Failure comes first. Hewlett-Packard was once a garage workshop for two engineers trying gadgets like auto-sensing urinals. The products they produced did not matter, and profit was not the end-all, they just knew they wanted to work together and what they stood for. Finding the right product came later, the values and "who is on the bus" mattered first.

Policy and values must be put ahead of goals. In other words, "start with 'why?'" Visionary companies must have core values, that is the repeated message and jives with what I read in Toxic Workplace, which I also recommend. Only once values are embraced can you come up with the Big Hairy Audacious Goals that the 18 visionaries tended to have. Don't confuse the two, your core values are not "To sell..." or "To be the market leader..." but things like "Be a model of integrity in the industry," "value the customer," etc. Your BHAGs are essentially your short or mid-term vision, which also should be embraced by members. "200 adult baptisms next year," "Serve meals in every downtown block," or "produce the first water-powered airplane," etc. The goal should be clearly understood, and everyone sees his role as working to support that vision.

Sinek's Start With Why talked about companies allowing employees to experiment, and he was partly drawing from Collins et al. Extreme Toyota is another book I have read recently that looks at audacious successes and failures that come from permission to experiment. 3M is an example of unplanned success, giving its employees a rule of 15% of their time spent experimenting with new ideas. The employee is empowered to be creative and to fail. Allowing people to be persistent with their ideas until it's clear they won't work is also important, one trial run should not determine success or failure. The Wal Mart greeter was originally an experiment by one store to stop shoplifting, it worked and spread. Companies that embrace "evolutionary progress" become the elephants that can dance.

All leaders/CEOs/pastors and even parents are interim, it's just a matter of time. Visionary companies have a succession plan in place, including a culture of promoting from within to preserve the core. Continuity mattered in the 18 visionary companies, with few hiring CEOs from the outside. At Nordstron, everyone starts at the stockroom and works up to the store floor before progressing on to management, if they have met their targets and earned it; it's an expectation. I read at least one Ken Blanchard book where he wrote of his regret at leaving a church without a succession plan in place, he watched from a distance as his former church struggled to find a new pastor and declined abysmally. Not having a succession plan is irresponsibility.

Visionary organizations also create mechanisms of discomfort to combat complacency. This requires setting even more Big Hairy Audacious Goals, experimenting with new ways of doing things, and examining whether or not you've changed with the times. If you have a happy, holy huddle and you're fine with it, then decay is probably setting in. If you're not growing, you're dying.

The authors close with advice for leaders and Boards: Make a list of your top 3 priorities annually. Then, make a list of something you need to start doing, something you should stop doing, and determine how you'll measure these. If you're not self-improving ruthlessly, then you will just end up average, or even slightly above average, and not visionary.

I give it 4 stars out of 5. I enjoyed it, recommend it as a leadership and management book. One book the authors recommend which I have not read is Barbarians at the Gate, which is the R.J. Reynolds story.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sermon of the Week (8/9 - 8/15, 2015) Greg Pinkner @gregpinkner on John 11

"If you had been here..."
I recently finished a book by an atheist complaining that God cannot be loving or fair because of all the suffering that happens in the world, that God must be a real jerk. What do you say to a person like that? 
In this sermon on the resurrection of Lazarus, Pinkner points out that our first theological thought needs to be about God's glory-- God does things to bring glory to Himself and man exists to glorify God and(by) enjoy(ing) Him forever. Often, Americans incorrectly begin with "God does X because he loves us," (putting ourselves as the primary thought) and therefore cannot reconcile why bad things happen, and reject or become angry with God. 

In John 11, God clearly uses suffering to put His glory on display. Suffering is a "megaphone to your soul," and Jesus increases Mary and Martha's suffering by letting Lazarus die rather than going and healing him. He did that "so that they might believe that You sent me" (v. 42). 

Like other parts of this series on John, Pinkner gives interesting insights into the text that you may not have thought of before, including a good explanation of the suffering Mary and Martha would have felt and why Jesus likely wept. 

