Monday, December 31, 2012

Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

When I was a member of ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) in college, I was a member of a drill team called the Pershing Rifles.  The national organization was named for General of the Armies John J. Pershing.  I read the brief history of the organization and knew that Pershing was commander of U. S. forces during World War One, but I knew little else.  In this readable volume, John Perry gives an overview of a man we can identify as the first modern military commander along with the forces that shaped him.

Pershing’s life story parallels the story of America.  Born during the Civil War, his journey from a middle class American upbringing to service on the western frontier and then in Cuba and the Philippines is tied to the growth of the United States from a frontier society to a colonial power and world influence.  Along the way, Pershing learned many lessons that molded his view of military strategy and national service.

Perry does a good job of pointing out how Pershing developed the skills that made him a unique military leader in the early 20th century.  He was, first of all a teacher.  He taught black children, college students (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where the Pershing Rifles was formed), West Point cadets, Moro natives in the Philippines, and young officers in the field.  As Army Chief of Staff, he revamped and modernized the Command and General Staff School and the War College.  He mentored men like George Marshall, Douglas McArthur, and George Patton who would play a decisive role in the Second World War.

Pershing was one of the first American military leaders to understand the importance of organization and logistics in winning a war.  Troops could not do their job effectively without supplies, food, armament, and the necessities of life.  As leader of American forces in France during WW I, he insisted that everything be in place before committing his troops to battle.  He also understood the important of an overall strategy and not just individual battles or campaigns.  He was a “big picture” commander.

His service in the west with Native Americans and African American “buffalo soldiers,” in the Philippines with the Muslim Moros, and in Mexico taught him the importance of learning the culture of a people.  He was remarkably tolerant and accepting during a time when Americans were notoriously racist and xenophobic.  Pershing attempted to understand the people to whom he related and negotiate before resorting to physical force.

The author tries to emphasize the humanity behind the stern commander, perhaps most significantly in his personal relationships.  Although a notorious “ladies’ man” when he was a bachelor, he became a devoted husband and father.  When his wife and daughters died tragically in a fire, he continued to show his commitment as a father to his son Warren, but he dallied with several women and maintained a relationship with a French mistress for over thirty years. In all his personal relationships, he was generous and giving even in times of stress.

Perry gives some attention to understanding Pershing’s religious experience.  Although Pershing’s religious upbringing is unclear, he often acknowledged his dependence on God and this became more pronounced as he faced greater challenges in life.  He and his family joined the Episcopal Church while they live in the Philippines.  After his retirement from the military, he committed himself to the completion of the National Cathedral in Washington as an expression of “American values.”  Perhaps his commitment comes through most clearly when he tells an interviewer after the war that he no longer wants to talk about war, courage, and sacrifice.   “The most glorious thing is life,” Pershing said.  “And we who are alive must cling to it, each of us helping.” 

Pershing was innovative in areas of military life including the coordinated use of artillery, air, and ground forces and the establishment of the Military Police; however, he was never a proponent of a strong air force and could not understand the need of armor (tanks) as an independent force.  Both of these would play a decisive role in the Second World War. 
This is by no means a comprehensive biography, but Perry gives us a very helpful review of the life of one of the most important military leaders of the early 20th century, one whose choices shaped the role of the United States later in the century.   This is a good contribution to this series.                                                   

Disclosure:  This book was given to the reviewer by Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Choosing Sides

Note:  This is the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Stones River.  In memory of those who fought and died there, my blog today is an updated repeat of an earlier blog posting about a visit to the battlefield.

One Saturday about five years ago, Rita and I took our eight-year-old grandson, Noah, to visit Stones River National Battlefield here in Murfreesboro. This is the site of the Battle of Stones River, an engagement that lasted from December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863. The battle is characterized by historians as having the largest percentage of casualties on both sides, a total of 23,515--some 13,600 on the Union side and about 10,600 on the Confederate side.

Once inside the Visitors Center, we found ourselves in front of a map showing the initial deployment of forces. This produced Noah's first question: "Which one is our side?" This led to some discussion. His mother's family grew up in the South--Mississippi and Alabama--and she was born in Tennessee. Noah's father is originally from Indiana, and all his family lived in the North. We talked about this for a few minutes, and then he asked, "Who were the bad guys and who were the good guys?"

