Book Review: What It Takes

by Richard Cramer first hit my reading list after listening to a podcast interview with political journalist Ezra Klein. He called this book, “The best political journalism writing out there,” and highly recommended it. As part of my 2018 Reading Challenge, I tackled this under the category, “Books by an author who is no longer living.”

Cramer writes an exhaustive (1,072 pages of small print!!) book chronicling the 1988 Presidential Campaign. In the process, he digs deep into the backgrounds of each of the major Republican and Democrat candidates, exploring the question of what motivations drive an individual to take on the exhausting, expensive, life-altering journey of a presidential campaign.

That premise makes this sound like a dull, lifeless report. But it’s not—Cramer’s lively, informal, rollicking prose takes the reader into the minds and lives of the characters he writes about and gives a sense of depth and dimensional it’s to each candidate. I came away with a real sense of knowing what these men sounded like, what they were thinking about, and how they viewed the world and each other.

Overall, this is a lengthy book—and on account of the length, it probably would not be interesting to anyone who doesn’t enjoy political history. If you do like that sort of thing, you’ll find this book a richly engrossing read.

The next book on my reading list was supposed to be Artemis, but due to getting cheated by a rogue Amazon seller and the timing of the paperback release, I’ve decided instead to start in on Dune by Frank Herbert.

What is Church?

Earlier this week, I shared a post from Stephen Kneale about church-centric missions. Writing that post made me think a little more about the definition of church—something we’ve been studying as Jason (our pastor) is preaching through the book of Acts.

What is the Church?

The Apostle’s Creed affirms belief in the “holy catholic church”—catholic, with a lower case. This refers to the group of all Christians—all believers—from the beginning of time until now and until the final Day of the Lord. This is important to remember—we belong to larger community of faith than just the people we see on Sundays or even then the people in our denomination. In last Sunday’s sermon, Jason said—partially in jest—that if the first believers didn’t like their church, they couldn’t go to another one. There weren’t any other options!

What is a church?

When we look at Acts, particularly Acts 2, a few distinctive elements jump out that define what a church is. And what’s missing from Acts, and the New Testament, shows us what is not essential to the definition of a church.

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’  teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41–47, ESV)

From this passage, we can identify a few elements that define church:

  • A group of people with a common, specific belief structure. Acts 2:5 indicates that these first believers were devout Jews from all over the world, gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (aka the Feast of Weeks). Their Judaism represents the foundation of their, and are, doctrinal beliefs. In Acts 2:14–40, we read Peter’s sermon where he explains, from this foundation, how Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfills the promises and plan of God. The believers “received his word”, repented and were baptized.
  • Preaching is distinguished from teaching in other passages, and we can see it in Acts 2:14–40. One could probably argue that preaching is not specific enough. The pattern observed throughout the New Testament is one of exegetical preaching. Jesus and the apostles started with Scripture, and their preaching was unpacking the Scripture (for them, the Torah, Prophets, and Writings contained in our Old Testament) and applying it to the new kingdom Christ inaugurated. Topical preaching is common in many American evangelical churches; it is often (in my experience) not distinctively Christian. Case in point; I saw some great topical preaching in Austin earlier this month. By a non-Christian, humanist “thought influencer” who gave a TED-style keynote speech at an EMS conference I attended. Church needs to have clearly Christian preaching, rooted in the Scriptures and filled with the Spirit.
  • Baptism: These believers were baptized after receiving the Word (vs 41).
  • Teaching: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; in large part, this seems to reflect the apostles’ following Christ’s command to “make disciples, teaching them what I taught you.” Teaching is different than preaching. We do have the apostles’ teaching today contained in the New Testament. Studying this teaching is important for two reasons: first, it unpacks the Old Testament scriptures and explains the master plan of God’s redemption through Christ. Second, the apostles’ teaching tells us how we ought to live as members of Christ’s Kingdom.
  • Fellowship: The early believers did life together—they shared meals, visited each other in their homes, and helped meet each other’s needs. Community—the fellowship of other believers—is critical for spiritual growth.
  • Prayers: These believers devoted themselves to prayers, which would have included the morning, afternoon, and evening Jewish prayer services. These are formal, liturgical prayers rooted in Scripture (especially the Psalms) that remind us of our relationship to God and our dependence on him. The rest of Acts and the Epistles indicated these believers prayed for each others’ needs, prayed for their missionaries and leaders, and prayed for their rulers. My wife has pointed out that serious prayer is something lacking for many Christians today; a quick ten-second shout out to God before eating or while driving is not the kind of prayer these early believers were doing.
  • Giving: Meeting each other’s needs generously. Charitable giving is a practice that, as described by Jesus and the epistles, does not make sense to many non-Christians today. Financial “experts” scoff at the idea of giving 10% or more to church. But these believers modeled giving—even to the point of selling their possessions in order to help others out.
  • Worship: Lastly, these believers attended temple services and large scale corporate worship routinely.