Listen and enjoy. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars by Jim Paul (Book Review #62 of 2015)

What I Learned Losing A Million Dollars
by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan

($1.5 million, actually)

If you've read Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness (or others), then you've heard the stories of young traders who weren't even alive during previous market crashes who make soaring fortunes, convince themselves of their own greatness, live the high life, then come crashing down when suddenly the market turns and they're left broke and unemployed after realizing markets don't always go up. Most of those traders don't write books, but fortunately Jim Paul did (and he's older than my dad).

This book was on Tim Ferriss' recommended list and I've heard several people cite what it taught them, and given that Paul was a Kentuckian I was interested to read the tale. It's a quick read and mostly interesting. If you've already read quite a bit of Taleb, Kahneman, Arielly, or other behavioral economists then you might not glean much insight into human behavior. But the vast majority of people I've met in the finance industry have not read those authors and suffer from the same hubris.

The book is summed up in the beginning, but here's the book in a paragraph:
It is a study of losing in order to win; success too often sets the stage for failure. The key lesson is not to personalize success or failure. Every business book written by traders with recipes for success contains contradictions. Following one "successful" strategy will put you at odds with someone else's "successful" strategy. Just because a person appears successful (or not) does not mean that he is, he was most likely lucky (even if convinced otherwise). People don't write books about the unlucky. One way to get an edge in life is to study the rules and use them to your advantage. If you're a trader, use a hard rule to cut your losses and walk away. First, decide what kind of market you are going to participate in, then decide what kind of market analysis you are going to use, and then what your maximum acceptable loss is. Be disciplined not to deviate from your rules. If someone asks you "are you in, or will you stay stupid?" simply explain that person's trade may be successful but it's not part of your own strategy. Understand that losses are objective, they will happen, and they're not your fault. But not minimizing those losses by walking away "when it becomes painful" is your fault, and that's what Paul stresses.

Paul grew up in Elsmere, KY not far from Cincinnati. Even as a nine year old in the 1950s he had to work to pay for his Catholic school tuition and books. He enrolled at the University of Kentucky in 1961 and essentially invited himself into a fraternity, then hustled someone at cards to avoid hazing. He was not a model student but did well enough in business and economics because he understood it intuitively, although he was horrible at math. He grew up working at a country club and it seems his dad knew some people, eventually he joints the Army and gets into OCS via a Congressman's phone call. At OCS he finally buckles down to obey the rules and give his best effort, graduating at the top of his class. He gets to miss Vietnam, which is a bonus.

He gets an MBA from Xavier which helps him broaden his network. He struggled with the math-intensive courses in the MBA program, and gives encouragement to anyone with a weakness: learn from the division of labor. "If you can't do something pay someone who can and don't worry about it." He gets on with a firm that offers him a job trading and learning from other more powerful brokers, basically by reading the book related to their psychological evaluation so he knows how to get a perfect score. (Find the rules and use them.) By 1969, he keeps getting the idea that he is "better" than everyone due to his ability to climb. He turns down a low offer with a big NYC trader and ends up doing better in Cincinnati.

When fired, he moves to Cleveland and a small firm entering the commodity markets, booming after Nixon closes the "gold window" in 1971. He sets up shop on the Chicago Board of Trade using "LUCK" as his name tag in order to get noticed and remembered. He quickly gets elected to be part of the Board of Governors, making him privy to the inner circle that runs the exchange, easily making $200-300 annually. But he admits that the "vast majority" of his wins were "lucky," he had no idea why he was making money. When the market for timber tanks, he is fired and is taken off the Chicago Board. This leads to a time of depression and a near suicide attempt. It's here he decides to learn rather than change careers.

He studies books by all the legendary traders and self-made millionaires, finding most of their trading strategies contradictory and therefore unhelpful. He then begins to pay attention to what they say about losses, and realizes it's better to control your losses than worry about wins. Paul's mom sadly commits suicide over his dad's debilitating illness before learning of the loss of his Chicago job, but that event also helps put loss and depression in perspective.

