I just finished a new book by Jeff Guinn and published by Simon and Schuster (2017) called The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Before reading it, I had been aware of the general story of what happened in Guyana in 1978 and how a crazy cult leader somehow led over 900 people to their deaths in a religious-socialist commune carved out of the jungle.
But that was about all I knew. Guinn’s book takes the reader on a journey that explores the upbringing of Jim Jones and the story of the genesis, growth, and dramatic end of Peoples Temple. It is essentially a lesson in leadership: a warning as to what can happen when someone with strong leadership skills can horribly abuse their position of power to destructive ends. It came as no surprise that the poisonous problems that eventually led to a literal poisonous death for nearly a thousand people lay in one man: Jim Jones.
Just like the cyanide-laced powdered fruit drink (Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid) that killed the cult, so also Jones himself was a mix of positive charm and destructive abuse. On the one hand, Jones boldly stood for racial equality, raising up the poor, and fighting injustice. Those things, along with his charismatic oratory skills and pseudo-pentecostal “healing” performances are what drew so many people to follow and adore him. But on the other hand, Jones was a dictatorial demagogue who stopped at nothing to ensure that his adoring followers remained wholly committed to what he called “the cause” and ultimately, to himself. As his following grew, so did his ego, his harem of mistresses, his drug abuse, and his physical and sexual abuse towards others (including raping a young teenage girl).
Towards the end, Jones had become so drugged, delusional, and apocalyptic in his thinking that it took very little to ignite his wrath. So when a US congressman (Leo Ryan) visited Jonestown to check on some of his California constituents whose relatives were concerned their loved ones may have been held against their will, Jones was convinced the world was against him. Ryan’s visit started smoothly, but quickly descended into a fiasco when some of the residents wanted to defect and go home with the congressman. Tensions flared, Ryan and some others were murdered while trying to leave the area, and Jones convened a group meeting to end it all before the US government retaliated by (supposedly) torturing all their children. 918 people died that day. Just a few dozen survived due to various circumstances (for example, the Jonestown basketball team was out of town that day playing another team and did not drink the poison). Two men (Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes) managed to slip into the jungle during the drinking ceremony and lived to tell valuable eye-witness accounts of the tragedy.
Jones had all the flags of a cult leader who was destined to go down in a ball of flames. What nobody saw, though, was the sheer number of people he was going to take down with him in his ball of flames on November 18, 1978. People have correctly pointed out that this was not a mass suicide, but rather a mass murder. Several hundred of the dead included infants and children who were force-fed the poison drink.
Guinn’s book reads like a thriller. I was immersed in the narrative from beginning to the end. What in the world led to this terrible end? Guinn attempts to answer that question by simply telling the story. I had to stop every few chapters and remind myself that this was a true story. But truth is stranger than fiction. And Jim Jones certainly did some strange things (like planting assistants in the audience to wave bloody chicken gizzards in the air and claim it was “cancer” that had just miraculously left the body). It is so sad, tragic, and sobering. It is a constant reminder how not to lead people. It is a story that shows just how destructive the human ego can become – especially when mixed into a poisonous concoction of lies, drugs, abuse….and a little colored sugar to make it look good on the outside.
At the Children’s Pastor’s Conference in Orlando, FL a few weeks ago, I ran into my friend Ryan Frank. Ever since I’ve known Ryan, I’ve admired his passion, commitment, and leadership in the world of children’s ministry. I’ve had the chance to work with him a few times at the church at which he serves near Marion, IN. And it is fun to see him in action with the kids.
Standard Publishing just released his new book, 9 Things They Didn’t Teach Me in College About Children’s Ministry. Designed to look like an informal steno notebook, this paperback is a fast read and full of practical hands-on wisdom for the busy children’s pastor. His advice, as the title suggests, comes from the trenches of working the daily and weekly grind of children’s ministry rather than from armchair theologizing at a lecturer’s podium. He gives props to his college education. But like anything, there’s plenty more to learn after graduation day.