A couple of other elements are mentioned in this passage, but often misunderstood. First, the “many wonders and signs” the apostles performed; and then at the end of the passage, the number of people being added. Some churches put these things in the wrong order. Charismatic churches, in some cases, put much more emphasis on seeking “signs and wonders” than on the core corporate and individual spiritual disciplines described above. And many evangelical churches put much more emphasis on “adding numbers of people” than they ought to—especially large, commercialized mega churches focused on growth.

The example here in Acts clearly points to the correct order: As these believers, all of them, devoted themselves to the spiritual practices, then God produced signs and wonders and church growth. This came up in our house church (small group gathering of believers) last week: if we, collectively as Christians, devoted ourselves to preaching, teaching, fellowship, prayers, giving, and worship, maybe then we’d see the growth and the miraculous works these first believers did.

What isn’t listed here?

It should be noted that many of the things a lot of Americans would say define what a “church” is are not present in this passage:

  • A large professional staff;
  • Complex “programs” for different age groups;
  • Recreational facilities, sports programs, or entertainment;
  • Self-help “your best life now” type books;
  • Teaching institutions separated from Scripture or ministry.

These things don’t reflect God’s definition of church. There are often good “reasons” to have things like these in our churches but we really ought to evaluate if those reasons line up with Scripture—Lean not on your own understanding.

Church-centric missions

Stephen Kneale wrote a great post today regarding what missions work his church supports, and what they expect of their congregants (who are themselves often quite in need). One of the aspects of his writing and ecclesiology1 that I quite appreciate is rooting doctrine and practice in Scripture (Acts and the Epistles, primarily) and not in acquired tradition. It’s an approach that my church, Church Project, has put a lot of focus on. Kneale points out that the only Scriptural model of missions is church based, and focused on church planting.

We want to support church-based ministries because God’s plan A is the church and he has no plan B. The early church sent out individuals to plant churches and appoint elders. Paul could consider his work completed in a certain region not because he had shared the gospel with everyone there but because he had planted churches in the region and they would continue that work. The New Testament knows nothing of individuals other than those sent by churches, working from or with churches, sharing the gospel and then planting other churches where there were none making Christ known….it would be inconsistent to support ministries we similarly don’t see in the Bible or for us to shun the only forms that we do.

(Via Building Jerusalem)

This is a missions approach I also appreciated in the PCA denomination. Sadly, many modern evangelical organizations seemed to have divorced missions and ministry work from any focus on the local church body. It’s unclear to me whether this is the result of or a contributing factor to our individualistic, non-community American Christianity.

Digging Deep for Buried Treasure

A few years ago, I heard a Bible teacher suggest picking a book of the Bible, then reading it over and over again, twenty times, before moving on to another book. More recently, a guest on a podcast I listened to mentioned the idea of taking one book at a time, reading it over and over for a month, then moving on to the next book.

These insights led me to assemble a five-year Bible reading plan, which I started this past October. My plan is structured around reading one book of the Bible at a time, over and over, for about twenty times or a month or so. The longer the book, the more time is dedicated to it, and the books are arranged, carefully, to move back and forth between New Testament and Old Testament,  often following some type of thematic tie in between works. You can see the plan details, and try it for yourself, on this page.

In October, I started with Mark as my initial test piece. Each morning, I read through the book in its entirety (turns out Mark is not nearly as long as I thought). I read from multiple translations and from several different study Bibles. In all, I read (or listened to) Mark twenty-seven times over the course of four weeks.

Initially, this seemed to be a boring, pointless exercise. Mark seemed dry, predictable, formulaic. Passe. However, by about nine days in, I began seeing insights into the book’s structure and message I had not noticed before. It was a profound realization.

November found me digging into Hebrews. Providentially, this came right as the Naked Bible Podcast with Dr. Michael Heiser was teaching a series on the book. I began listening to those episodes, and also listened to the Hebrews series from Beth Immanuel, taught by D. Thomas Lancaster. Hebrews is a knotty, tough book. It’s beautifully written and packed with meaning. I found myself spending extended periods of time digging deeper, getting at the Greek, considering different interpretations of texts, and reading the Old Testament source texts the author of Hebrews quotes. This deep dive into Hebrews refined my theology and solidified my faith in profound ways.

