Archives For Nonfiction

My copy of the classic.

At the suggestion of my friend, Blake Holmes, I’ve been rereading The Pilgrim’s Progress. Blake mentioned to me this Summer that the book is the most accurate depiction of the spiritual life available. It’s been decades since I read it, and like any good book, you see things differently with each reading. John Bunyan’s fantasy story about a man, named Christian, who goes on a journey is an allegory for the spiritual life. It begins with one of the greatest opening lines:
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a Dream.”

I love this passage from Christian’s journey that deals with differing approaches to the spiritual life–law and grace:

Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large Parlour that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he reviewed a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a Damsel that stood by, Bring hither the Water, and sprinkle the Room; the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.

CHR. Then said Christian, What means this?

INTER: The interpreter answered, This parlour is the heart of man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel: the dust of his Original Sin and inward Corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first is the Law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now, whereas thou sawest that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about the Room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou was almost choked therewith; that is to shew thee, that the Law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it, for it doth not give power to subdue.

Again, as thou sawest the Damsel sprinkle the room with Water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure; this is to shew thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then I say, even as thou sawest the Damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with Water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of Glory to inhabit.

Some of you grew up in churches or religious movements that were steeped in Law and external morality. You found them to be stifling and powerless to change your heart. You felt condemned and suffocated because Law only stirs up sin but cannot remove it.

There is another way called Grace. The Gospel of Grace brings freedom and pleasure. It does not wink at sin, but deals with it by a powerful and deep cleansing, extending even to the hard to reach corners and the tiny cracks of your heart. And, best of all, this cleansing was not just for your joy and your goodness (though these are certainly true), but it was also done that you might share it with the King of Glory, who comes to live with you.

Did you grow up in a church or movement that was centered on Law rather than Grace? What was it like when you discovered Grace? Is Grace still having it’s way in your heart? Have you read The Pilrgim’s Progress? Thoughts?


I was talking with a friend the other day about a leadership situation he is facing, and I was reminded that leadership presents us with unique challenges at every turn. The conversation brought to my mind this post. I thought I’d post it again in hopes that it will encourage your leadership in your families, churches, jobs, and communities.

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John Adams is pictured in this painting,
"The Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull

I greatly appreciated David McCullough’s fantastic biography of John Adams for many reasons. One particular reason is its relevance to all leaders. I wanted to share one section related to John Adam’s experience as a leader. McCullough wrote:

At the start of every new venture of importance in his life, John Adams was invariably assailed by great doubts. It was a life pattern as distinct as any. The boy of fifteen, riding away from home to be examined for admission to Harvard, suffered a foreboding as bleak as the rain clouds overhead. The delegate to the first Continental Congress, preparing to depart for Philadelphia, felt “unalterable anxiety”; the envoy sailing for France wrote of “great diffidence in myself.” That he always succeeded in conquering these doubts did not seem to matter. In advance of each large, new challenge, the painful waves rolled in upon him once again.

Part of this was stage fright, part the consequence of an honest reckoning of his own inadequacies. Mainly it was the burden of an inordinate ability to perceive things as they were: he was apprehensive because he saw clearly how much there was to be apprehensive about.

Three Kinds of Fear that Leaders Face

McCullough mentions three fears with which Adams wrestled: (1) stage fright, (2) personal inadequacy, and (3) realistic assessment of his current leadership situation. All leaders face these same fears. While all three are present in our leadership worlds, each fear requires a different response. The first two, we need to discard; the third is something we carry with us.

Fear 1 – Stage Fright

When McCullough speaks of stage fright, he’s not talking about being “on stage.” He means the fear of the leadership mantle that must be worn as a leader in any setting. This fear comes from knowing that your leadership mettle is about to be put to the test by a new challenge, likely one which you have never faced before.

You see plenty of examples of stage fright in the Bible. I liken this fear to that of Moses. He first responded to God’s call by saying, “Who am I that I should go that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He clearly preferred hiding out in the comfort (wink wink) of being a shepherd to taking the stage of leadership. He was determined to dodge the frontman role.