He learns not to internalize external losses. Market losses are objective and only God knows what markets will do. But Paul was taking everything personally, including losses with his client's money, that they put up knowing there was risk. Markets don't always go up, just like Kentucky doesn't win every basketball game. Betting on Kentucky to win and taking it personally when they lost was dumb. He reads On Death and Dying and describes the five stages of grief as similar to what irrational traders feel. He basically discovers the myth of the hot-hand and the false runs that fool traders and Vegas gamblers.

Paul notes the crowd/herd mentality. While the Buffetts of the world may claim to make money by moving against the crowd, this is not always the case. More often, if everyone else is headed for the exits that's a sign you should too. When it becomes "painful," get out. The crowd removes inhibition, people do more and risk more when in a crowd due to its anonymity.

Decide what kind of market participant you are going to be, what kind of market analysis you are going to use, and what your stop-loss rule will be before you enter any market. Peter Drucker reminds us that "There is no perfect decision." People who ask why the market is up or down usually want to justify their own trading positions, they're either arguing with the market as to its wisdom or figuring out when the timing will work in their favor-- both are silly. LBJ did not have an exit strategy or stop-loss limit in Vietnam, like a trader who just throws bad money after good down the rabbit hole. When someone asks you what the market is going to do answer according to the method that you use to invest, or your model, not according to your subjective opinion (working in an economic forecasting office, I agree). Write your plan down and stick with it. When you feel pain, stop.

Ultimately, your life's value is not determined by what you have accomplished but how you have accomplished, your self-worth should not be a reflection of events outside of your control.

The audio version ends with Paul being interviewed by Tim Ferriss, and their discussing Nassim Taleb's praise for this book.

I enjoyed it, I give it 4 stars out of 5. I recommend it to anyone involved in finance or managers who struggle with personalizing success/losses in their projects.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer (Book Review #61 of 2015)

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

This is my third Kinzer book (The Crescent and the Star and Reset), he is a master at spinning off new books from research collected while writing other books. This work peels back the cover on U.S. covert and overt foreign policy in the 1950s and what happens when two brothers have too much power within an Administration that has the public's trust and far too little of its scrutiny. It is a joint biography of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles who were Secretary of State (1953-1958) and CIA Director (1953-1961), respectively.

Some reviewers have pointed out that Kinzer tends to oversimplify his message. For example, Eisenhower and Dulles' overthrow of Mohammed Mosadegh, for example, may have had something to do with our needing Britain's support in SE Asia more than simply a crusade to eliminate anyone who was not clearly "for us" or "against the Communists." This book covers some of the territory of Trento's Prelude to Terror, Perkin's controversial Confessions of an Economic Hitman and the similar compilation A Game as Old as Empire.  You may not believe what you read here as the facts certainly seem more like fiction. Did the U.S. really (clumsily) secretly spend blood and treasure to try and subvert governments on every continent? How many assassinations and overthrows did Eisenhower surreptitiously give the go-ahead on? Eisenhower essentially comes across as a monster from our 2015 vantage point. But is he any different than a President Obama who is given intelligence and orders drone strikes to assassinate enemies of U.S. foreign policy? You be the judge. This book speaks volumes about what is learned by declassification of documents over time. I will say that I read a great biography on George Kennan last year and there appears to be little overlap; Kennan's foreign policy may have been too dovish for the Dulles, but he had helped create the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Policy Creation, on which both Dulles brothers worked--this connection gets no attention from Kinzer. Much of the diplomatic effort during the Cold War-- which did exist-- at this time are left unmentioned by Kinzer, which is problematic.

The Dulles family grew up with an international mindset. One grandfather (John W. Foster) was an Ambassador (before that title was formalized) to several countries, including Russia, before becoming Secretary of State.The other was a missionary to India. They had other family connections working in diplomacy and such a career seemed just fine to them. Their father was a conservative Presbyterian minister who had an awkward relationship with his wayward children. Kinzer writes that the boys (and their younger sister) essentially saw America as the City on a Hill that was bringing light to the nations through democracy and capitalism.