I then moved on to 1 and 2 Peter, which were incredibly rich, fruitful books. Then, in January, I tackled Zechariah. Zechariah is hard. He’s a minor prophet, the last one chronologically, and his writings are esoteric and nonobvious. There is a pattern and an outline to the book, but it wasn’t immediately clear, and there’s some really weird stuff, especially in the first eight chapters with his dream visions. However, the time spent dwelling in Zechariah was well worth it: After repeatedly reading and struggling to understand these strange writings, I began to see the patterns and “get” it. Turns out, Zechariah is a beautiful work of prophecy, and it is full of Messianic prophecies, more so than most other minor prophets.

If you’re like me, and want to transform your Bible reading into something greater, give this plan a shot. You won’t regret it.

Of Interest

No Rules Recess:
I love this. Incidentally, this was a large part of my life as a child. Turns out, letting kids use their imaginations and play however they want works wonder. “[T]hey were so active at recess that they returned to class vibrant and motivated, ready to learn”

Tyler Cowen on marijuana legalization:
His post discusses new research showing that marijuana legalization leads to greater potency and illustrates how economics predicts that. He then mentions that “marijuana legalization has moved rather rapidly into being an overrated idea” and continue:

It seems to me wrong and immoral to put people in jail for ingesting substances into their body, or for aiding others in doing so, at least provided fraud is absent in the transaction.  That said, IQ is so often what is truly scarce in society.  And voluntary consumption decisions that lower IQ are not something we should be regarding with equanimity.

His solution is to use regulation/taxation policies to discourage consumption, particularly of more potent ideas. This has precedence; as he mentions, in most states, beer is treated differently than whiskey.

(Via Marginal REVOLUTION)

Whining Does No Good

“You cry, I’m suffering severe pain! Are you then relieved from feeling it, if you bear it in an unmanly way?” —Seneca, Moral Letters, 78.17 quoted in , pg. 48

Great insight. What is termed a “Stoic response” to suffering is really a response rooted in this wisdom: whining, complaining, and having a pity party does nothing to solve the real problem going on. The faster I can get out of my self-focused emotional pity party, the sooner I can get to actually solving problems.

It’s worth noting that the Stoic view of manliness, referenced by the term “unmanly” above, does not refer to our modern conception of being tough, gruff, or emotionally detached. Rather, manliness meant living a virtuous life; that is, living in the right way. The word most commonly used for virtue, αρετή (arete), can also be translated as “excellence” (c.f. Philippians 4:8).


2018 Reading Challenge

My goal is to read 60 books this year in order to develop a a broader, deeper knowledge base, expand my thinking about the world, and improve the “life of my mind.”

Throughout 2017, numerous books and interviews challenged me to focus my information consumption on higher-value sources. Several books (including, most recently, The Black Swan) highlighted the shortcomings of our rapid-response, minimal-thought news cycle. Furthermore, the example of key intellectual figures such as Adam Robinson, Tyler Cowan, Josh Waitzkin, Nasir Taleb, and others1 encouraged me to broaden my reading patterns and go deeper, intellectually.

Enter Tim Challies. His popular blog has posted an annual reading challenge for several years, designed to “help you read more and to broaden the scope of your reading.” I picked it up and have begun checking off some of the titles on the list. My goal is to read 60 books in total this year; I’m using this list as a guide, in no particular order, to expand the scope of what I’m reading. I am tracking my reading progress on this page.

A brief update on the books I’ve read thus far:

by David McCullough

Deserves the hype (and I should have heeded this and read it sooner). An exceptional biography of a fascinating man. I learned a lot about what faithful leadership looks like and was challenged in how I view my own ambitions, moral values, and family life.

by N.T. Wright

Wright takes on the topic of sanctification (and discipleship) by asking, “How should a Christian live?”. This is both a theoretical, philosophical investigation of Christian ethics (Wright finds an expanded form of Aristotlean virtue ethics in the Scripture, particularly the New Testament) as well as a practical prescription for how one should apply these ethics to daily living and growth in Christ. His winsome prose at times gets old, but the content is solid and this book should definitely be on the reading list for anyone seriously interested in why we ought to live a certain way or in ethics as a philosophical topic.

