Recently, I received an advance edition of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird.

When I picked it up I thought, “Who doesn’t love a spy novel?”

This book was different and it was by no means a novel. It was raw and captured some of the most important events in the Middle East of the past fifty years through the eyes of a real CIA agent.

In its description, The Good Spy is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird’s compelling portrait of the remarkable life and death of one of the most important operatives in CIA history – a man who, had he lived, might have helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West. His name was Robert Ames and his time with the CIA spanned from the 1950s to the 1980s.

On April 18, 1983, a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. The attack was a geopolitical turning point. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force, but even more important, it eliminated America’s most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East – CIA operative Robert Ames. What set Ames apart from his peers was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values – never more notably than with Yasir Arafat’s charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka “The Red Prince”). Ames’ deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace. Within a few years, though, both men were killed by assassins, and America’s relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

I loved reading the The Good Spy for many reasons. First, it was a terrific narrative about the making of a CIA officer and it provided a terrific context of the twentieth-century Middle East conflict. Second, it revealed a different kind of spy that I did not know exists. What I appreciated most about Robert Ames was how different he was from what movies portrayed about spies. When we think of spies we think of James Bond, Ethan Hunt, or Jason Bourne and the destruction that they created. Although those fictitious agents are entertaining, I can imagine they are far from how things actually get done in the espionage world.

Robert Ames was a clandestine CIA agent, which meant that his job was to do business as unnoticed as possible.

Robert Ames is one of those spies who got things done.

He possessed a quality that none of this type had: Patience.

In the description of Ames, the distinction of his patience stood out in the book’s narrative. Impatience is something in my life that I struggle with and I suppose we all do in some way or another. We live in a “electronic-now” post-modern culture and we are losing the ability to approach life at a pace. Ames’ patience is what made him unique and probably so successful as a spy. I am thankful for Robert Ames’ life and I believe that his legacy to us is more than just how Middle East policy is upheld today.

Robert Ames’ life gives us five lessons in patience:

  1. Patience recognizes other people’s perspectives: Ames was a ferocious reader and student of the culture he worked within. He also understood that by taking the time to listen to people meant that he would be able to gain a deeper understanding of everyone’s plight, whether Israeli or Palestenian. His patience garnered better intelligence. For me it is a reminder about the importance of taking time to listen to people, especially people who are different from me and to better understand their point of view.
  2. Patience welcomes criticism: Ames was criticized for not signing up his key asset as a paid ones so the exchange was more official by the books. Instead, he focused on building a trusting relationship that would provide better intelligence rather than a quick purchase of information. Some within the CIA felt Ames was not strong enough to do this but Ames believed in this, ignored the criticism and found success over time.
  3. Patience looks beyond ourselves: Ames believed in peace in the Mideast. Tragically, he was killed before he could see more progress. Ames knew the risks of being a CIA officer and operated in a way that looked at the big picture because with how complex and difficult Mideast peace would be to obtain. He knew that it was unlikely for his own eyes to see this happen as it could take lifetimes. This is also a lesson of faith.
  4. Patience displays humility: Robert Ames as a clandestine agent was not looking to be noticed. He knew if he ever did anything amazing, very few if any people would know it. Ames wanted to move up within the CIA but he also knew that what mattered most was getting the job done no matter who received the credit.
  5. Patience is Biblical: From what I read Ames was a great family man and a strong Catholic. It seems like his faith got him through some of his toughest times. Patience through the Bible’s lessons were ingrained in him and I can imagine him reading these verses to be encouraged during his service.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9

And endurance produces character, and character produces hope, - Romans 5:4

Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s temper, than capturing a city. – Proverbs 16:32

I hope to see Robert Ames one day again in heaven to thank him for these great lessons.


Do you struggle with impatience? How do you handle it? 

The Thin Red Line

March 6, 2014 — Leave a comment

The past few weeks I suspect most people in the world had not heard about Crimea. When you read the headlines, you have to look twice to make sure you are not reading “crime” in the title. Crimea has a long history of political strife, unfortunately due to its strategic location in the Black Sea. The Crimean Peninsula is a crossroads for Europe, Asia, and the MIddle East.