God’s response to Moses was more or less, “Get over it.” God was gracious to him and sent Aaron to help, but which of the two had a lead role played by Charleton Heston in the movie “The Ten Commandments”? Moses. God didn’t allow Moses to skip out just because of his stage fright.

When we experience this fear, we need the same advice: get over it. God almost always gives us someone to help shoulder the weight, but a leader must repeatedly let go of fear, and move in the direction God has called him or her to go.

Fear 2 – Personal Inadequacy

The second kind of fear has more to do with “an honest reckoning of [our] own inadequacies.” Many of us are performance-based people who feel a need to succeed. We struggle against our weaknesses all the time, so we are very aware of what they are. Knowing we don’t have it all together, we spook easily.

In Jeremiah 1, we read of God’s call of the prophet Jeremiah. God makes it clear that He planned to make Jeremiah a prophet before his daddy’s sperm had a first date with mommy’s egg. Since God decided this before his DNA was set, one would think Jeremiah could be confident that God knew what He was doing. Instead, Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” Do you see the list of personal inadequacies he just pulled out? I can’t speak. I’m too young. God replies something along these lines, “Stop whining, and speak loudly and clearly when I tell you to speak.”

This fear must be faced head on and discarded as an enemy. I know this fear well. When I battle feelings of inadequacy, I have developed the spiritual discipline of praying through Jeremiah 1 as a reminder that success is determined by a lot more than my performance. God calls us, and He will use us as he chooses.

Sometimes, this argument for God’s sovereign will is used as an excuse for laziness or cowardice. This may happen if a person is placed into a leadership role but lacks the gift or the heart of a leader. If that’s the case, then there are other issues that must be dealt with. Most of the time, however, this isn’t the case. I find that most natural leaders tend to strive for excellence, usually placing too much of their significance in their success. For these leaders, casting off the fear of personal inadequacy is a call to abandon self-importance and depend on God.

Fear 3 – Leadership Situations

The third fear that every leader faces is a different kind of fear. McCullough describes this as “the burden of an inordinate ability to perceive things as they [are].” Every good leader is able to look out into the days ahead and know what’s coming. He may not see everything perfectly, but he has a sense of what is coming down the road. John Adams “was apprehensive because he saw clearly how much there was to be apprehensive about.”

Seasoned leaders are not afraid because they are uncertain of the future; they are afraid because they know what will happen in the days ahead. They know how the trials will beat them up. They know the battles that must be won. They know the pain it will cause people they care about. These are not matters to dismiss. These are realistic concerns that must be dealt with honestly and diligently and prayerfully.

We should not be shocked by difficulty, since we are instructed, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial that comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). A primary task of a leader is to make an accurate appraisal of the challenges ahead. Jesus himself tells us that we should count the cost before we enter the work God has called us to:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

You might quibble over my use of the word fear here, but the point remains: we are called to take a realistic look at the leadership situations we are entering. These may deal with an rebellious teenager, a divided group, a financial crisis, an inwardly-focused church, callousness to sin, religious pride, group injustice such as racism, or some other struggle. It is healthy to have a reasonable level of fear based on the challenges ahead. These “healthy” fears can drive us to seek God in our work as nothing else can.

When these fears show up, our response should be three-fold:

  1. Make a realistic assessment of the situation, and make your assessment known to your leadership team. You should not oversell the danger, but neither should you undercut the real challenges you will face. Seek input from key leaders, and adjust your conclusions as you learn new things.
  2. Do the difficult work of owning the issues. Where I’ve made mistakes in the past, they have typically involved my emotional withdrawal from a difficult task which led to inadequate engagement—basically, I got tired, and I didn’t complete the work. Don’t be passive. Stay engaged.
  3. Pray. A lot. “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you (Psalm 55:22).” God may not quickly remove the situation, but He will help us to bear the weight of it. He will also guide us as we navigate the road we are travelling: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

I’d love to read your thoughts. Do you ever feel the way John Adams felt? What fears do you need to overcome? What has helped you act in faith rather than act in fear?

– jdl

I recently finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand has turned an amazing story into a profound book. Hillenbrand also penned Seabiscuit, which was turned into a film, and I can’t imagine it will be long before Unbroken finds it’s way onto the big screen.