The historian in me tried to keep the details simple: It all depends on how you look at it! If you were a soldier from the North, you were concerned about preserving the Union, not letting your friends down, and staying alive. If you were part of the Confederate forces, you probably saw yourself as defending your homeland from invaders, being a good comrade to your fellow soldiers, and staying alive. Among the common soldiers of both sides, slavery was not the issue. Economics was not the issue. Who was good and who was bad? Depends on your perspective.

Now we can argue that in the long run the preservation of the Union and the eventual end of slavery were worthy outcomes to a bloody "uncivil" war, but I was led to think about our tendency to want to divide every issue into "good" versus "bad" and "us" versus "them." Such a dichotomy leads inevitably to confrontation, conflict, and demonization of the enemy. We no longer confront an enemy but a stereotype of a real person. Of course, this is the easy way out and avoids dealing with the complexities of any situation.

Jesus was careful to avoid the "us" versus "them" mentality. His mission was inclusive. His was a desire to reconcile all people to God. Everyone was and is a child of God, worthy of His love. This didn't go down too well with some of the religious leaders of Jesus' day, but he didn't seem to care and went ahead and loved them all.

As our visit to the battlefield came to a conclusion, Noah observed, "I guess I like both sides." I think that's Gospel.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blog #666

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”—Matthew 24:36

The fact that this is my 666th blog posting on Barnabas File seems appropriate since so many Christian associate that number—“the number of the Beast”—with the end times, and some  people expected that the world would end today based on some interpretations of the Mayan calendar.  As of this writing, the world has not ended.

This type of thing comes along regularly.  Christians have been anticipating the end of this present world since the time of Christ.  Various millennialists, chiliastics, prophets, and seers arise from time to time to proclaim “the end of days.” Some modern Christian sects have been founded on such calculations and then their leaders have done some fancy interpretation when the date arrived and everyone was still here.  The predictions continue, however.

In connection with the present prediction, one mystic said, “This is not the end of the world, but it is the beginning of a new world.”  One way to explain things, I suppose, but it does have some implication for Christians.

For the Christian, a new world was born with the coming of Christ.  With the birth of Christ, a new kingdom began emerging into this world.  Given the problems and calamities that continue to plague us, it is clear that the kingdom of Christ has not reached its culmination.  So we wait.  Advent reminds us not only that Christ has come, but he is coming.  So let us prepare.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Making Yourself Dispensable

If you read my last post, you will remember that I talked about making yourself indispensable.  Here is the other side of the coin.  How do you go about making yourself dispensable?

At one point in my denominational career, I was looking for a person who would become my associate.  The executive director of the state Baptist convention had one word of advice: “You need to find someone who could step in and take your place if you were hit by a truck tomorrow!”  Not very subtle, but his comments make sense.  There are certain things that you have learned how to do that you can pass on to others.  This not only calls out new talent but makes a smooth transition to new leadership more likely.

Andy Stanley provides a similar challenge when he tells his staff members, “You should always be training someone who could step into your position.”  So how do you make yourself dispensable? How can you prepare someone to take your place?
First, you need to know your job.  Although someone else might handle the details differently, there are certain basic concepts and specific information that someone needs in order to continue what you are doing.  In order to pass that on, you need to have a clear understanding about how you do your job, what is expected of you, what is essential, and what is negotiable.

Second, you must find the right person to train.  The person you select but not only be capable but must have a teachable spirit.  He or she must be willing to learn.  The person does not have to be just like you in personality but similar gifts would be helpful.  You are not trying to create a clone but train a competent leader.

Third, you should give him or her opportunity not only to learn but to practice.  Give the person the chance to do things on their own, be a sounding board for his or her questions or concerns, and provide performance coaching as needed.

Fourth, you must not be afraid to give good, honest feedback.  As a musician friend said to me recently, “Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”  Don’t be afraid to share what you know.