When I lived in Scotland, I would visit Edinburgh Castle multiple times. There is an intriguing painting that hangs within the castle, specifically in the National War Museum of Scotland. It is The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb.

I purchased a print of the painting, framed it, and it has hung on the walls of my offices over the years. I look to it often in wonder and strength.

Here is its story.

The Thin Red Line, painted in 1881 by Robert Gibb. Painting showing the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in battle with Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava 1854.

The Thin Red Line, painted in 1881 by Robert Gibb. Painting showing the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in battle with Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava 1854.

Military History Monthly describes the story best here,

“In November 1854, The Times war correspondent William Russell, writing from the Crimea, reported that an attack by Russian cavalry had been repulsed, having come up against a piece of ‘Gaelic rock… a thin red streak topped up with a line of steel’ – a description that would later become ‘the thin red line’. Russell was describing the heroic part played by the 93rd Highlanders in the Battle of Balaclava, probably better known as the occasion of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade.

The 93rd Highlanders had been raised in 1799 as the 93rd Regiment of Foot, drawing its recruits mainly from the remote county of Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In Autumn 1854, the 93rd was defending Balaclava, a small village and port being used by the British as their supply base. Balaclava was of great strategic importance, and its loss could have changed the course of the entire war.

The 93rd, made up of about 500 men under the command of General Sir Colin Campbell, was stationed between the enemy and their target, but they had taken cover from the artillery fire behind a hill and were out of sight of the Russian forces. When he saw that between 400 and 800 Russian cavalry intended spearheading an attack on Balaclava,Campbell moved his men back to the crest of the hill. For a time, there was silence. Finally, the Russians charged, determined to break through the British line and reach Balaclava.

With squadrons of Russian cavalry bearing down on them, the Turks on the British flanks fired a volley at random before fleeing, leaving two ranks of kilted Highlanders to face the onslaught. As bayonets were fixed, Campbell rode to the front and called out to his troops, ‘There is no retreat from here, men! You must die where you stand.’”

But they didn’t die.

They believed and stood their ground. 

The story of the thin red line is not one of a fierce hand-to-hand battle, and it was all over in a matter of minutes. It was an example of discipline and courage in the face of the terrifying spectacle of a massed cavalry charge.

There were more Victoria Crosses (like the USA’s Medal of Honor) presented to the Highland soldiers at that time than at any other.

The Thin Red Line reminds me every time to stand strong and hold on to my faith in the hard days.

The band, Mumford and Sons, wrote a powerful song called Hold On To What You Believe that captures this as well.

But we’re young,
Open flowers in the windy fields of this war-torn world.
And love,
This city breathes the plague of loving things more than their creators


But hold on to what you believe in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight

Whatever you are facing, stand on the line and look to your brothers and sisters on your right and left . You are not alone.

Hold on to your faith and stand firm in the thin red line.

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13

Joy Through Genealogy

February 12, 2014 — 2 Comments

I am a shameless Downton Abbey watcher (yes, man card revoked). If you are not familiar with the show, Downton Abbey is a dramatic portrait of a fictional early 20th century English family who live in an enormous manor in Yorkshire. It is run by The Crawley family and led by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham. Throughout the series, the family endures a world at war, courtships, marriages, babies, death, and a collision of societies within the walls of Downton. Most importantly, the series focuses on the struggle of the family to figure out a clear heir to the estate.

Downton Abbey’s storyline reveals the importance of family legacy whether rich or poor. As the family looks ahead, they are finding it difficult to forget the past and how to honor those before them. Meanwhile the world is changing around them at increasing speed. It is an amusing series that can often feel like a soap opera but is well-written and highly entertaining.


Along with watching Downton Abbey this week I have been humming a few tunes. One that won’t escape me is Andrew Peterson’s Matthew’s Begats. It is from Peterson’s popular Christmas album, Behold the Lamb of God. Growing up, I have read the book of Matthew in the Bible and glossed over the first chapter multiple times, clueless to its importance. The pseudo-bluegrass song by Peterson is designed to teach us about the genealogy of Jesus and brings a child-like smile to me every time I hear it. Listen to it here:

While most likely neither you nor I own an estate like the Crawleys, we all do have a family lineage here on earth. Like the Crawleys, I find myself full of worry some days about if I will be able to take care of my family properly and ensure they live a safe and secure life. Then I realize that I am wrong to believe that narrow view of family where life’s true happiness and security resides. For those of us who have chosen to follow Christ, we have a family that continues into eternity. I am reminded when I look at my genealogy, I am an heir of Christ. I do not deserve this but he freely gives it to me.

