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Who’s the True Hero of Les Misérables?

December 3, 2011

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed a performance of the Broadway version of Les Misérables last night. It’s a remarkable story based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Most would say the main character, Jean Valjean, is the obvious hero of Les Mis, but there is a minor character who’s actions hold the key to the entire story.

For those of you who don’t know how the story begins, Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread in an attempt to feed his sick nephew. The authorities catch him and he spends 19 years in prison for his crime. He leaves prison only to find uncaring and cruel people who hold his past against him and refuse to give him a second chance.

One night Bishop Myriel finds Valjean in a bitter state, having been rejected, beaten, and left out in the cold yet again. But the Bishop shows him kindness, feeds him well, and invites Valjean to stay with him. Valjean takes advantage of the Bishop’s kindness, steals the Bishop’s silver, and runs away in the night, only to be caught almost immediately upon leaving the Bishop’s home. Hearing the commotion in the streets, Bishop Myriel investigates and finds Valjean being held by the authorities with his silver in Valjean’s possession.

Rather than accusing Valjean of the crime, the Bishop instead greets him, hands him two silver candlesticks while saying, “you forgot these,” and explains to the authorities that the silver was a gift to Valjean. After the authorities leave, the Bishop admonishes Valjean to use the silver wisely to rebuild his life.

This amazing act of selfless grace on the part of the Bishop overwhelms Valjean, who repents on the spot and follows the Bishop’s admonition well. Without the Bishop’s act of grace, there is no remarkable story about the life of Jean Valjean. This makes Bishop Myriel the true hero of Les Misérables.

What do you think?

Why I Can’t Celebrate the Death of Osama bin Laden

May 3, 2011

When I heard the news yesterday morning about the death of Osama bin Laden, melancholy greeted me followed quickly by a sinking feeling when I heard about the celebrations in the streets of NYC and Washington. Thoughts of celebrations of a different kind—people dancing in the streets over the destruction in the U.S. brought about by bin Laden on September 11, 2001—filled my mind.

Why did I react this way? Why the melancholy? Shouldn’t I be happy that the one who brought death to thousands of innocent people, destruction to my country, and fear to nations around the globe is now dead?

September 11, 2001

I remember vividly where I was and what I was doing on September 11, 2001, when word of the attack on the Twin Towers came to me. I remember the people I was with. I remember the pain, shock, grief, and fear. I remember the feeling of helplessness and a driving desire to want to do something to help. Anything.

Like many during this time, I gave blood. I went to special prayer services. I looked for ways to help. I flew to Europe on business three weeks after the attacks to prove a point. I even applied for an analyst position with the FBI hoping to get directly involved in the hunt for bin Laden and other terrorists. (I actually made it past the first round of screenings.)

So why the melancholy today?

Justice Was Served

First let me say that as a follower of Jesus I believe in justice, and I believe that justice was served. I appreciate and fully support the brave military personnel who acted to bring about a just conclusion to the nightmare of 9-11. Governments are tools in the hands of God to bring about punishment for evil, according to Romans 13:1-4.

I also appreciate the relief experienced by many knowing that the initiator of the events of 9-11 can no longer bring harm to other nations, to this nation, and to the families of those who lost loved ones in that series of heinous attacks.

Then why the melancholy? It’s taken me the better part of the day to process my thoughts and answer that question. Two articles in two radially different publications, and ultimately the Scriptures and a missionary story, helped me sort things out.

The Psychology of Revenge

While I don’t buy all her arguments, Pamela Gerloff in “The Psychology of Revenge: Why We Should Stop Celebrating Osama Bin Laden’s Death,” published May 2, 2011 on the Huffington Post website had this to say about the celebrations in the streets of the United States:

“It is hard not to think that some of the impulse to celebrate ‘justice being done’ may also contain a certain pleasure in revenge — not just ‘closure’ but ‘getting even.’”

I think King Solomon penned the words of Proverbs 24:17 to help people guard against relishing in revenge: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.”

Gerloff brought up the cycle of gang violence to support her point, along with the perception of “justice” at the killing of rival gang members. I don’t hold to her post-modern thinking in regard to justice—there is a genuine, absolute standard of justice—but I understand the essence of her point. If I rejoice over the death of my enemies, do my actions fuel the cycle of revenge? I think they do.

Alternative Reactions

In “’Do Not Gloat’ over Osama bin Laden’s Death,” published May 2, 2011 on Christianity Today’s website, Warren Larson, director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies, presented alternative ways for Christians to respond. Two really stood out to me.

“Rather than rejoice, we need to pray for Christians in a country that has been so torn apart by terrorism,” Larson said. As an example, he recommends that Christians “pray that Pakistani Christians will be salt and light at this crucial time.”

In conclusion to his article, Larson exhorts Christians to remember what bin Laden, a billionaire, sacrificed for his cause.

