Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Love Does by Bob Goff

I’ve been hearing about Bob Goff and his book, Love Does, for a while now. Some of my friends are crazy about it, and some of them have even met Bob and his wife, Maria. So a while back I bought the book and added it to my ginormous to-read pile. I finally decided to jump in and read it when Feed My Staring Children started a book club on Facebook. They asked interested parties to vote for a book from a list of suggestions. Since I had it on hand and had been meaning to read it, I voted for Love Does. Needless to say, it won the voting (because if it hadn’t, I would be talking about a different book this week!), and I’ve been picking at it for the last few weeks.

During his 1968 Presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy paraphrased George Bernard Shaw when he said, “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.” Bob Goff is that kind of guy. Goff doesn’t do the math, he doesn’t “count the cost,” he just jumps in and does. For a planner/organizer like me, his spontaneity and whimsy were both enviable and stress-inducing. Some of the stories, like the time his kids wrote to heads of state around the world and the family dropped everything and incurred incredible expenses to meet the many who invited them, felt so crazy I almost couldn’t believe they were real!

But as is usually true, I ended up reminded that it’s a good thing that the world is not made up entirely of people like me. Although I don’t share Goff’s whimsical nature or his “act first, figure it out later” mentality, I appreciate his message. He believes that when you love people, you act on it. And he’s not just talking about his friends and family – he’s talking about all humankind and loving like Jesus loved. And Goff’s active love for humanity has led him to do everything from hosting a spontaneous marriage proposal dinner for a stranger to freeing wrongfully imprisoned kids in Uganda.

Goff is a lawyer by trade, and while that seems like an oddly buttoned-down profession for a merry prankster, it works for their family. I’m sure it comes in handy on some of their adventures (like the aforementioned work in Uganda). It would be easy for someone in a comfortable and well-paying profession like law to sit back and feel satisfied that they are doing enough for humanity while sitting in a comfortable office. But throughout his book, Goff pushes the importance of having “skin in the game” – being personally, hands-on invested in others. He and his family live this out, and they want to take us along for the ride.

The book is light, fun, and has short chapters, yet is deceptively deep in its passion and theology. If you can get past the stress of his spontaneity, it’s really inspiring. Check out Love Does and say “why not.”

Favorite Quotes from the Book:

He (Jesus) said the people who followed Him should think of themselves more like the ushers rather than the bouncers, and it would be God who decides who gets in. We’re the ones who simply ones who simply show people their seats that someone else paid for.

We’re God’s plan, and we always have been. We aren’t just supposed to be observers, listeners, or have a bunch of opinions. We’re not here to let everyone know what we agree and don’t agree with, because, frankly, who cares? Tell me about the God you love; tell me about what He has inspired uniquely in you; tell me about what you’re going to do about it, and a plan for you life will be pretty easy to figure out from there. I guess what I’m saying is that most of us don’t get an audible plan for our lives. It’s way better than that. We get to be God’s plan for the whole world by pointing people toward Him.

Book Review: The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun

Recently I had the privilege of reading The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change. It is a memoir of sorts by Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, a global non-profit that builds schools and trains teachers in developing areas. Braun founded POP when he was in his 20s, and according to their website, they have built 380 schools since 2009.

But more than just telling the story of POP, The Promise of a Pencil takes an honest, vulnerable look at what Braun and his team did right and wrong as they created this organization from the ground up. It is enthusiastically written; it’s clear that in the six years between founding POP and writing his book, Braun has not lost one ounce of his passion for the organization and the work they do around the world.

Maybe it’s because my word for 2017 is “honor,” but one thing that particularly stood out to me was Braun’s commitment to family and his passion for making others feel valuable. The Millennials take a lot of flak, so it was refreshing to read about someone so young preaching the importance of personal contacts, written thank you notes, and honoring your elders. Braun claims that his passion comes from his Jewish grandparents, the hardships they faced, and their hard work to overcome that and build a new life for their family. He even dedicated his first school to his grandma.

I recommend this book for anyone who is passionate about global education initiatives. As I’ve said over and over again, opportunity is the only way to promote lasting change for the world’s hungry, and education is step one in giving people the opportunity to thrive and be self-sufficient. POP believes that as well, and they are on the ground, working with local education leaders and communities to build not only school buildings, but the infrastructure to see to it that kids in the communities where they build have the resources to gain an education for many years to come.

I would also recommend this book for people who work in the non-profit arena. My day job is at an NPO, I’m the Program Coordinator at a history museum. As I read The Promise of a Pencil, I found great tips and inspiring stories that I can use at our non-profit as well as inspiration for my personal work with the hungry through Food Shelf Friday. Braun gives practical information about things like fundraising, social media, and using the right language to turn donors into partners. If you work for an NPO or are interested in starting one yourself, this is a great resource.