He has chapters on recruiting volunteers, working with budgets, working with senior pastors, and dealing with conflict, among other things. He creatively weaves in feedback from Facebook friends on various topics as well as helpful interviews from other children’s ministry leaders around the country. I commend this book to anyone who works with kids in ministry, whether paid staff or volunteer. Here’s the link to the book on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Things-Didnt-College-Childrens-Ministry/dp/0784729794/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1
OK, I still own a car. But this blog title is also the title of a book by Chris Balish which I just checked out from my local library (to which I can easily walk and/or unicycle). Sarah and I have been influenced by this book recently, as we now bike more frequently, and we are playing a game where we have a set gas budget at the beginning of the month (which is dropping each month) and then trying to spend only that amount on gas. Who knows, we may be car-free by the end of the year!
This book was written in 2003 (when gas was half the price it is now) by Chris Balish, a professional news anchor living in St. Louis. He drove a big SUV and “accidentally” took the plunge into car-free living. He wanted to downsize his car, so he put the SUV on the market, planning to buy another car in the near future. Well, the SUV sold almost overnight, and he had not yet bought the new car. So he was forced to figure out ways to commute without the precious hunk of metal customarily sitting in front of his residence.
This interim period between cars turned permanent, and he did not go back. His book gives great advice on how to live well without owning a car. Notice the word, “owning.” This is not an “anti-vehicle” book. In fact, he gives thoughts on how to ride with friends, rent cars, and even a new thing called “car sharing.” He also gives advice on how to live “car-lite” for people who really do need to own a vehicle for some reason or another (i.e. large family, rural living, job-related transport, etc).
The bottom line is: we can all drive less than we currently do. And many of us can make it without a car – really. How often do we just hop in those transport devices on a whim – just to pick up a pack of sodas at the store?
Here are the benefits (some of which are detailed in the book) to not owning a car:
1. Financial (you can save boatloads of money by not owning a car – think about how much you spend on registration, insurance, gas, tires, repairs, oil changes, wiper blades, tolls, parking, lease payments, car washes, annual inspections (for Virginia residents), etc, etc, etc
2. Social – the other day, Sarah and I carpooled with my brother and his fiance to my parents’ house – and it was great social interaction with them – we were all crammed into a little mustang and talked the whole way out to the house
3. Health – when you do not own a car, by nature, you travel more on foot and bike, nuf said about the health benefit
4. Spiritual – it may be intangible, but remember the experience of enjoying God’s creation the last time you went on a walk in a park or rode your bike? now, when was the last time you felt that while driving down the highway at 65 miles an hour?
5. Global – by not owning a car, you are contributing significantly less to the oil industry, which could potentially alleviate the volatility in the Middle East (I know, it is only part of a complicated equation, but every little bit helps – especially if we want to see Middle East peace and Global peace)
I just finished Financial Peace, Revisited by Dave Ramsey with thoughts by Sharon Ramsey (Viking, 2003). I blasted through this book, both because of its readability and since the subject matter is very practical. I have been listening to this guy’s podcasts recently and his conservative Puritan view towards money (hard work ethic, no borrowing, giving/tithing, saving) resonates with what I feel is the right way to view finances. He has quite the following on his radio show and in his live events. He has also taken the American church by storm, offering his “Financial Peace University” curriculum at a church or school near you.
In his book, Dave shares how he lost BIG in real estate in his twenties – nearing bankruptcy, only to gain it all back again using the money principles about which he now teaches. Has what he calls the “Baby Steps” to financial freedom – starting with things like saving up an emergency fund and getting out of consumer debt. Then he encourages people to save for retirement and college – and then pay off the house. He teaches that ideally, nobody should take out a mortgage but should buy a house with cash. But if people area already in a mortgage, then they should “get mad” until it is completely paid off. We work harder at something, he says, if we get mad and let our emotional desire for peace and security kick in. Once the house is paid off, then they can live prosperously and philanthropically. None of this comes overnight. Financial peace is the result of hard work at our jobs and disciplined saving over the long-haul. It also means that we as consumers must curb our selfish desires to “have it all” and “have it now.” We must live well beneath our means and use the excess income to save and give.
I love this kind of teaching because it is the opposite of the “get rich quick” myths out there. We have all seen those infomercials and seen the ads: “Earn ten times the income for one-fourth of the work!” Maybe some people have achieved that. But most people cannot – because that is not reality. Work hard, give, save, spend. And make sure every penny – and no more – is allocated to one of those three categories (giving, saving, spending).
I recommend this book. We all need to deal with money in this world. This book helps up to better deal with it so that we are no longer enslaved by the money, but rather we have control over it.