I wanted to share with you a few thoughts I had as I read Unbroken. If you’ve read the book, I hope that it will resonate with you (I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book in the comments at the end). If you have not yet read Unbroken, I hope that this will encourage you to add it to your “need to read” list. Or, perhaps this can serve as a discussion guide for your book club or reading group.

Spoiler Alert: I am going to provide a thematic overview of the book, so you will get a sense of the significant turns in the story by reading this post.

1. Turnarounds aren’t predictable.

Louis “Louie” Zamperini was an angry young man headed for trouble. Smoking at 5, drinking by 8, stealing things just to get away with it. In every way, he was heading nowhere good. But the beautiful thing about life is that course-corrections are possible.

We too easily overlook or even discard people who seem like they are just too much trouble. But some things that have been used for bad purposes may also be used for good.

“In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.” (pg 7, italics mine).

2. Everyone needs a mission.

Louie’s course correction was a quick one, primarily because he was fast…really fast. Urged, encouraged and trained by his older brother, Zamperini discovered that he could outrun almost everyone on a track. No longer wasted his days getting in trouble, he began to experience the joy of giving his life to something with a sense of urgency.

We all need the internal confidence that our lives matter and that we have a mission to which we should give ourselves.

At 16, he ran a two mile race against college competition in UCLA’s Southern California Cross Country meet, and he won by more than a quarter of a mile. Hillenbrand rightly notes that what was more important even than the win was “the realization of what he was” (pg 18).

This reminds me of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

3. People are capable of greatness.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (

What Louie accomplished in a very short a time as an athlete is remarkable. At the age of only nineteen, after only four attempts at this distance, Zamperini ran the 5000 meters in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. These games were made famous by the great Jesse Owens and the horrible Hitler. In 1938, still young by miler standards, he ran the fifth fastest mile ever. People began to speculate that he would be the first man to break the 4:00 mile mark and would be a lock for the Gold Medal in 1940.

Louie’s accomplishments inspired his family, his town, his state and his nation. Human beings, as God’s greatest creatures, can run or sing or sculpt or write or invent in ways that infuse our daily struggles with awe.

4. People are capable of monstrosity.

I remember asking my grandmother if she wanted to see Saving Private Ryan. Her answer: “Why would anyone want to experience that again?” Her brother had served in France during WWII. After reading Unbroken, I have a better understanding why she felt that way.

These numbers stood out to me in the book: 594. 0. 220. First, 594 was the number of bullet holes through Zamperini’s plane, Superman, on a single mission. Zero (0) was the number of survivors Louie anticipated when his plane, the Green Hornet, went down. 220 is the number of punches that Louie endured at the hands of his fellow POWs, who were lined up and ordered to strike each officer once as hard as they could.

Fact is that no number could measure the monstrosity that is carried out in war. Unbroken is a harsh and heart-rending look at the faces of evil unrestrained. [I intentionally say faces of evil rather face of evil, because I am not talking in abstract; I am talking about individual men and women who commit horrific evil against others.]

Mike Cosper writes, “Jesus taught us to pray ‘on earth as in heaven,’ inviting us to look at the world through the hope-filled promise of reconciliation…There is nothing so liberating as the news that we have a better King and an eternal hope…every tyrant’s days are numbered. A King was born in Bethlehem who will one day bring justice and peace” (italics mine). *

5. Relationships are essential.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (

Throughout the story, people are at the center of it all. There is the mom who prayed constantly and waited hopefully for Louie’s return. There are the band of brothers that manned the bomber along with Louie. Pilot Phil who survived the plane crash and lived on a life-raft fending off sharks and starvation and insanity for weeks. The fellow POWs who suffered unimaginable cruelty together. The Japanese guard who introduced himself as a Christian and did what he could to protect Louie and others. Photos became treasures because they represented a distant connection to friends, family or a girl back home. Even diaries were kept in secret as a relational link to one’s true self.