“Are we as Christians willing to sacrifice for the cause we say we believe in?”

My Personal Conclusion

Ultimately as a follower of Jesus, I have to ask myself the question, “How does Jesus want me to respond?” I can answer my question by remembering what Jesus did and what he asked his followers to do.

When James and John wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town that rejected them, Jesus rebuked the “Sons of Thunder.”

When they were wronged, Jesus called his followers to forgive.

When others were calling people to hate their enemies, Jesus was calling them to love, bless, do good to, and pray for their enemies.

While nailed to a Roman cross, Jesus asked His Father to forgive the ones who put Him there.

Jesus welcomed a guilty thief into His kingdom shortly before He died on that Roman cross.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the five missionaries martyred in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956 by the most violent tribe ever to walk the planet. The remarkable part of the story is what happened after the deaths of the missionaries.

The families of the dead missionaries could have rightly gone home and turned their backs on the violent tribe who murdered their innocent loved ones. Instead they chose to sacrifice for the cause they believed in and looked for another opportunity to reach the murderers because they knew the tribe would eventually be wiped out by the government if someone did not act.

When the opportunity came, they entered the jungles of Ecuador to live with the very people who killed their loved ones. The results were genuinely miraculous. Today most of the tribe follows Jesus. Today the family of Nate Saint, one of the martyred missionaries, considers this tribe to be part of their family. (Watch the documentary that chronicles this story on Hulu.)

Jesus paid the ultimate price for our injustices so that grace, mercy, His life (He didn’t stay dead), and His righteousness could be extended to all who call on His name. All who call on His name. Even to those who danced in the streets after the towers fell.

“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live….” (Ezekiel 33:11)

Triumph and Tragedy: Fennville District Champs Show Us How to Live

March 12, 2011

Along with thousands of others, I’ve been watching the progress of the Fennville men’s basketball team following the death of star player Wes Leonard. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Wes sank the winning basket in the final regular-season game, preserving a 20-0 season, then collapsed during the celebration and died of a heart attack. (Read this excellent story by Joey Nowak for more information.) I use the term “men’s” intentionally. This group of young men has had the unenviable task of dealing with tragedy in the midst of triumph, pain in the midst of euphoria, dashed hopes in the midst of so much promise.

I can’t help but be taken back to my senior year at Rockford high school. It was 1979. So much hope. So much enthusiasm. So much life. Then death encroached upon this hopeful season of our lives—not once, but twice. Death marred our Fall by taking Rick Armstrong, a star football player and all-around great guy; it corrupted our Spring by taking Denise Farmer on prom night, a well-liked cheerleader and wonderful person. These tragedies left a profound mark on the lives of all who knew Rick and Denise, and they forced us to deal with the reality and unpredictable nature of death.

I distinctly remember Denise Farmer’s funeral. I remember what she read the morning of the last day of her life on this earth. It was a biblical devotional booklet, Our Daily Bread. The title of the devotion for that day was, “Live Each Day as if It Is Your Last.” Those words helped many of us press on through the grief to get to the other side and begin living again, and sparked or renewed a deep faith in the hearts of many who had little or none before.

As the Fennville men’s basketball team carries on, many connected with the Rockford class of ’79 carry on with them in spirit and prayer. Although generations separate us, we share a common experience. And we who share this experience urge all who knew Wes: keep pressing on. As you do, you live, and you show us all how to live.

Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Pea Ridge

December 21, 2010

General Van Dorn stared across Sugar Creek at the Federal position. It was well fortified. Even though he had superior numbers—17,000 men and sixty cannon to General Curtis’ 10,000 men and 50 cannon—the fortified position and swampy ground around the creek would mean heavy losses for his men and possible defeat if he were to hit the Yankees head on.

Faced with an undesirable tactical situation, Van Dorn devised a strategy—a brilliant strategy—that would place his men in the rear of the Federal position rendering the Federal defenses useless. In fact, if the plan worked, the Federal defenses would work to the advantage of the Confederates, essentially trapping the Federals between the swampy Creek and the superior numbers and firepower possessed by the Confederates.

Van Dorn broke camp under the cover of darkness, campfires still burning to deceive the Yankees. Curtis didn’t suspect anything until morning when he peered across the creek into an empty rebel camp. By the time Curtis realized what was happening, he received reports of rebel forces to his rear. He did the only thing he could do; he abandoned the fortified position and met the Confederates head on. Van Dorn’s plan had worked. Or had it?

Van Dorn had the right strategy, but he miscalculated the condition of his Army. They had endured a forced march during the night. Provisions were low. There was only enough ammunition for one good assault. Curtis, whose army enjoyed ample provisions and rest, met the assault, endured, and counter-attacked the next day, scattering Van Dorn and his army. Why? Van Dorn’s army had gone beyond it’s capacity to sustain effective combat.