Fifth, you should continue to stretch the person by providing growth challenges.  Give the person more responsibility.  Once your associate has mastered the basic concepts and skills of the job, encourage the person to try new ways to address the task. In so doing, he or she may discover an effective way to accomplish the same things but more in keeping with his or her own personality or gifts.

Give it some thought.  What can you do in 2013 to make yourself dispensable?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Making Yourself Indispensable

Several years ago, I made this challenge to the ministers with whom I worked:  “How can you make yourself indispensable this year?”  My challenge was predicated on the idea that they should discover something that they offered to students, churches, and other stakeholders that would be missed if it were no longer present.  Was I asking them to seek ways to assure their job security?  Probably.

As I think about this now, I would still ask the same question but my motivation would be different.  I would be more interested in these individuals identifying the ministry, service, or relationship that each one could offer that was unique to each of them as an individuals.

I have often thought about this quote:  “What are the things that you should do, what are the things someone else should do, and what are things no one should do?” I would add to this, “What is the thing that only you can do?”  In other words, if you don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Each of us is gifted by God in special ways.  Each of us has passions, gifts, talents, and skills that make us unique.  There are things that you can do better, more effectively, or with more ability than I can (and vice versa.)  This is not meant to make us proud but humble.  God has a special task for each of us.

What is your special contribution to the Kingdom of God?  It will be determined not only by the attributes I mentioned above but also by your location, your life stage, and your availability.  You function in a particular context—family, work, church, and community—that is the stage upon which you serve.  At different phases in our lives, we have opportunities that will never come our way again.  You must also decide if you want to pursue the special opportunities that God places before you; you can say “No.”

What are some examples?  Perhaps this is the year that you take some time to help one of your children discover and pursue an innate talent.  Perhaps this is the time to discover your passion for a particular type of ministry and start preparing to do it.  Perhaps this is the year that you will sit down with your spouse to start dreaming and planning about your retirement together.  Perhaps this is the opportunity to mentor a person who needs the knowledge and skills you possess.

Give it some thought.  What is the most important thing you can do in 2013 to make yourself indispensable?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Being Baptist in a Post-Denominational Age

Every year our church’s Denominational Relations Committee leads a month-long emphasis on Baptist heritage. The approach each year is different, but the point is to remind us of who we are as a Baptist congregation.  Someone asked this year, “Why talk about denominations in a post-denominational age?  Aren’t we beyond all that?”  The answer would be “Yes” and “No.”

To understand what we mean by post-denominational, we must consider how we use the term “denomination.”  If you are talking about judicatories, conventions, and bureaucracies when you use the term “denomination,” then we are well on our way to being post-denominational in the United States.  Even in churches that embrace a connectional or hierarchical approach to church government (Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc.), less attention is being paid to what the “denomination” (read national leadership and governing bodies) decides and what a church as a local expression of that faith practices.  Baptists are no longer the only ones who break away to form new churches or affiliations with like-minded congregations.  This trend will continue.

On the personal level, many people no longer think of themselves as parts of a denomination, so they would probably describe themselves as “post-denominational.”  They feel free to pick and chose the beliefs, doctrines, and practices that they will follow.  In fact, most Americans tend toward espousing a self-defined, syncretic faith that “works for them.”  This practice has been around for a long time and is not going away.

When local congregations use the term “denomination,” however, they are often talking about more than an affiliation with some particular entity or organization.  They are talking about their identity.  One of my professors in seminary pointed out that”Baptist” is a denomination.  We are part of the worldwide denomination of believers   called “Baptist.”  There are many expressions of this denomination through alliances, assemblies, conventions, and associations, but they are all “Baptist.”  They are not separate denominations.

Every church carries the heritage of some stream of the Christian faith.  Even if the church calls itself “non-denominational” or “interdenominational,” it embraces a theology that it has received from the past—free church, Calvinistic, Pentecostal, or something else.  Each church is the heir of a rich theological tradition whether it owns that tradition or not.  This is true of “emerging churches” as well.

Our church is a Baptist church.  It is both similar to and different from other Baptist churches, but it holds more in common with other Baptist churches than it does with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholic.  Although Baptists would affirm many of the doctrines of those other churches, there are some that we as Baptists think are particularly important as heirs to the Baptist tradition.