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Paradigm-shifting book, particularly for anyone who spends a lot of time dwelling statistics or data. One of the top five most influential books on how I think about the world around me. Taleb is a model intellectual—a well-read, cosmopolitan thinker with practical experience in the real world. This book shines as the culmination of decades of study into planning for and capitalizing on unpredictable events.

by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

One book that pulls together a wealth of “best practices” from other books, TED talks, research studies, and top performers. This book is aimed at identifying the key habits and tactics that will optimize your health, productivity, creativity, and effectiveness. On the surface, this sounds a bit cheesy, and this book took a lot of work to pull off. But the result is a well-written, thoroughly researched book that both provides background information and easy-to-use application tasks. Highly recommended.

by Michael Hyatt

This is a good summation of a lot of useful ideas around productivity, planning, and optimizing performance. I particularly liked Hyatt’s approach of starting your planning cycle by debriefing past experiences and working through regrets. His take on SMARTER goals is clever too: A SMARTER goal is Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Risky, Time-keyed, Exciting, and Relevant. Good book and short, too.


Your Conscience Tells You What not to Do, Wisdom Tells You What to Do
The title is the main point, but this column does have some more good points; this includes the concept that wisdom trains your conscience, and without wisdom, worry or anxiety does the training. Also, this great line as the conclusion, answering the question, what do I do about this?:

Read the book of Proverbs. Then read Ecclesiastes. And finally, Song of Songs. Proverbs teaches you how to live well, Ecclesiastes to suffer well, and Song of Songs to love well. Together, Solomon teaches you how to live, to think about the world, and to love.

Anecdotally, my parents encouraged/forced me to develop the habit of spending a lot of time in Proverbs growing up. I still read a Proverb every morning—Proverbs has 31 days, so do most months, so I read whichever Proverb is the calendar date. Today it was Proverbs 6. Through this practice, these storehouses of ancient wisdom have become close friends and advisors.

The Five Tests of False Doctrine
Great heuristic2 to use in analyzing doctrinal ideas. A doctrine is really the codification of something we believe; there is great value in self-reflection, determining what we actually believe (not what we say we believe) and then comparing these beliefs to these five tests.

How should you take and write notes in books?
Interesting approach; Cowan uses a method that does not markup books to preserve the source for re-reads. I tend to highlight and markup books I own, inspired, at least in part, by the practices of folks like Jonathan Edwards and John Adams.

What Debit Card “Skimmers” Look Like (found at Aldi’s)
“Skimmers” are inserts or attachments on ATMs, gas pumps, and checkout terminals that copy your card’s magnetic stripe and gets your PIN number or zip code. Using this, credit card thiefs can then create duplicate copies of your card and sell them or sell your card data online. This has become a common way for cards to be compromised. Great article explaining some new, very covert skimmer devices found at Aldi stores in Pennsylvania. There’s a couple great ways to reduce your risk to these devices: First, use Apple Pay if it’s available: Its a more secure method of checking out that makes it nearly impossible for your financial payment details to be stolen and used. Second, don’t use your primary bank account card if you can help it. Using credit cards or a secondary account limits the exposure of your money if your card does get hijacked

The 5 AM Club

For the past few years, I’ve found rising early to be a “secret weapon” allowing me to be more productive, more focused, and get more done. As the speaker in this video explains, these early morning hours are magical. The rest of the world is quiet, distractions are less, and the mind is at its sharpest.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the video; do watch it all. A few tips resonated with my own experience:

  • You have to have a morning ritual. I like the “20/20/20”1 he describes. Make this what works for you. For me, my ritual is tightly scripted and an absolute habit at this point. I get up and go on autopilot—that’s the key.
  • Prepare for success the night before. The no computer in bed rule is huge. When I stopped surfing social media and reading the news in bed, I discovered much better sleep. This is a hard habit to break, but worth it. I further prepare for success by laying out my clothes, filling the tea kettle, setting up my study space, and making sure my books are in the right place and right order.
  • Habits take time. The latest research shows it takes 66 days to instill a new habit2. Rising early and running your morning ritual takes time, a couple months worth, and is hard until you get there.
  • Have a why. In order to get past the hump of making a new habit, you need to have a clear sense of what you are wanting to achieve with it. For me, rising early was the only way to get in quality study time for school. Thus, my desire for good grades and completing my degree became a powerful motivation to begin rising early. Now, I rise early because I enjoy it.

What has been your experience with rising early? 

Effective Task Management In Less Than 75 Words

David Allen is a master guru of productivity. In his book , he summarizes best-practice behaviors for personal task management as:

Get everything out of your head. Make decisions about actions required on stuff when it shows up—not when it blows up. Organize reminders of your projects and the next actions on them in appropriate categories. Keep your system current, complete, and reviewed sufficiently to trust your intuitive choices about what you’re doing (and not doing) at any time.

Further on, distills this advice into the following single sentence of wisdom:

Focus on positive outcomes and continually take the next action on the most important thing.

Simple advice, and probably the single greatest pearl of truth written on how to be productive.