Why I Read [actual] Books

I didn’t grow up a reader. Surfer magazine was the only written word worth while (I promise, it wasn’t just the pictures…). I didn’t pick up a book for fun until I was nineteen. You’d think I’d be thrilled to be alive in a time where most people communicate with encrypted text messages, emoticons, 140 character tweets and youtube clips.

In many ways I love the tools at our finger tips. Other times I find myself wishing I lived during grandma and grandpa’s day when you needed pen and paper to record your thoughts and a bookstore to get a book.

No one ever walks into an Apple Store, picks up an iPad and says, “I love the way this thing smells.” And you don’t sit in front of your computer screen thinking, “It just feels so great in my hands.” I don’t have the best sense of smell, but I love the smell of old books. And my posture would be much better if I didn’t sit in front of a computer most of the day.

Contrary to what many in my parent’s generation think, the developed world isn’t digressing into an illiterate age. Instead, the definition of literate has changed. My good friend Jondou suggests that proper English has changed as well…Language evolves, but that’s a post for another day, possibly a discussion for our new blog). To quote Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. We can’t ignore today’s media or the way in which it has changed our language.

But books, those things made out of paper and comprised of complete sentences, bring us back to the basics of language. If we never learn the basics, today’s valuable tools will lead us down a path of frustration into a world of dull dreams and incomplete thought.

The last year I’ve read a lot of what Michael Hyatt has been writing. I’d recommend his stuff to anyone. As a the former CEO of Thomas Nelson, he get’s the whole book thing. He writes,

Contrary to what is often reported in the mainstream media, books are not dead. They are still valuable today. But we must contend for their existence against all other forms of media. Books do for people what movies, television, magazines, newspapers, blogs, and social media will never do—fundamentally alter their worldview and inspire them to greatness.

We need to allow books to inspire us and alter our worldview. Sometimes I read for an escape. Others,  I read to be challenged. Simply put, I can’t afford to stop. None of us can. But too many of us have. This year I’ve been doing something I haven’t done since high school; I’m keeping a reading log/journal.

Why do you read? And what are you reading?

Who’s your mentor? Meet two of mine.

I shouldn’t be up this early. My body is confused. My head is spinning and my stomach is reeling from a bug I picked up on our last day in Malawi. Jetlag wears on one’s ability to turn back the clock to “normal.” Yet, my soul is at ease. Moyowo Ngwabwino, Moyo wanga ulitu bwino.

There is something peaceful about early mornings, even here in America. The internal alarm that has gone off at 4 a.m. the last two mornings has given me ample time to pray and reflect. Oddly, I am thankful to be awake (ask me if I feel the same way this afternoon and you might get a different answer…).

On my trip I spent time with two pastors that I will forever look to as mentors. Their ministry contexts could not be any more different, yet they exude many of the same qualities—a rare mix of humility, strength and creativity. The first was Eugene Peterson. I’ve never met him, but many of his books have fed me over the years (Under The Unpredictable Plant was especially helpful while Hailey and I were living in Malawi last year). I had started his memoir, The Pastor, a few weeks ago but set it aside when my grandma passed away. Hours of flying provided plenty of time to finish it. The second was Vasco Kachipapa, the moderator of the Nkhoma Synod. I’ve mentioned him a few times before (here, here and here).

It’s funny. If you talk about Eugene Peterson with Christians in the U.S. they will all mention The Message. In Malawi, very few know of his work and ministry. Maybe a hundred Americans know Vasco, but in Malawi he is the figurehead for the Presbyterian Church in the central region. Because of the lack of seperation between church and state, he has influence over many non-Presbyterians as well. Millions look to him as their leader. But if you sat down with him in his living room, you’d never know.

Vasco came to greet Brandt and I on our first day in the country. And later during the trip we had dinner with he and his wife Madda. [on a side note; we got lost getting to their house. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being in a questionable African neighborhood in the dark alone. Two mzungu’s driving slowly down dirt “roads” are a perfect target. The next day we found out that two people were taken from their car, beaten and robbed the night before in the exact location…] There is something refreshing about being with him.