Does this make us better than anyone else?  Not by a long short, but it is who we are.  We need to own that identity.

This is why we take some time every year to openly reflect on who we are as Baptists.  We may disagree on the best way to carry out the mission that God has called us to, but we do it as recipients of a robust faith tradition.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Trust Betrayed

Earlier this week, I visited with a friend who has publicly declared that he is no longer a part of his Southern Baptist-related state convention.  After many disappointing experiences, he has come to see that the denomination is no longer relevant in a world with significant spiritual and physical needs.  It has forsaken the sacred trust given to it by devoted Christians over the years.

My friend is going through period of grief and a sense of loss.  He will always be a Baptist in his heart but he feels estranged from the faith tradition that literally gave him birth.  His experience certainly reflects my own.  Twenty years ago I was struggling with my own role within a denomination that had invested much in me and which I had attempted to serve and support for all of my life as a minster.  I had been faithful to that faith community but found it going in a direction I perceived as destructive and irrelevant.

During that time I shared my concerns with a pastor friend.  He listened and then asked, “Who do you really serve?”  As I responded to that blunt inquiry, I realized that I served Christ first and then I was committed to serving His church.  These commitments came before any choice of denominational identity.

Even though I have left that denomination behind, I continue to maintain relationships with friends who work within that tradition. Why?  Because I like them and still try to make myself available to them.  We have a history of working and serving together.  Our relationships were built on mutual trust.   In many ways, we are still fellow laborers in the cause of Christ.

Trusting relationships are the basis for any healthy organization—church, judicatory, denomination, not-for-profit or secular company.  When we mutually agree that we are going to do something, we are obligated to follow through on that commitment.  As Christians, we trust each other to keep our promises because we are brothers and sisters in Christ. When we succeed in our work, we rejoice together.  When we fail, we don’t blame but we grieve together.

Undergirding any cooperative endeavor must be a foundation of trust.  If we fail to respect, love, and serve one another, we will accomplish little for the Kingdom.  When we forsake the role of servants, we lose the glue that holds us together.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I’m Non-denominational

As I read through a list of seminary students involved in a preaching event, I noted that where their faith traditions were listed that a number indicated that they were “non-denominational” or “interdenominational.”  I don’t remember anyone putting “none.”  I would love to hear their definitions of these terms, but let’s just assume for a minute that by using either of these terms the student is saying one of two things:  “I belong to a church that is not related to a particular denomination” or “I am not committed to a particular faith tradition.”

This seems to be a growing trend for some students in theological institutions.  Many schools have diverse student bodies and enroll students from a number of denominational backgrounds, but some students indicate that they are not part of any particular denomination.  My friend Dick Olsen at Central Seminary comments that he often asks students in a particular course to read fifty pages about their denomination or faith tradition.  Some either don’t have one to read about or can’t find that many pages about their denomination!

Perhaps this is an analogy to the “I’m spiritual but not religious” mantra.  In both instances, the people involved are not hostile to the spiritual life and may even want to serve a congregation but they are concerned about being specific in their commitment.  How does this happen?

Could it be because the student has had a bad experience in a particular denomination or church no longer wishes to be identified with it?  Certainly that is possible and there are enough problems in churches that many of us can understand that decision.

Maybe the individual became a person of faith through contact with a parachurch group or a non-denominational church.  There have been campus groups (such as Campus Crusade—now “Cru,” Navigators, and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) for years that are not connected to any particular church and many of those who came to Christ through the witness of those groups have started churches that are not related to a particular denomination.

Of course, it is possible that the student is just waiting for the right church or denomination to come along.  They have not made a choice yet but they “will know it when they see it.”

This raises questions for theological educators such as “What is our role in helping a student to find a church home or affiliation?”  and “If we are helping to equip this person for ministry, shouldn’t we have some understanding of the church or people that the student will serve?”  Failure to answer these questions properly can lead to frustration for both the faculty and the student.