Romans 8:17 reminds us of the importance of this genealogy,

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Read the genealogy below one more time in Matthew 1.

Matthew’s Begats reveal that the legacy is through us. There is no need to worry because I am part of his legacy. You are his legacy. We are his legacy.

1 The historical record of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:

From Abraham to David

2 Abraham fathered Isaac,
Isaac fathered Jacob,
Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar,
Perez fathered Hezron,
Hezron fathered Aram,
4 Aram fathered Amminadab,
Amminadab fathered Nahshon,
Nahshon fathered Salmon,
5 Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab,
Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth,
Obed fathered Jesse,
6 and Jesse fathered King David.

From David to the Babylonian Exile

Then[c] David fathered Solomon by Uriah’s wife,
7 Solomon fathered Rehoboam,
Rehoboam fathered Abijah,
Abijah fathered Asa,
8 Asa fathered Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat fathered Joram,
Joram fathered Uzziah,
9 Uzziah fathered Jotham,
Jotham fathered Ahaz,
Ahaz fathered Hezekiah,
10 Hezekiah fathered Manasseh,
Manasseh fathered Amon,
Amon fathered Josiah,
11 and Josiah fathered Jechoniah and his brothers
at the time of the exile to Babylon.

From the Exile to the Messiah

12 Then after the exile to Babylon
Jechoniah fathered Shealtiel,
Shealtiel fathered Zerubbabel,
13 Zerubbabel fathered Abiud,
Abiud fathered Eliakim,
Eliakim fathered Azor,
14 Azor fathered Zadok,
Zadok fathered Achim,
Achim fathered Eliud,
15 Eliud fathered Eleazar,
Eleazar fathered Matthan,
Matthan fathered Jacob,
16 and Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary,
who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah.


An Experienced Life

January 30, 2014 — Leave a comment

One of my favorite and most inspirational movies of the past twenty years is Good Will Hunting (1997). It has many memorable and important scenes is between Robin Williams’ character as teacher and Matt Damon’s character Will Hunting. Damon’s character had just insulted William’s character so they sat down to have a talk. Watch the movie clip but you can also read part of it that I provided.

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone who could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you.”

This is the conversation that guides the story toward action and resolution for Damon’s character. This scene gives me chills every time I watch it. Damon’s character, although clearly brilliant, had not truly lived life in all of its pain and glory. He had been stuck in his neighborhood thinking he knew all there was to know about life. There was a bigger life to experience if he would open himself up. It is hard to  miss that I am like Damon’s character and fear the risk of going out into the world to really experience life.

Recently I visited one of the most infamous city settings in the world: Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. On November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated here. Dealey Plaza rests on the southwest side of downtown Dallas. I’ve read multiple books and watched countless documentaries and movies about the JFK Assassination. But none of his compared to actually being at the site of this tragic event. As Robin Williams mentioned above, there is nothing like visiting it to smell the air, feel the history, and to stand where history changed us forever. It was eerie and it brought a bit of  sadness to me that I didn’t expect to feel. Reading and watching stories about JFK always brought intrigue but rarely did it ever bring emotion like this. Silently, I walked all around the area with my brother-in-law and my wife and toured the JFK 6th Floor Museum. It is an experience I will not forget.


View from the 7th Floor of the infamous Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza. One floor directly down from me was assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s sniper nest.


Standing next to the street where Kennedy was shot. Two “X’s” mark mark on the street where he was shot. To my left is the infamous grassy knoll where conspiracy theories point toward a second gunman.

Walking and visiting the places of history reminds us that we are part of a big story. It is full of beauty, adventure, victory, loss, and tragedy. It should provoke the feelings to make us want to make a lasting impact on this world because we are called to a great story. This trip reminded me that I can live life comfortably at home but if I don’t take a step out to truly explore what God is nudging me to do, I will miss the real life.