Studying at Princeton hitched them to the rising star of Woodrow Wilson, who they adored.
Sister Eleanor deserves her own biography, she was a pioneer as a PhD female economist who did relief work in WWI, attended Bretton Woods after WWII, and made her own career in diplomatic service.
John Foster (Foster henceforth) attended the Paris peace conference with Wilson and was disappointed with the outcome, both he and Eleanor arguing along with J.M. Keynes that the German reparations were simply setting the stage for the next European war. At the time, Foster was working in international law for U.S. business interests, and even supposedly ghostwrote a rebuttle to Keynes' book to serve his own interests. Foster's law firm designed the legal arrangements by which U.S. firms could profit off the German reparations, which allowed him to be wealthy even during the Great Depression. He was the more religious of the bunch and was mostly faithful to his wife. 

Meanwhile, Allen Dulles was serving in the newly-formed Foreign Service while sleeping with as many women as would have him. In a "What would have been?" moment of history Allen reportedly brushed off meeting Vladimir Lenin, after Lenin supposedly called him just before Lenin went to St. Petersburg for the Russian Revolution, in order to engage in a soiree with a couple of blonde Swiss females. His own sister recounts that he had "at least a hundred" affairs, and his wife approved of some and disapproved of others. A sign of the times, they remain married although she probably miserably. This continued on all through his CIA years and makes one wonder why recent CIA chief David Petraeus had to resign for anything.

Kinzer interestingly calls Wilson out for being a hypocrite, citing his inconsistent application of the doctrine of self-determination. While that doctrine stirred nationalist sentiment in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Wilson obviously didn't apply it to the Philippines, Hawaii, or other U.S.-occupied territories. Nonetheless, the three sibling Wilson devotees attend the Paris peace talks together. Foster returns to his law firm where he's made a full partner while Allen remains in the Foreign Service until joining the firm himself in 1926.

The author ignores much of Foster's religious interest and involvement in these years. Foster changed his mind several times in life, whether in his religious devotions or from isolationist to interventionist. Interestingly, Foster was a German sympathizer and refused to believe any tales being produced about the Nazis as his firm had many German business interests. Allen disagreed strongly after touring Germany himself, and after Germany began defaulting on its debts the firm severed ties.

Allen Dulles built up his network through the law firm, the Council on Foreign Relations, and his old Foreign Service contacts and made a fortune molding business deals for European connections, including those in Nazi Germany. After the U.S. enters the war, Dulles is recruited by "Wild Bill" for the new OSS, becoming the first OSS officer behind enemy lines, sneaking into Switzerland to do so. He meets with all sorts of characters while feeding intelligence to the U.S., much of which was false, but enough was helpful enough to expand his reputation. Of course, he has many affairs, including a long one with a woman his wife approved of and shared with him. Interestingly, when the Valkyrie operation was launched by German traitors to kill Hitler and restore order, Dulles was the main contact with the U.S. relaying news back to Washington. The participants wanted to sue for peace, but FDR officially rejected the olive branch and Dulles was not allowed to negotiate on any such olive branch. After the War, Truman abolishes the OSS.

Foster helps draft the U.N. Charter and becomes an internationalist, seeing world peace as a Christian ideal. Foster apparently contributed to the "Six Pillars of Peace" outline by the Federal Council of Churches in 1942. He eventually reverses after the Iron Curtain falls, becoming a militant anti-Communist and seeing the USSR as truly and evil empire, the antithesis of everything American. Reinhold Niebuhr eventually pens critiques of Foster as he begins to promote a black-and-white vision of the world. 

Both brothers backed the Dewey campaign in 1948, which left them disappointed. However, Dewey appoints Foster Dulles to fill a void in the Senate, which immediately elevates Foster into a higher realm, although he promptly loses the special election for the seat. Nonetheless, he is appointed to the State Department by Truman and impresses people in negotiating the final treaty with Japan in 1950. This makes him a good choice for Secretary of State when Eisenhower is elected in 1952, and Foster promptly works on a policy of "rollback" to replace the "containment" policy of Truman and Kennan. However, Kinzer also writes that NSC-68, a top secret foreign policy strategy signed by Truman in 1950, was monumental in militarizing the response to the USSR and that the Dulles operated under an NSC-68 mindset. "A chilling decree" according to Kinzer, NSC-68 called for a tripling of defense spending in order to prevent Soviet influence from overtaking the West. Allen Dulles was appointed the first civilian director of the CIA and the die was cast.