Have you read The Promise of a Pencil? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment!

Book Review: A Mile Wide by Brandon Hatmaker

book-review-a-mile-wide

In the last couple of years, I have noticed a shift in Christianity. My generation, “Gen X,” has grown up and taken its place in church leadership. And this new generation of writers, pastors, and speakers has approached the gospel message with the characteristic Gen X discontent/skepticism, and fearless questioning of the “why” and “why not” of everything.

Our generation has never been content with the idea that we do things a certain way “just because;” we want to know if traditions are valid, or if there’s a better way. In the 1990s, the Gen X way brought emotion back to music after the 80s watered it down to nothing (I may be a bit biased here…). In Silicon Valley, the Gen X way revolutionized technology. The sullen, flannel-clad teens of the late 80s and early 90s have outgrown the terrible Pauley Shore movies, endless video games, and mosh pits of our youth, but we’ve retained our questioning spirit and the desire to throw aside the “fluff” and find out what’s real, and if there might be more to life.

Like I said, I may be biased.

But what I really love about my generation coming of age is what it’s doing to the church. Authors and speakers like Mark Batterson, Brandon and Jen Hatmaker, Lysa Terkeurst, Kyle Idleman, and Priscilla Shirer embody this spirit of asking the tough questions and coming back to the roots of Christianity. I’m not saying our parents had strayed and we’re fixing things; I’m just saying that we’re asking tough questions on a public stage, and finding our answers in the word.

  • We’re seeing less prosperity gospel and more outreach (Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God – to paraphrase JFK paraphrasing Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.)
  • Less private faith and more global community
  • Less emphasis on how things have always been and more emphasis on what “nu thang” God is doing (I couldn’t resist at least one DC Talk reference when talking about the Gen X Jesus freaks!).

In that vein is Brandon Hatmaker’s new book, A Mile Wide: Trading a Shallow Religion for a Deeper Faith. (this is the part where I should mention to you that I was given a free advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review) Hatmaker’s premise is that “discipleship” is not just for new believers. Many of us who thought that ended up with faith “an inch deep and a mile wide.” We should always be disciples and life-long learners in the faith, because “Without depth, the dazzle won’t hold.”

A limited gospel makes life change a discipline. The true gospel changes our heart’s desire to live like Christ. It changes our perspective. It’s not the other way around. We don’t change on our own power hoping to see a glimpse of the gospel. This is a massive paradigm shift for many. A necessary shift.

Chapters in the book cover identity, discipleship/learning, community, surrender, service/living on a mission, justice, and surrender. Everyone can find something in the book to challenge and strengthen their faith journey. In the launch team (the group of us who got advanced copies), the chapter on community was a common challenge, as that’s an area many of us ignore. We had some great talks on Facebook about conviction in that area and things we need to do to restore that vital piece of our faith journey.

For me, the biggest area of challenge was in service and good works. I love to help and be involved in things. I like service projects (no surprise to readers of this blog, I’m sure!). But as a leader, my instinct is to evaluate projects by their results. I keep track of attendance and social media interactions at my museum job. I have a note in my phone for tracking our personal record of boxes packed during a single session at FMSC. I pay attention to what type of blog posts get the most traffic. But Hatmaker’s chapter on justice made me reevaluate my evaluations. His argument is that sometimes service is just about obedience and growing me, not about results.

It reminds me of an illustration I once heard. Two stone masons worked on the same cathedral. The first one had his eyes on his own project, and it was getting him down. “I’m never going to see the finished cathedral,” he complained, “it won’t even be done in my lifetime.” The second mason had the bigger picture in mind. “I’m never going to see the finished cathedral,” he said in wonder, “it won’t even be done in my lifetime. This project is bigger than me, and It’s so exciting that I got to be part of making this happen.”

Sometimes God asks us to serve because it will make a difference for someone we reach out to. Sometimes God asks us to serve because it will make a difference in us – in our obedience and attitude. He sees so much more than we do – through time and space and into the depths of our character development. Faith is not a metric, it’s a lot bigger than numbers and success rates (and all of us who struggled with math say AMEN!).

 

If you feel like you’re spread thin, with a faith that just isn’t getting deeper, I recommend first and foremost that you start spending more time in the Bible. Nothing compares to hearing straight from the source. Really pay attention as you read. Ask questions. You can trust God’s word, it never fails. Approach the Bible asking God to tell you what to believe rather than using the Bible to defend what you believe. And if you would like to be challenged and guided on your search for depth, A Mile Wide is a good source!