“To know there is a better story for your life and to choose something other is to choose to die.” - Donald Miller

Have you ever visited a place of history that gave you the chills?

Does it make you think about how your lasting impact will be on the world?



When I entered the work world thirteen years ago, the world seemed to be full of traditional occupations: Bankers, teachers, lawyers, stock brokers, doctors, and sales people. I was told in college that most likely the jobs we would have in the future weren’t even created yet. It turns out that the professors were true and with the rise of the internet and so many new types of entrepreneurial businesspeople, the value of new positions has changed drastically. Many specialist positions were created to focus on one single thing in a company or organization.

Specialists are wonderful and thank God for them, especially doctors who focus most of their waking hours on one single treatment or disease.

But, I’m also discovering that with the rise of so many specialists, especially in business, it is difficult to find people with a well-rounded knowledge about business in general.

These people are most commonly referred to as ‘renaissance men’, who are proficient in a variety of subjects. The people of history described as this come from the Renaissance era and have evolved since. People like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Branson, or despite the humor, someone like James Franco who tackles acting, writing, directing, and other random things while going to graduate school to learn more.

In baseball, this person is called a “utility player.” These players are a manager’s dream because they can play pretty much every position except pitcher and catcher. Whenever a player gets hurt or is not playing up to their game, the utility player can slide in to make a difference. In the major leagues, these people are well-known players like Michael Young, Ben Zobrist, and Hanley Ramirez. To the extreme, there was an amusing game in the 1980s when St. Louis Cardinals player Jose Oquendo played each position through the nine innings.

In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams’ character, Professor Keating encouraged his students to broaden themselves by using poetry as the medium. “

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”


So where have the Renaissance people gone? 

I think fear of the unknown is one of the biggest issues. I’ve also discovered even in my profession in publishing, you get looks if you are trying to learn about other jobs. The look is often says, “stick to your specialty, bud”. But, in my career the people I’ve admired the most and seem have the best perspective are the ones who have either done other jobs in publishing or have taken the time to learn about them. That was one of the greatest lessons I learned from my mentor and long-time publisher, David Moberg.

Being a Renaissance person doesn’t mean you give up your specialty. It means you become a more well-rounded person to better help others.

We can reclaim the Renaissance spirit by being explorers of the mind.

Here are five helpful challenges to become today’s Renaissance person.

  • Each month, take out someone you work with who does something different from you and learn about it.
  • Learn a new sport that challenges your physical and mental abilities.
  • Read a book that is outside of your comfort zone. Browse your local bookstore or the library and pick something out.
  • Travel. Visit places you never thought you’d visit and learn the culture, the language, the people.
  • Share your experience with others as you learn.

Be a life-long student.

Be a utility player.

Be today’s renaissance person.


What about you?

What do you want to learn that is outside of your specialty?

2014 brought an uneasy beginning to our family. Just before the clock struck midnight, my grandmother Carolyn Martin passed away. My parents, especially my mother, had worked incredibly hard to help my grandmother sell her home in Wilmington, North Carolina and helped her organize and moved to St. Louis. Grandma was very healthy 93-year old but desired to live closer to my parents in St. Louis and enjoy fun times with them without the travel. Only three weeks later she away passed and even though we were shocked, we realized that she lived a full life.

In my childhood each summer, our family would visit North Carolina and our adventure would begin with Grandma and our grandfather, Papa Jack. We would visit the beach, play golf, work on a puzzle, or walk the neighborhood. What I enjoyed most was asking her questions about life, her formative years, and listening to her wisdom. All of her great-grandchildren called her ‘Gigi’ and she took such a great interest in them. Gigi was already teaching them like she taught my sister and I as well as my cousins.


Through her legacy, my grandmother gave me five crucial lessons about life.

1. Play for Life

My grandma and my grandfather, Papa Jack, bought me my first golf clubs when I was eight years old. Their message to me was that golf is a game that you need to learn because other sports will come and go but you can enjoy golf until he day you die. Golf is a physical game but mostly played with your head so here I am not playing the sports of my youth but golf I know will be with me forever. My grandmother exercised daily at the Y, played in bridge and Mahjong groups, always had a puzzle up on the table to work on and a book by her side to devour. She knew that feeding her mind was a game and essential to live a full life.