A new era brings new challenges, doesn’t it? 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Fairly but Not Equally

I touched off a heated conversation one time when I said to a friend, “I don’t treat my children equally.”  My friend was troubled by my statement, so I tried to explain.  Each of my children is a unique person.  Each has been gifted by God in a special way.  Their placement in sequence of birth assured that there would be a difference in the environment in which each of them grew up—whether you are first, second, or third in birth order does make a difference.  I do want to treat my children fairly and I have attempted to do so, but I don’t have one standard approach in the way that I deal with them individually.

This concept also applies in the area of leadership.  Each person on your staff or in your church or organization is a unique individual.  If you come up with a policy that you will treat everyone of them in exactly the same way, you show a lack of awareness for their abilities, circumstances, and needs.  You are not being fair to them and you may be wasting their abilities.

Showing appreciation is one example of meeting the person’s unique needs in different ways.  In 5Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, Gary Chapman and Paul White explain that individuals respond positively to different types of encouragement.  Some are motivated by words of affirmation, others like tangible gifts, some welcome assistance in doing their work, and others just want quality time with supervisor or co-workers.  Chapman and White point out that to give appreciation in a way that the person does not welcome it can even hinder a person’s motivation.  For example, a leader may think that he or she is doing the right thing by giving a team member a nice plaque in front of everyone on the team when that person would be more encouraged by a little one-on-one time with the supervisor.

The key is, “Do we offer help in a way that the person can actually use it?”  This applies to a number of leadership tasks.  When the leader delegates a responsibility to a team member, he or she must understand the person’s work style.  Does this person need a checklist on what is to be done?  Would this person work best if simply given the parameters in which to work, the resources available, and then allowed to do the task?

When a leader communicates with a team member, does the person want to “just get down to the facts” or should the leader spend a few minutes building rapport by asking about family or personal interests?  This even applies to compensation.  Although most of us appreciate a little extra in the check at the end of the month, others are motivated by opportunities for continuing education, extra time off for family or personal pursuits, or freedom to pursue a pet project using the organization’s resources.

You might respond, “Well, this takes a lot of time.”  Yes, it does.  We only find out what our children need by spending time with them and getting to know them. The same is true with those we lead.  If we don’t know them, then we cannot provide what they need to be effective.  Otherwise, we will treat them equally but not fairly.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Ministry Observed

Rita and I had lunch this week with a young couple who ministry in a predominantly Islamic South Asian country.  They do not work for a denomination, but they affiliate with a Christian organization.  They have a clear vision of what God has called them to do in that particular setting and are investing their lives there.

I always learn something new when we visit, and I came away from this meeting with a fresh understanding about the key values of their work.  These values could well apply to other ministries as well.

First, their work is Kingdom-oriented.  This could be expressed in a number of ways, but the primary purpose of this ministry is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and his reign.  Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the Kingdom of God is already breaking through.  Their mission and ours is to tell people about this incursion and invite them to follow Christ in this movement. 

Second, this ministry is contextual.  This couple has great respect for the culture in which they serve.  They understand that some aspects of this culture are antithetical to the Gospel.  On the other hand, much of culture is life-affirming and worthy of understanding and support.  Their on-going task is to differentiate between what is negotiable and what is not for believers.

Third, their work is incarnational.  They live among the people in the country where they serve so that they can learn and teach as peers.  They will always be outsiders, but they attempt to lower the barriers that might hinder communication.

Fourth, they emphasize discipleship.  The future of the church—no matter what form it takes—in any culture is based on calling out and equipping believers who will spiritually reproduce.  Healthy, growing disciples are essential to Kingdom growth.  This is necessary for the next value to be actualized.

Fifth, their goal is for this work to be indigenous.  This couple wants to “work themselves out of a job.”  At some point, the missional movement that they support will be completely led by the local believers with no involvement of outside personnel.

Sixth, their approach is entrepreneurial.  They encourage believers to develop their own businesses that will not only assure financial support but also a venue for evangelism.  The couple’s organization does this by providing microloans for the start-up costs for very simple businesses.  The goal is not simply personal income, however.  The business must provide a way for the person to live out his or her calling as a believer.

These values certainly complement and reinforce one another.  They undergird the vision of this couple to reach and disciple national leaders for a movement that will be self-led, self-supporting and self-propagating.  This is no easy task but it is one that they feel that God has called them to.

For more information about this work, please contact me at