Book Review: The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne

Irrisistable Revolution

For a while now I have been hearing about Shane Claiborne and his radical, passionate call for modern Christians to get back to the root of the gospel message. I put his book on my (large) to-read list, but I was kind of afraid to start it. I knew it was going to challenge me, and I feared his reputation for a life we conservative-stoic types see as extreme, fanatical, and (frankly) nerve-wracking.

But I (eventually) dove in. I loved this book and hated it. It challenged me. I agreed with it and disagreed. I was shocked sometimes and usually came around to see Claiborne’s reasoning. I felt really conflicted, to be honest. It’s not often that I read something and feel so strongly inspired AND opposed. I came to realize by the end of the book that as this isn’t the holy scriptures I’m free to read his book and glean from it, reject it, or both. And that’s exactly what I did.

So here’s the story: After graduating from college with a degree in sociology and youth ministry, Claiborne went on to grad school, but found himself feeling disillusioned with “church as usual.” He spent some time with Mother Teresa and her co-laborers in India, and came back to intern at a well-to-do mega church in America. The whiplash made him sick as American excess and our profound blindness to it hit him right between the eyes.

I know this feeling. Sometimes I look at this country, or just at my own life, and I feel like a kid who got sick from eating too much candy. Everything is available to me, but nothing satisfies. I end up sick and obese from all the excess, yet stunted by the lack of nourishment in my life. In Claiborne’s words, “I read a study comparing the health of a society with its economics, and one of the things it revealed is that wealthy countries like ours have the highest rates of depression, suicide, and loneliness. We are the richest and most miserable people in the world.”

Claiborne and some like-minded friends began to research the gospel message, the early years of Christianity, and some of the great leaders of the past. They got involved with the homeless and other societal outsiders. They began living communally, like a big family. In this way they began to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), and “love their neighbors as themselves” (Mark 12:31).

The book is full of passionate soundbites that resonate with a hungry soul:
“Rebirth means that we have a new paradigm of “us” and “them.”
“When we hear that “we” were attacked, do we think “we” the church or “we” as Americans? What is our primary identity?”
“Protesters are everywhere, but I think the world is desperately in need of prophets, those little voices that can point us toward another future. Some of us have spent so much time fighting what we are against that we can barely remember what we are for.”

I found the book inspiring, and thought-provoking. As I expected, I was challenged to evaluate my perceptions and priorities. But (don’t worry honey!) I’m not going to suggest we join a commune. Some of the practices, political and social activities, and anti-war/anti-death penalty ideas that Claiborne espouses in the book don’t sit right with me. I don’t think that the God who sent Israel into battle now thinks all warfare is sin. I don’t think that the God who declared the death penalty a fitting punishment in the Old Testament now finds it abominable. Are there unjust wars and wrongful executions? Absolutely. And we need to be active participants in the world to fight those injustices.

After finishing the book, I found that on the things that really matter – the gospel message, the commands of Jesus, and loving your neighbor, Claiborne and I are in agreement. In some of the tactical aspects, not so much. I see him like a modern John the Baptist. He’s out there in his crazy camel skin robes, eating a strange diet of locusts and honey, and crying “Prepare the way of the Lord!” I appreciate Claiborne (and John the Baptist) for their message, and if their tactics help spread it, I say go for it. But I’m called in a different way, just as Mary and Martha or the disciples helped spread the good news without the camel skins.

That’s a beautiful part of Christianity that we miss sometimes; we think there is just one right way to do things. We think we all have to meet on the same day, sing the same songs, and read from the same English translation of the scriptures. But God is not small, and He is not limited, and He is not manipulated by our human culture and tactics. As long as we are true to the scriptures and in an active, receptive relationship with Jesus, we can have different practices and politics. God doesn’t change, we do: our culture changes, our values shift, and we pick up and put down things that have very little to do with the core of who God is. The way “church” and Christianity were practiced when your grandparents were kids is different from the way we do things today, but God remains unchanged. The way they worship in faraway lands may be different from how we do it at our church, but God remains unchanged. The tactics Claiborne and his mates use to spread the gospel may be different from how I do it, but God remains unchanged.

I hope that makes sense. This post kind of strayed from a typical book review, but that’s the biggest message I got from really reading and digesting this book. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His word is true and it stands for all eternity.

A Brief History of Welfare in America

brief history of welfare

This week I listened to another audiobook courtesy of the Overdrive app and my local library. If you have a smart phone, tablet, or e-reader, I highly recommend you ask your local library if they have the Overdrive app available. There are tons of audiobooks and e-books you can check out for free.
Anyway, when I was scrolling through audio titles recently, I came upon a book called $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. My first response to the cover material and introduction was skepticism. For as much as I know about poverty and hunger, I still did not believe that this extreme level of poverty was possible in America. Between SNAP, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security Disability, welfare, WIC, private charities, and private donations, I could not believe that there were people with no job AND who were turned down from these social security nets.

