Critical Review of “Servant on the Edge of History”

Posted: June 6, 2012 in Book Review, Church Planting, House Church, Missions, Serving others
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James, Sam. Servant on the Edge of History. Garland, Texas: Hannibal Books, 2005. 174 pp.

Sam James has been serving in missions since 1962, in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. He has served as a church planter, seminary director, regional leader and senior leader of a large mission organization. He has directed leadership development for that organization and been in involved in crisis intervention for other missionaries. After retiring from the staff of his organization, he went back to his first place of long-term ministry, Vietnam.

Servant on the Edge of History, Sam’s first book, is about his missionary service in Vietnam, from 1962 to 1975. Even a casual student of American history will recognize these years as the height of American involvement in the Vietnamese civil war, and can imagine some of the trials Sam and his family faced. Sam writes with a special focus on some of those trials and the intimate, personal lessons he learned – and that others can learn vicariously. He includes some thoughts on methodology, but he really focuses on spiritual, heart lessons from his experiences.

The first and last chapters are set in 1989, when Sam returns to Vietnam to visit. He meets some of the students he left in 1975, and is able to see how God has used them over the fourteen very difficult years under Communist authorities after the Americans fled, and Saigon fell. The other sixteen chapters tell about Sam and his family in Vietnam, from their arrival to their last frightening flight out of Saigon, as it fell to the Viet Cong.

There are stories that show how Sam must wrestle with his call – to be a church planter and trainer, while faced with human suffering all around. At one point, he decides to go back to the United States to get a medical degree, so he can help alleviate the physical suffering. However, he quickly realizes that God has a unique role for him, as a spiritual leader and teacher who could help alleviate spiritual suffering, as well.

Other stories deal with ethical struggles Sam has to face – from the expectation to pay a bribe to the dilemma over whether to have a gun in the house while the Viet Cong were raiding his village during the Tet offensive.  Sam also openly talks of his feelings of failure, when someone he was witnessing to for quite a while died in a fire before he could know whether she accepted Christ. He also discusses his patriotism, having served in the Navy during the Korean War, and how this sometimes caused dilemmas for a missionary in Vietnam. The desire to represent the Kingdom of Heaven and the Prince of Peace was most important, but the temptation to help the American soldiers, even the CIA, to help prevent more deaths of American servicemen was very strong.

One of the stories that spoke most deeply to me occurred early in the book, in chapter 3. Sam, after having his house broken into, the seminary robbed, and multiple other struggles, is asked by a taxi driver, “What do you love about the Vietnamese people?” Sam is forced to confess to God his lack of love, and after struggling through the night, God spoke. Sam writes, “I have noticed that sometimes only when our backs are completely against the wall and our strength is completely gone, that this is when God steps in and intervenes.” (25)

Frequently, Sam’s dilemmas and subsequent learning experiences take place when his back is against the wall, and his strength is completely gone. Not only does God intervene, but Sam grows and learns. For aspiring missionaries who read this book, that lesson alone is worth the price of the book.

At the end of each chapter, Sam includes discussion questions about the lessons he learned, or dilemma he faced. The questions are less than a page, but they require a significant amount of reflection, based on what Sam has shared. However, the questions turn the book from a memoir into a learning exercise. The questions could be well used for team-building, or for a missionary couple to discuss their potential responses, before a situation arises that calls for an unprepared response.

I did not reflect through all of the questions – some I have faced already in ministry, and some probably will never be an issue. However, I definitely see the value of writing a memoir in this fashion. By including the questions, Sam shows his heart as a trainer, and developer of missionaries. The questions do sometimes read as an afterthought, however. The best example of this point is that nearly every reflection begins with the word “dilemma.” Perhaps it’s a nit-picky point, but Sam could have found some other synonyms.

The stories are amazing to read. I grew up on stories of Vietnam told by men my dad’s age who served there, and for the first time it occurred to me that there were also missionaries – American – who shared the gospel, and even suffered for Christ during the war. Instead of hearing my Ranger friend talk about killing Viet Cong, I was able to read about Sam and his miraculous escape from a Viet Cong ambush, or how he was able to see a committed Communist political officer come to Christ, and become a new creature. My dad, who thankfully spent his military service in Germany, but lost half his classmates to the war, would probably enjoy reading Sam’s book – but so would my teenage sons.

It was an interesting exercise to think about why Sam included the stories he did, and especially why he included the questions he did. The choices may say less about Sam, and more about his intended audience. One example is when he asks if a missionary should appeal to more wealthy people in America and other countries to help provide funds for a house church. Another example occurs when he asks if there is a circumstance in which loyalty to one’s country commands an equal priority with loyalty to Christ. To some readers, those questions may seem almost rhetorical (No), but perhaps they are real dilemmas for the majority of people who join the organization where Sam spent so many years as a leader and trainer.

Sam mentions this organization very frequently – maybe a little too much, although that’s a hard judgment to make. If I worked for the same organization, I probably wouldn’t think Sam had written too much. Sam’s conservative theological perspective is evident, but he doesn’t spend much time talking about theology, or even that much methodology, so it isn’t an issue.

Sam does discuss methodology some, but he is involved both in an established church and seminary, and also in a couple of house churches. In chapter thirteen he talks more about a house church methodology, but his focus is more on the sacrifice that a couple of families make in order to have a fellowship in their homes.

It’s evident throughout the book that Sam’s primary goal is to teach new missionaries, or those interested in missions. His stories are personal, transparent, and alive. The reflection questions are appropriate and helpful. Perhaps the biggest drawback of the book is that most of the stories take place up until 1975, but Sam didn’t write his book until 2005. Unfortunately, the thirty-year gap makes the events seem like history, rather than contemporary, and may make the book less attractive for current readers.

Servant on the Edge of History at Amazon

Comments
  1. Marti Smith says:

    Hi Randy!

    I think the author’s approach, describing his struggles and inviting readers to consider what they would do in situations like these, is a good technique for the classroom. But it certainly made the book a lot more didactic than a typical missionary biography, didn’t it? One gets the impression he’s used these stories as teaching illustrations many, many times. Guess that makes them time tested. But I had to laugh when he was describing the scene when the wife of one of his disciples was in the hospital dying, and he slips away to a quiet bench to exegete a psalm, analyze the poetic structure, and preach a detailed sermon on surrender to himself (complete with bullet points). Trying to decide if the author’s commitment to focus so heavily on lessons learned instead of simply telling his story strengthens the work or weakens it.

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