Vasco talked of the travesty of the political situation in Malawi and told the story of sitting next to the president during dinner and asking him to pass the salt. People often recognize his voice from radio interviews and are shocked by his stature (he is 5’9” and as skinny as a rail). They expect more; he just laughs. He speaks his mind and people listen, but he never holds his role as anything but a gift from God…maybe even a gift he didn’t want.

He serves with an ethic unlike any other pastor I know, unabashedly seeking to serve and worship God while ignoring the pressure to please the people of his congregation and denomination. Yet, this is the very reason people follow him. His church had over 200 people become members last week and over a thousand are going through the year long catechism class that focuses on what it means to be a Christian. It’s not a program that attracts people to his church, it’s his clear sense of “follow me, while I follow Jesus.”

Peterson gives great words that describe Vasco’s approach to his vocation and role in life.

Most pastoral work consists in pointing away from yourself to something other than you…you are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way. A certain blessed anonymity is inherent in pastoral work. For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed…pastoral ego ‘has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self.’

Thank you for your words Eugene. And thank you Vasco for giving me a living example to follow.

Steve Jobs: leader, lunatic or a lil’ of both?

I finished the Steve Jobs book last week. My first reaction was, what a complicated, confusing and brilliant man. And, what a jerk!

The book affirmed all that I had heard about how miserable he was to work with and for. The reality distortion field that he lived in created an atmosphere that would either (1) make it miserable to go to work every morning—that is, if you were fortunate enough to actually leave the office—or (2) drive you to work the hardest you ever had.

The book also makes it painfully obvious that same reality distortion field contributed quite a bit to his sickness and eventual death.

At the same time, these are the things that helped him to be successful. His continual drive to make great products instead of making a ton of money (not that he didn’t do both) really has changed the way we live and function today—no matter what tool you are using to read this blog, his fingerprints are all over the technology that created it. There’s a good chance he was the most influential visionary of this century.

And while I may disagree with much of his leadership style, it worked. I am convinced that his well-known tirades, bipolar emotions and self-absorption had a lot to do with making Apple a great company.

But that got me thinking all sorts of things: Was Steve Jobs a great leader or just a great visionary? Are the two at all separate? Does one have to be a visionary to lead? Is it possible to be a great visionary and terrible leader? Steve jobs got his people to buy into his vision, but is it really buying in if you just fire everyone that disagrees with you?

As a pastor, I’m often asked to lead in one way or another and I’m constantly trying to become better at it (whether that is reading or getting feedback from mentors). I couldn’t help but read this book with my role in mind. No, I’m not dealing with customers in the church (the whole CEO Pastor, church-consumer culture drives me a little crazy to be honest), but I am dealing with people.

Any sales or marketing guru would tell you, after believing in your product, knowing how to relate to and work with people (i.e. your customers) is most important. Leadership is a field that crosses into any industry that involves people, including the Church (yes, I understand the irony of writing that I don’t like church-consumer culture and then calling ministry an industry in the next breath).

Try this: Throw out his new age and messed up spirituality (which brings up another and maybe more important question: can you separate a leader from his/her beliefs?) and ask what a church would look like with a Jobsesque leader at the helm. He was a dynamic communicator, a refreshing visionary and millions of people followed him. But does that mean he left us with any concrete lesson about leadership?

At the end of the book, Isaacoson gave Jobs a chance to reflect on his legacy in his own words. There are good quotes throughout the entire book, many of which could apply to how pastor’s lead, but these two at the end particularly grabbed my attention:

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

I hate it when people call themselves “entrepreneurs” when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company which is the hardest work in the business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will stand for something a generation or two from now.

NOTE: I saw this book, at the bookstore on Saturday. I probably won’t read it, but it is clearl that many think Jobs has revolutionized the way one leads.