The 1950s roll like the Wild West, with Eisenhower signing off on expensive operations, assassinations, and propaganda campaigns at home and abroad. Supposedly, more coups were attempted under Eisenhower than in any other administration, and recently declassified documents show that Dulles' CIA actively engaged in Eisenhower-warranted assassination plots in the Congo and elsewhere. Perhaps Richard Bissell, Eisenhower's enforcer is more to blame than Kinzer allows. The CIA-backed 1954 coup in Guatemala was actually initiated by Truman years earlier, but demonstrated Eisenhower's resolve. "Once you commit the flag, you've committed the country." Dulles' secret armies in Guatemala and the Philippines needed U.S. airpower for support. If the media went with a story exposing operations, or a pilot was shot down, it didn't matter-- the mission must succeed once the U.S. was committed. The CIA even used religious-based propaganda in Guatemala to foment political change, having priests on the CIA payroll publish editorials denouncing Communism.

Guatemala also showed the intersection of U.S. business interests and foreign policy. The coup was encouraged by the United Fruit Company, which had been a client of the Dulles' NY law firm and Allen Dulles had served on its Board of Directors; others in the Eisenhower Administration had ties. While Guatemala's president was democratically elected, he was a leftist, and anyone showing Leftist sympathies was to be eliminated, particularly in the Western hemisphere. The 1953 coup of democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran was similar in the sense that it was made more urgent by Mosaddegh's nationalization of British oil interests after the Brits refused to let Mosaddegh audit their books or negotiate a better deal. Kinzer writes, however, that Foster in particular was unable to see anyone as "neutral." Mosaddegh believed in democracy and capitalism and could have been an ally, but Mosaddegh and others like Egypt's Nasser were nationalists who favored neither the US nor the USSR, but courted deals from both. Kinzer writes that Foster saw a danger in a country like Iran becoming prosperous and inspiring others toward neutrality that might result in eventual creep toward the USSR, hence he and others like him had to be eliminated. How much the coup was driven to help the UK is unknown. The blowback from intervention in South America and Iran has since come back to haunt the US in the form of skepticism and greater Leftist angst against the US and the 1979 overthrow of the Shah.

Ho Chi Minh had initially offered the US an olive branch after WWII and was not opposed to working with US interests, but the more he was rebuffed the more he turned to harder Communism. John Foster Dulles apparently hated the French for abandoning Vietnam, and never forgave them. While Eisenhower did not want to replace the French in Vietnam, he eventually warmed to the idea as Foster promoted the "domino theory" that if one nation fell victim to Communism then others would soon follow and the eventual war would widen. Better to install brutal dictators as in Iran and South Vietnam than let a country fall. Another enemy was Sukarno in Indonesia who was trying to thread the needle between democracy, socialism, nationalism, and Islam. This type of neutrality was against the Dulles' worldview, and in his memoir, Sukarno lamented "America, why couldn't you be my friend?" after the CIA spent a lot of manpower trying to topple his regime in 1958. There was also the training of Tibetan rebels in Colorado in 1957 and the ongoing plot to assassinate Congo's Lumumba, given with Ike's consent. 

Allen Dulles' reign at CIA reads like the nightmare everyone worried about "big government" warns you about. Experiments interrogating prisoners with LSD, the purchase to the movie rights of books like The Quiet American in order to sanitize them, planting stories in major newspapers, planting false documents in Joseph McCarthy's office to discredit him, along with the private armies and escapades. Dulles comes under official criticism by Doolittle, who wrote that he was a bad administrator, bad for morale, and had no accountability-- all of which was dismissed by Eisenhower who saw Allen as the indispensible man.