2. Laugh.

My grandmother had many difficult circumstances in her life that give every reason to be full of sorrow yet she always found a way to keep pushing forward. What I will remember most is her laughing at a ridiculous movie or at a joke I would tell her. We can choose pain or we can choose joy. She chose joy as much as she could.

3. Know Your History

It’s no secret that I love history and write about it frequently. My love from history comes from my grandmother. In Wilmington, North Carolina she would take our family to see the USS North Carolina, a World War II era battleship. I was fascinated by the military machinery but also what it went through during the war. I also remember our family taking a trip down to Charleston, South Carolina and her showing us Fort Sumter, where the first official shots of the American Civil War took place. Grandma fed my love for history with books, stories, and encouragement to always analyze things in proper context. Two years ago, I gave Grandma a copy of the book, December 1941 and she took the time to read through the cumbersome 600 pages and share where and what she was doing when the war began. History is a part of us and essential to help us learn from our old mistakes and forge ahead. Grandma’s memory will be with me with each new page.

4. Manners Matter. 

When I was young, to my mother’s chagrin, I had a bit of a ‘listening problem’. Despite my mother’s best efforts, I would defy her and be obnoxious at a table. I think my grandmother could see this on our visits and she took time to show me the importance of proper manners. Grandma shows me which fork was which, how to sit properly at the table, and how to behave when other people were talking. My sweet parents must have been exhausted as my wife and I are now with kids so I can imagine my parents welcomed my grandmother’s counsel with open arms.

5. Never Stop Learning.

When my grandmother retired, she audited courses at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. She would take courses in literature, history, and other very unique courses like Feminist Literature. By trade, my grandmother was an English teacher. In her retirement, she tutored for free young disadvantaged women in Wilmington and helped them graduate high school. Her gift was taking her joy of the English language and sharing it with others. After she moved to St. Louis, she was already looking for a new course to audit in the spring semester. I am a writer because my parents encouragement but also because of my grandmother’s example.

The last interaction I had with my grandmother was when she stopped through Nashville and she sat down to read a new kids Bible that we had just introduced to our girls. Grandma kept telling me about how fascinating it was to have questions at the end of each story to help the girls understand the Bible better. I smiled as I listened to her.

I hope to see you again soon Grandma. In the meantime, I will share your legacy with my girls and for those reading this post.


My mother, me, my youngest Daughter Ainsley, and Grandma in 2010

Gigi blowing bubbles with Madelyn

Gigi blowing bubbles with Madelyn


Gigi helping Madelyn and Ainsley with their drawings.

I love my iPhone along with millions of others around the world. I am so thankful to have almost all of the information in the world that I can connect to from such a little device. For the information and social connection hound I am, it is gold.

Yet, there are many days that I want to throw the phone in the water and say I’m done with it. My very reasonable wife would strongly prefer I put it away more often and she is right. It is a battle I fight daily.

Apple’s latest iPhone Christmas advertisement caught my eye this week.

It is a beautiful commercial that gives you a double take, which is Apple’s intention. After all, it is titled “Misunderstood” and there is nothing wrong with the message of capturing the great moments with your family through your phone. I also love how Apple beautifully showcases the boy’s creative talent to honor his family with video memories. Bravo on accomplishing such a feat, Apple.


What Apple misses is what the boy misses. He misses the moment and the opportunity to be fully engaged in all of the activities with his family. Thus, he was a spectator rather than one living richly in the beautiful moment with family. Apple has a knack for trying to show us what culture should look like through its products. Although we are led to believe this is the way life should be, so much is missed in this message.

Despite the happy tears in the commercial, my tears were about how technology has removed us from experiencing life without each other’s full attention. When my wife and kids see me looking at my phone in their presence it is a clear message that I’m sending and that the phone is more important than precious time with them. I’ve got to change. We’ve got to change. There is a balance in living life fully and embracing the joy of technology.

This Christmas and New Year, my prayer is for the discipline to be intentional and present for my family and others. It is my family’s prayer too.

What did you think of the commercial? 

How has technology affected the ways you have had genuine connection with others?