Today the combined conditions of uncertainty and economic hardship have driven many companies to maintain a lean workforce while charging ahead with aggressive strategies, pushing workers to contribute more and more. Over time this can lead to prolonged under-capacity, negative stress-induced behaviors, a loss of true innovation, and a loss of talent.

The key to effective leadership during lean times is to recognize when such conditions exist and to make adjustments that allow for the workforce to get the needed rest, rejuvenation, and training necessary for it to operate at peak performance. A boat manufacturer (I can’t recall the name) recognized the importance of this during World War II. In spite of demands by the US military to manufacture boats seven days a week, the manufacturer insisted that workers have Sundays off. The manufacturer exceeded quality expectations and delivered the required number of boats ahead of schedule.

Less can indeed mean more.

Help a Child in Need This Holiday Season

December 4, 2010

My family and I have had the privilege of sponsoring a girl in Tanzania through Compassion International. It has been amazing watching her grow over the years knowing that she has basic necessities, education, and spiritual nurturing to build a solid foundation for her life.

Today over 100,000 children are waiting for a sponsor just through Compassion International. Will you consider helping? One way is to sponsor a child for $38.00 a month, less than the cost of one Starbucks coffee a day. Another is to contribute to the Unsponsored Children’s Fund. You can also purchase a gift for a child from the Compassion gift catalog and contribute toward specific special projects.

It doesn’t take much to make a huge difference in the life of one child. I challenge you to join me in making a difference this Holiday season.

Why Explicit Opt-in Should Matter to Email Marketers

October 4, 2010

There’s a bit of a debate, particularly in the B2B world, about whether or not explicit opt-in is a best practice necessary for email marketing. Some marketers argue that any kind of interaction with a prospect is sufficient permission to market to that individual. As long at CAN-Spam is respected, they reason, no harm, no foul. Before I get into which side I fall on, first a definition of explicit opt-in.

Explicit opt-in means an individual has clearly chosen to receive a specific email communication from an organization. In practical terms, explicit opt-in is usually represented by an unchecked check box next to a description of the email communication an individual might elect to receive. An individual needs to go through the decision process of checking the check box (thus explicit) before that individual is signed up to receive an email.

So what’s the big deal? Why not have it checked first? Why even have a check box? Why sacrifice getting more subscribers by being so specific? Legitimate questions, for sure. The key lies in whether or not individual subscribers perceive that they’ve opted-in.

Take the “buried in the fine print” option, for example. In most cases, individuals who click “submit” to register for some sort of benefit of some kind will not realize that they’ve opted in to receive email. And what about having the box checked in advance? More people will see this and understand that they’re subscribing, but some will miss it, not realizing that they’ve subscribed to an email list.

Okay, so what’s the big deal? A few folks may miss the fine print or the checked check box. I still get people who want my emails. Yes you do, but you also get people who will wonder why you are Spamming them. It all boils down to the subscriber’s perception. And when subscribers perceive that you’re Spamming them, they will often retaliate.

If that’s not enough reason, keep in mind that most ESPs require explicit opt-in, ISPs often have a low threshold for blacklisting senders, and subscribers have even more options for separating the wheat from the chaff (Gmail’s Priority in-box feature, Hotmail’s Sweep feature), clearly putting subscribers at the top of the email stakeholder power hierarchy, as illustrated below.

Remember, it’s how subscribers perceive their opt-in status that matters.

Little Things Matter; Sometimes a Lot

December 8, 2009

Little things matter; sometimes a lot.

This truth came to light for me once again while reading a portion of General Chuck Yeager’s autobiography, Yeager. In the excerpt I read, he describes a problem with the F-86 Sabre.

“Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, we lost three or four pilots who were killed while doing rolls down on the deck. Their airplanes just went right into the ground. The investigators could not figure out why.”

Yeager goes on to describe his own close call flying an F-86 while doing a slow roll over a friend’s house. Without warning the aileron locked. There he was flying 150 feet off the ground upside down. When he let off the Gs and pushed up the nose, the aileron unlocked and he was able to right the plane. He tried it again, this time at a safer altitude, and the same thing happened. At that point he knew why the pilots had crashed, but he didn’t know what caused the aileron to lock.

After a full inspection of the aircraft, investigators found a bolt that was installed upside down. This bolt was causing the aileron to lock when the plane was inverted. The culprit turned out to be a man on the assembly line who “ignored instructions about how to insert that bolt because, by God, he knew bolts were suppose to be placed head up, not head down.”

When it comes to mediocrity versus excellence, it’s often a difference between who paid attention to the details and who didn’t. Thankfully not every small indiscretion leads to such tragedy, but everything matters when it comes to your brand, personal or corporate.

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