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Paul Johnson’s Churchill

During some time off this week I read Paul Johnson’s Churchill (Viking, 2009).  Its a brief and enjoyable biography, covering in less than 200 pages a very full life of 90 years, from early military travels and literary fame, through the ups and downs of a stormy political career, to the inspiring leadership during World War II for which Churchill is now famous.  The epilogue provides a helpful summary of what we can learn from Churchill, and chapter 6 – my favorite part of the book – offers 10 reasons why Churchill saved Britain.  Overall, the story of Churchill’s life does much to justify Johnson’s opening thesis: “of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable” (3).

Johnson writes with the confidence and directness of an established writer who is no longer trying to prove himself, and as a result the book moves at an enjoyable pace and doesn’t get bogged down with non-essential distractions or academic pretensions.  I don’t find much force in the usual criticisms of the book – that Johnson is unduly sympathetic to Churchill, that he allows his own perspective (palpably British and conservative) to skew his portrait, or that he skims over certain periods of Churchill’s life, such as his second premiership (1951-1954).  Personally, I find it refreshing for a biographer to say what he wants to say and focus on what he wants to focus on and do it in the way he wants to do it.  My only critique of the book is that it often feels hurriedly written, and that in his “take it or leave it” style he often fails to establish – or sometimes even explain – his assertions with sufficient caution and circumspection.  Nevertheless, what it lacks in discretion it makes up for with zest: its a fun book.

I learned some new words: “troglodyte” (115), “sotto” (116), “rehoboam” (151-2).

One thing that stood out to me about Churchill’s life from the book is his resiliency.  At several points – the Dardanelles disaster, the Chanak crisis, his “wilderness” period in the 1930’s – it appears Churchill’s career is finished.  But each time he bounced back from failure, and turned those failures into later successes through the lessons he learned.  For example, according the Johnson, the memory of Dardanelles was partly what motivated Churchill to insist – against Stalin and Roosevelt – upon a later date for the Allied invasion into northwestern Europe, when it was more likely to be successful (135).  If it hadn’t been for the failure of Dardanelles in 1915, would D-day have happened in the summer of 1944?  And it it hadn’t happened precisely then, would it have been successful?  My overall thought while reading about his leadership during World War II was: Churchill was made for this role.  He had many flaws, and his career was very stormy, but everything that he was and everything that happened to him – including his disgrace in 1915 and his wilderness wandering in the 1930’s – seemed almost perfectly designed to prepare him for the position of Prime Minister which he entered in 1940.  You get the sense that no one else but exactly this man, with his warts and wrinkles as well as his brilliant gifts, could have rallied a nation against the seemingly unstoppable Hitler.  He was born for this job – and yet many times it seemed he would never make it there.

I wonder if part of Churchill’s political resiliency is due to his ability to focus on things in life other than politics.  His ability to both work hard and relax is amazing.  He published almost 10 million words over course of his life, regularly worked 16 hour days during busy stretches, was under fire 50 times and was present at or fought in 15 battles, and spent 55 years as a member of Parliament, 31 as a minister, and almost 9 as Prime Minister.  Even after World War II at age 70 he did not retire but spent another decade in public service.  The amount of energy with which he embraced life is astounding.  Yet for all this he was still able to find much time for relaxation and recuperation.  He painted and gardened with voracious appetite, and spent much time resting at his country home and enjoying his family.  His most famous quotes are equally inspiring (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat … never before has so much been owed by so many to so few … men will still say, ‘this was their finest hour'”) and humorous (“it appears to be very effectively disguised … up with which I shall not put … but then he has much to be modest about”).  His energy and work-ethic was matched by his humor and humanity.

I wonder if those of us in ministry can find a lesson in Churchill’s resiliency – that just as Churchill was able to recover from political failures precisely because politics was not the only thing in his life, so we will find resiliency in ministry from being able to step away from ministry.  We will be able to minister as we ought only when ministry is not our all.  Also, failures – even disastrous failures – are not the end of the story.  Maybe they are preparing us for something greater out ahead – something we were born for.

The confidence with which Churchill responded to the call to leading Britain in her most dire hour is unbelievable – seemingly superhuman.  Of the night he discovered he was to be Prime Minister Churchill wrote:

“I was conscious of a profound sense of relief.  At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene.  I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial….  I was sure I would not fail.  Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had not need for cheering dreams.  Facts are better than dreams.”

I find it so inspiring that Churchill is not only unafraid of the challenging task thrust upon him, but relieved that it has finally come to him, and certain of his success, sensing his entire life has been but preparation for this moment. Oh, to find those moments for which we were born, for which all our life has been preparing us – those moments in which God’s calling trumps all the usual human fear and weakness – those moments of super-human difficulty, and yet super-human confidence.  Maybe those moments are still out ahead of us.  Maybe our worst failures are preparing us for them.

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