Eventually both John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower become old and unhealthy, Eisenhower suffering a heart attack in 1955 and Foster dying of cancer in 1959. Allen Dulles' libido slows slightly as age takes its toll and he becomes more detached from operations at the CIA, creating a more dangerous situation. When Castro seizes power in Cuba, the Eisenhower Administration made it official policy to depose him. While Dulles was officially in charge at the CIA, he was far detached from the details of the anti-Castro operations which the media had exposed and continued at great risk of failure. Newly-elected JFK inherits the Bay of Pigs invasion plans and faces a political dilemma: Back off and be accused of sparing Castro since the government was invested in success, or go forward and risk a disaster. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy would not consent to air support or other official military measures to help the CIA's army once it landed, dooming the operation. Those closest to the operation begged Dulles and others to cancel the operation to no avail. Dulles was enjoying a speaking engagement elsewhere in the region, giving the appearance of attachment to the operation while being completely oblivious to its failure. The White House forced him to resign in 1961.

Dulles' last act was on the Warren Commission investigating JFK's assassination. This was problematic because Dulles' goal was to keep CIA assassination operations in Cuba a secret. Kinzer writes of Lyndon Johnson's desire to make Oswald a lone gunman with no political attachments, which brings us to a whole other story.

Kinzer concludes the book with armchair psychology, writing that the Dulles brothers succummed to cognitive biases, including confirmation bias. They saw everything in the world as they wanted to, and not as it was. They were driven by a missionary Calvinism and the ideal of American Exceptionalism that clouded their lenses. They also seemed to consider themselves infallible in their endeavors. Ultimately, "they are us," writes Kinzer, which is why it is important to learn from them. The parallels with recent American military and para-military endeavors is also clear, but Kinzer lets the reader make those comparisons.

I learned a great deal from the history of this book, studying the Dulles is an integral part in studying the execution of American foreign policy in the Cold War. Some of the omissions, simplifications, and psychoanalysis mar the book somewhat. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Gospel by J.D. Greear @jdgreear (Book Review #60 of 2015)

Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary
(The first thing I note is for Kindle readers: For some reason, Amazon isn't saving/displaying my highlights for this book as with other books, so I don't have location references with the quotes below. I'm not sure where the fault is here, it simply does not appear on the Your_Highlights page, the history skips over this book for some reason.)

My church went through the video and study guide series version (Gospel Revolution), but I missed out on most of it so I read the book instead. This book has a good intent and message, but Greear unfortunately follows in the footsteps of many putting out books in the perish-or-publish mentality today, writing as if he's had an epiphany no one else has had and ignoring the works of countless Christians who have written on the subject before. There is some value in writing using modern humor and terminology, but in Greear's critique of churches today and telling of personal anecdotes really takes the focus off of the magnitude and infinite worth of God, which is definitely not his intent.

For example, This is a quote from Greear that is something Piper has written volumes on, and Piper quotes Jonathan Edwards and Augustine:
"Learning to be satisfied in Jesus will free you to enjoy everything else. Being fulfilled in Christ means that you no longer depend on other things for life and happiness. That means you can enjoy them, because you are no longer enslaved by them. The prospect of losing them doesn’t terrorize you. And you can say 'no' to them when they are not God’s will."

I recommend the reader instead check out other works like A. W. Tozer's Attributes of God (compiled from Tozer's sermons) and John Pipers' Desiring God and Future Grace as a much more powerful look at how awesome God and the Gospel are. Those books do a much better job at magnifying God, in my opinion. Oswald Chamber's My Utmost for His Highest is also great at reminding us of the greatness of the Gospel and our inadequacy.  In contrast, Greear's book leaves one with the sense of "am I doing this right? Maybe I should try harder." Grear quotes his "BFF" Tim Keller a lot, partially attributing his epiphany to Keller's sermons and writing. So, I'd recommend the Keller works and sermons referenced over this book as well.

Grear's audience is basically churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Grear grew up in the SBC, lived for two years as a Journeyman with the IMB in SE Asia, but apparently did not really discover the Gospel until afterwards when apparently he was exposed to the teaching of Tim Keller. His intention is to help individuals and the local church give up their tendencies towards working for God's approval and recognize that it is already given, and can only come from, Christ's sacrifice.

