Category Archives: Book Review

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


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!

Book Review: Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis


This year for my birthday, my sister gave me an Amazon gift card. I went a little crazy… I bought 6 used books and 1 new one. I only overshot the $25 card by a few dollars (I love cheap used books…). As they began to arrive in the mail, I set up a schedule for all the books I would read this summer. I planned a month of Food Shelf Friday book reviews. But, you know, that dang thesis is still hanging over my head, so reading anything else has to wait…

One of the books I ordered was Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis. I knew very little about it, other than that some of my friends had recommended it, and that it was about an American young woman who had gone to do mission work in Africa. The day after my book arrived and was added to my growing “after thesis” stack, I got an email from the local library that per my request, they had added the audiobook of Kisses from Katie to their e-reader app. Yay! Audiobooks mean I don’t have to wait until my thesis is done; I can start listening right away while I commute! So this week, while driving, mowing, and doing dishes, I worked my way through this incredible story.

As previously mentioned, this is the autobiographical story of Katie, a young woman from the United States. Katie is a Christian, and she had a heart for people. As a senior in high school, Katie and her mom went on a short-term missions trip to Uganda, where they worked with babies and toddlers in an orphanage. Katie fell head over heels in love with the area and the people. After graduating from high school she went back to Uganda to spend a year working with kids there. Things took off in ways she never could have dreamed. By the end of the year she was foster parenting a dozen little girls, and had started a non-profit organization to provide education for kids whose parents cannot afford the fees required for school. Not bad for a teenage girl, right? As you can imagine, Katie decided to make Uganda her home.

The book covers her first two years in Uganda, and it primarily an outline of her faith journey during that time. It’s full of deep thoughts about the love and provision of God and the call to lay down our lives for His plan. Katie’s story goes by fast, and I imagine it felt that way to her too. After all, we’re talking about a teenage girl moving to another continent, adopting a huge household of children, and starting a ministry all within a year or two. The stories were sometimes hard to hear, and I shed more than a few tears.

It feels like Katie doesn’t have a plan; she just does the next thing that comes up. Maybe that’s her writing style, and maybe it’s true; she certainly seems to have the faith to just keep going through one thing and then another. For me as a planner, that was a bit stressful. I wanted to know where she got the training and supplies to do basic medical care, where and how she shopped for the tons of food she needed to feed her growing household and all the kids that came over for baths and meals.

As a reader, I wished for more detail on the practical side of things. How do they fit two women and (eventually) fourteen girls in a four-bedroom house and still have room to take in guests? How often do Katie’s friends and family members come over to Uganda to visit and help? How does the foster/adoption system work over there, because there is no way the American system would let a 19-year-old kid take in over a dozen little girls.

I also wanted an update, and more pictures. The book ends in 2010, so I was curious about the last six years. After finishing the audiobook, I picked up my paper copy and did find a 2012 mini-update in the back. I was happy to learn more about two of her girls in particular (That’s all I can say – no spoilers!), and I’m sure some digging around online will help me find even more, because I know Katie blogs. I also wished for more pictures. Obviously the audiobook had none, but the paper copy only had a few, and those were tiny. There was no one picture of Katie with all her kids.

My overall impression is that Katie is a remarkably obedient young woman with a heart for God and for people. I laughed and cried, and I really enjoyed her insights, especially about God’s heart for orphans and the poor. If I had a tween/teen daughter, I would definitely give her a copy of this book, or listen to the audio together on a trip.

In a way, I envied her position far from American consumerism and fully dedicated to God and His work. I think the juggling act of American comfort and God’s compassion is tough. Trying to live different without selling all and walking away is hard. Part of me wants to give my life to serving, but the other part of me has a job I want to be good at, a home and yard I want to maintain, etc. Finding the balance between responsible budgeting and responsible fair trade purchasing is hard. Buying local and organic while also saving enough to invest in missions and ministries is hard. I just want everything, even though some it conflicts!

Katie addresses this in her book, and other writers have touched on it as well. They say it just takes faith and doing the best you can now, and then doing the next right thing. For me, it’s hard to accept the imperfections of my life and the truth that I will never get it all right. But a story from Rachel’s Tears (the book about Columbine High School victim Rachel Scott) helps me understand a little better. In her diary (the main source for the book), Rachel recounts a time when she was asked for help by a woman in need, but she felt that she couldn’t. Later she was feeling guilty for not helping the woman, and she felt the Lord explain to her that SHE wasn’t His only resource. He would take care of the woman in need, but Rachel was the one who missed out. We get so caught up in “how can I fix?” when what God is saying is, “I will fix. Would you like the blessing of being the tool I use?”

This is not to say we should go on being lazy because someone else will do it. Yes, God has more than one resource and He will provide, but we miss out on the real reason we’re here when we decline the opportunity to be used. We should be jumping at the chance to know the Father better by loving, serving, and giving side-by-side. You will not have the opportunity in heaven to introduce yourself to God. You should already be quite close by then, and if you didn’t get to know Him on earth, you missed your chance. Besides, we all know enough about statistics to know that not every orphan or starving child has a Katie. There is plenty of need for you and me too!

Have you read this book? Do you follow Katie Davis’ blog? Share your insights in the comments!