As the authors, a sociology professor and a social work professor, began to unwrap their research, I could see the pockets of this level of destitution that exist here in the United States. I still had trouble finding sympathy for some of the subjects because of their terrible life choices. The authors did not go digging for the most innocent victims of poverty, to be sure. I am also not completely sold on some of their conclusions. Their plan involves a lot of expansion in government services and job creation, yet they offer few if any suggestions about how to fund such programs.

But feelings and solutions aside, the most valuable part of this book in my opinion was the historical context it gave to American welfare programs. So using this book as my source, today’s post is a review of that history.

The Great Depression
Prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s, government welfare programs were virtually unheard of in the United States. But when things got desperate, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted several pieces of legislation aimed at putting Americans back to work and providing for those who were unable to care for themselves. Many of the programs (such as the Works Progress Administration which put Americans to work on public works programs) expired or were discontinued when the Depression ended. Others continue even to this day, including Social Security for the elderly and disabled, Medicare and Medicaid health insurance. One of the programs that came out of the Depression era was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare. AFDC provided a cash safety net for families with children who found themselves in a desperate situation.

The Great Society
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded social service programs, including AFDC, as part of his “Great Society” initiatives. Johnson’s goal was to eliminate poverty and racial inequality in America through a series of legislation which expanded existing social programs like Social Security, AFDC, food stamps, and Medicare/Medicaid. It also created Head Start, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The 1970s and 1980s
Reaction to the Great Society programs were mixed. While it provided tremendously for struggling Americans, many felt that it rewarded indolence and unwed procreation. Edin and Schaefer argue that welfare was widely unpopular after the Great Society because it was at odds with deeply held American values like self-sufficiency, the primacy of family, and the value of hard work. They site a study where the majority of Americans in a survey group stated that they believed that the government was not doing enough to help the poor, and in the same survey they responded that welfare was too expensive. Americans were concerned that welfare was trapping people in a cycle of dependency, and they complained of costly abuses of the system. Ronald Reagan made welfare reform a campaign issue in the late 1970s, and the popular support for welfare reform helped get him elected.
Also during this time, the food stamps program was renamed SNAP, and a program using an Electronic Balance Transfer (EBT) card rather than paper food stamps was instituted to cut down on the (illegal) sale of food stamps, a popular survival strategy for people with no cash income.

Welfare Reform
For all the rhetoric, Reagan was not able to push though significant welfare reform. The issue continued to be a popular campaign topic but difficult to enact. In 1991/92, Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton took up the mantle, promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Once elected, President Clinton set out to reform the welfare system using aspects of a plan proposed by Harvard professor Dr. David Ellwood. Elwood’s plan proposed a system that encouraged work through a combination of cash welfare and job training, with limits on welfare that would encourage individuals to wean off the system and guaranteed jobs in government if nothing was available in the private sector. As the various welfare bills made their way through committees, the House, the Senate, and onto the President’s desk (where two welfare reform bills were vetoed), the legislation looked less and less like Ellwood had imagined. The final result was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which virtually eliminated welfare as we knew it and instituted a new work-based program. It replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a program that supplied cash welfare with strict time limits and work requirements designed to prevent long-term welfare dependence. The results have been mixed. Proponents are quick to point out that the welfare rolls have shrunk dramatically, but opponents point out that the number of families suffering from lack of resources, and the strain on private charities have increased as a result of the reforms.

The System Today
The TANF program was reauthorized in 2005 with slight adjustments. Following the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a temporary addition to TANF designed to get Americans through the recession. It provided a temporary TANF emergency fund (2009-10) as well as jobs programs aimed at stimulating the economy and improving American infrastructure through public works programs.
In 2010 the TANF program was reauthorized for a second time.

It’s not easy to tell the whole story of American welfare in 1000-ish words. I know this does not cover every argument for and against the programs. But it does provide you with a basic understanding of how we got to where we are today. Edin and Schafer argue that the old system was out of sync with American values and full of holes, but they also argue that the current system leaves many people with few legal options. They propose further reforms that focus on wage and workplace protections, and work opportunities, among other ideas.

This feels a bit scary, like opening Pandora’s Box, but if we agree to be civil I think we can have this discussion. What POSITIVE changes would you like to see in the way the federal government treats the poor? More mental health services? An increase in the minimum wage? Leave a comment!