"True religion is when you serve God to get nothing else but more of God."
"God could not love me any more than He does right now, because God could not love and accept Christ any more than He does, and God sees me in Christ...'Neither do I condemn you' precedes 'go and sin no more.' We almost always try to reverse those. We say, 'If you can manage to go and sin no more, then God will accept you.'"

He is now pastor of the The Summit Church in NC, and his description of the giving and service-oriented nature of his congregation make it sound truly unique; Raleigh gives Greear a public service award in the book because his church members are found "everywhere" there is a need in the city. I do wonder, however, how stratified his church is across racial and income lines.

I found Grear's chapter on idolotry to be good, it really summed up the message of Brad Bigney's Gospel Treason well. It also quotes heavily from David Powlison, as did Bigney.

"You worship whatever it is you deem most essential for life and happiness."

There is also a chapter responding to what Greear sees as the imbalance of those pursuing a give-it-all-away lifestyle after reading David Platt's Radical (he sent the chapter to Platt, who dialogued with him about it, before publishing). Greear notes that looking at the NT as a whole, it's hard to come up with hard-and-fast rules for tithing, income level, going overseas, etc.

"The New Testament goes to meticulous lengths to avoid prescribing an amount believers should give. For example, in the gospel of Luke, at least three times Jesus commends a different amount."

He shares six principles about money that "we should hold in reverent tension," including that God delights in our enjoyment of His gifts and that Jesus' radical generosity is both model and motivation for us to do likewise. Nonetheless, wealth-building can be wise. I found these chapters to be mostly void of a theology of work.

My biggest concern was that he ignores the role of the church community in making decisions on personal financial matters. The church should be a safe place to talk about financial matters. If you're not sure if the house you're building is too big or whether you should sell or donate your old goods, then you should be able to talk to your small group or pastor about it. The Church in Acts modeled generosity and "sharing all things in common" required some transparency about what they had. That aspect is absent from most SBC churches, in my observation, and is missing from Greear's book as well. Likewise, we should not just preach the gospel to ourselves, as Greear recommends, but to each other as well.

Another concern is on the "commandments" chapter. Greear writes that we are obedient out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us, but Piper argues strongly in Future Grace that this is not enough. We can't just run our cars on yesterday's gas, we have to keep filling up by understanding what God is doing and is going to do for us in Christ Jesus.

He closes a book with a "fear" that it might contribute to a growing "self-righteousness among younger theologians who feel like understanding gospel-centeredness makes them more special in the eyes of God (oh, the irony!). I don't mean to come across that way in this review, I just wish people would spend time with older, wiser theologians who wrote long ago rather than try to reinvent the wheel.

I give it 3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Sermon of the Week (8/26 - 8/1, 2015) Rick Hardison's Sermons on Homosexuality

Rick is the pastor of Great Crossing Baptist here in Georgetown, KY. Even with the recent Supreme Court ruling, I have not heard any other pastor listed on the right side of the blog cover this topic outside of a special conference or seminar, so I consider this unique. It is a 4-part series titled "Thinking Clearly and Passionately About Homosexuality."
"The church should be a safe place to talk about same-sex attraction."
"The next Billy Graham could have picked up a same-sex marriage license last week."
 Sentences you might not expect to hear from a Southern Baptist pulpit. Rick is a IX Marks guy, most of his series are expository, so this is unusual both for him, his church, Kentucky, and maybe everywhere else.

I found this series very thoughtful, well-researched, Gospel-saturated, and delivered with great urgency. The first one deals with the "love" very well. The third one ultimately addresses the folly of searching for fulfillment in anything other than God, no matter what your temptation may be.

Homosexuality: Where to begin the conversation (John 3:16-21).
Homosexuality: What does the Bible really say? (Romans 1:24-27)
Homosexuality: Is Victory (over sin/temptation) really possible? 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Homosexuality: How should the church respond? Psalm 36:1-7

Enjoy them but also share them with someone you know.