After graduating from seminary, I all of a sudden have time to read non-required reading. I started with No Compromise by Melody Green, the wife of the late Keith Green. Keith was one of the most passionate, sincere, poetic, and Spirit-inspired Christian musicians of the past century.
I devoured this book during my free time at camp in Florida last week. I could not put the book down, partly because his life story is so captivating and partly because the book is written in such a readable storytelling format. Melody co-wrote the book with a guy named David Hazard, who I guess is an experienced editor/author.
Keith Green is probably best known for some of the songs he put out, such as “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” and “The Easter Song.” He tragically died in a plane crash with two of his young children in 1982. He was only 28 years old.
The book chronicles the life of Keith from the cradle to the grave. He grew up as a child music prodigy, coming close to making it big in the secular music world. When it was evident that his “big break” was not coming, he slid into the hippie-drug movement of the 70’s. His spiritual search led him through every type of Eastern religion, cult, and new age philosophy. He found nothing except psychedelic drug experiences.
Then he came across the words and teachings of Jesus Christ (not organized Christianity, to which he was antagonistic). Over time, the life of Jesus and the message of full forgiveness through the love and sacrifice of Jesus appealed to him as the true way of life. That began a journey of struggling to follow Jesus and make music. He took the non-traditional route of musicians by refusing to charge for concerts or albums. He also took the non-traditional route of Christians by taking people into his home – hitchhikers, pregnant teens, and others who were “down-and-out” with no place to go. As his ministry grew, he and his wife had taken in some 70 people into their “commune” (they had to keep buying and renting more houses in their suburban neighborhood in order to keep providing space for all these people).
His concerts and music were very “in your face.” His talent was good enough to let him rub shoulders with people like Bob Dylan. Fame was at his doorstep. But his heart was to bring the message of God’s love to the world. He would challenge Christians with lyrics such as “How can you be so dead, when you’ve been so well fed? Jesus rose from the dead and you can’t even get out of bed!”
It was a warm Texas evening when Keith went on a joy ride in a plane with some friends. He took two of his children with him, leaving his pregnant wife and an infant child behind. Keith’s plane went down shortly after taking off, killing all 12 people on board. His death was a loss to the world. But Melody shares in the book that after Keith died, the Lord put a verse on her heart: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, then it produces many seeds.” Keith’s life and legacy spoke to the urgency of God’s good news to the world – that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. And salvation is God’s desire for every human on this earth – so those in the fold need to go out and tell the world about God’s love for them. He wanted to please God, help the needy, and be Christ to the world. Though he wasn’t perfect (he didn’t claim to be), God used him in mighty ways.
The book itself is a mixture of narrative, song lyrics, and journal entries from Keith’s personal journal. Many characters show up in the story, but Melody keeps the reader on track when plotting through his life story. In many ways, the book is about Melody and her own personal spiritual struggles and journey. She lost a husband and two children, so the telling of this story is just as much hers as it is Keith’s. She ends the book with an epilogue that updates the reader on how things are going in her life currently (the edition I read updated the reader up to 1987). I believe there is an edition out for the year 2000 or 2001. She may have another update in that one.
Please read this book. Brace yourself for quite a ride. You will not want to live life the same after reading this book. One of my favorite parts is when Melody shares about Keith’s “ahah” moment when reading the sermons of Charles Finney. He had a midnight encounter with the Holy Spirit while reading these sermons. He was so excited that he ran through his commune at 5 or 6 in the morning to wake everybody up and tell them about the wonderful love of God and the powerful move of the Holy Spirit that he experienced. That began a commune-wide revival that included prayer, sharing, communal confessions, worship and teaching. Hey, sounds like the church in Acts 2 if you ask me.
I wish there were more pictures in the book. I also wish Melody would have shared the “song story” (which she tells many) of “Song for Josiah.” But that is my personal preference since I love that song (it is written to his son shortly after Josiah was born). There’s more I could ramble about, but as they would say in Reading Rainbow back in the 80’s, “why don’t you see for yourself…”
By the way, I looked around on google and youtube and there are some great videos of Keith Green. Here are the best ones I could find:
Here is the official website for Last Days Ministries, the ministry started by Keith and Melody:
The book can be found and purchased for less than $11 at Amazon.com by clicking here