“We were created for community” is more than a tagline. Relationships are essential to our survival. Our hearts naturally give themselves to others, and when we cease to connect with other people, we become less than human. Jesus described hell as a place of eternal torment and a significant part of that suffering is to be left alone, forever. Heaven is something we enjoy together with God and with others. **

6. When stripped of everything else, God is still there.

During the ghastly ocean journey on the life-raft, Phil and Louie experienced a moment they would always remember. Hillenbrand wrote:

It was an experience of transendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like Pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fist broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness.

For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then, they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren’t hungry or thirsty. They were unaware of the approach of death (Pg 160).

This is no accidental world. Louie would conclude: “Such beauty…was too perfect to have come by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was…a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil” (Pg 160).

In his address, “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis says that moments like these give us a taste of the eternal, but the transcendence is not in the ocean or the wind or the beauty or things like these. He writes, “It was not in them, it only came through them.”

Lewis continues: “It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers.” *** These experiences point us to something beyond themselves.

It would be years before Louie Zamperini would connect the dots between this experience on the open ocean and the Christian faith, but he would finally realize that God in his grace had both implanted in him a desire for transcendence and granted him a taste of transcendence.

7. Dignity is linked to hope.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (

In one of the more profound sections of the book, Hillenbrand remarks, “…the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect, and a sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain.”

When reading of the torture and humiliation, I cannot grasp the depth of loss they endured. In this tragedy, I know of no where else to turn but the suffering of Jesus, who endured the same at the hands of people he had created. Though I have only experienced a bird bath of suffering next to oceans of suffering endured by these POWs, knowing that Jesus is one who understands, cares, and enters into our suffering brings me comfort. I’m told, from others who have suffered much, that the realities of Jesus’ struggles comforts them too.

8. Defiance is a virtue.

A chapter titled Farting to Hirohito provides some comic relief. In the POW camps, the men invented all manner of ways to defy their captors. One of my favorite lines reads, “A fragrant favorite involved saving up intestinal gas, explosively voluminous thanks to chronic dysentery, prior to [roll call]. When the men were ordered to bow toward the emperor, the captives would pitch forward in concert and let thunderclaps fly for Hirohito.”

From timely expulsions to hidden escape plans to under-their-breath insults, these men managed to oppose evil by whatever means they could. We should all join the fight against injustice, and most of us have much greater opportunity than they did.

A wise friend once told me, “When my kids are teenagers, I just want them to be angry about the right stuff.” I agree. When fighting against evil, tyranny and injustice, rebellion is right. In our world, compliance is too often considered the highest value, but in many instances defiance is a much greater virtue.

9. The road to redemption is always surrender.

When Zamperini returns home, he struggles with reentry to a non-war world. Still fighting the horrors of his experience, he, understandably, drifts into a life of recurring nightmares, constant drinking, and vengeful desires. He descended into himself and seemed unable to find a way out.

But God specializes in hopeless situations.

Through an invitation of a neighbor and the coercion of his wife, Louie attends a Billy Graham crusade. At first, he is angry and resists Graham’s invitation. But at his wife’s prodding, he agrees to attend one more preaching session. Graham had extended his trip and was preaching several hours a day, seven days a week. In Billy Graham, Louie may have met a man who could match his stubbornness (being stubborn about the right things is a good thing).

At last, Louie surrendered and finally found freedom. He had been physically free from his captors for a long time, but now his soul was also free. He was free to sleep, to forgive, to live, to love.

God uses significant moments of crisis to change our lives, and Louie’s story is no different. But you’ll have to read the book to know more about his amazing journey.

9 Thoughts from Unbroken:
1. Turnarounds aren’t predictable.
2. Everyone needs a mission.
3. People are capable of greatness.
4. People are capable of monstrosity.
5. Relationships are essential.
6. When stripped of everything else, God is still there.
7. Dignity is linked to hope.
8. Defiance is a virtue.
9. The road to redemption is always surrender.

So, which of the above most resonates with you? Do any of these speak to your current life situation? And who is going to play the part of Louie in the movie?


* Mike Cosper, All Oppression Will Cease, Even in North Korea,

** For more in this line of thinking, see C. S. Lewis’ fantastic fantasy novel, The Great Divorce.

*** C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. Quotes taken from pages 30, 40, 42 in the Harper Collins Edition 2001.