Monday, November 7, 2016

A Little Reading

Scott Chrostek is the pastor for the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection's downtown Kansas City church plant. In less than 10 years, the satellite of the megachurch in the KC suburbs has grown large enough that it is building its own facility -- the first church construction in downtown KC in more than 80 years.

Misfit Mission uses some stories of the downtown church's founding and growth to outline Chrostek's thesis that God frequently employs people most everyone would consider unsuited or maybe even unsuitable for the tasks at hand. From his own move into the ministry from a career in finance to his selection for the job of planting the downtown ministry -- putting a Detroit-area native into a city he'd never visited before the project came up -- he considers himself first among the misfits, so to speak.

The stories of how Chrostek and other members of the church firmly believe that God not only frequently fits square pegs into round holes but often prefers to do so make interesting reading. They're sometimes humorous and often inspirational. While they illustrate the thesis fairly well, Chrostek doesn't do as much as he might to highlight just how they do so. In some of the stories, the "misfit" dimension of the people under discussion seems less apparent as they succeed either in what they're trying to do or prove more than adequate for the job. While he seems to make the connection explicit in the earlier chapters of the book it is not always as much so later on.
A lot of modern popular Christian thinking centers on ideas of God being an escape hatch from suffering and doubt in life. There are probably times when this is so, but frequently we read about biblical people whose encounter with God did not provide instant clarity and freedom from all doubt and darkness. Christian history also features many such people, and in modern times Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light lets us know that even the most committed of believers sometimes finds no smooth path through faith.

Eric Elnes, pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Omaha, writes to those folks in 2015's Gifts of the Dark Wood. The "dark wood" of the title comes from Dante Alighieri, who begins his strange journey in Inferno in a "fearsome dark forest." Elnes suggests that rather than fearsome, for the Christian the "dark wood" of failures and doubts offers opportunities to walk more closely with God than ever before.

His willingness to honestly confront the uncertain or lousy times of life is more novel than it should be among modern believers, making Gifts a worthwhile read whether one is dealing with trials or not. The marketing of the book is less helpful. The phrase "soulful skeptics" in the subtitle sounds a lot like preening among people who consider themselves a little too sophisticated to settle for everyday religion. Publishing blurb that says the book is for "anyone who prefers practicality to piety when it comes to finding their place in this world." The older description of piety as "holy living," or actually living out what one believes in the real world despite circumstances, makes it a better description of what Elnes is talking about than the marketing person at Abingdon thought. 
Pastor Rich Wilkerson, Jr., uses the metaphor of his childhood sandcastle building as a lens to look at four people in Luke 7 in his 2016 book Sandcastle Kings. No matter how elaborate a sandcastle he and his brother built, the next tide washed it away. Sandcastles do not last. Wilkerson links the idea of sandcastle building to Jesus' words in Matthew 7 about buildings that rest on rock versus those that rest on sand. Like the castles made of sand, the latter do not survive storms.

Each of the four people in Luke 7 that Wilkerson discusses has rested some dimension of their self-identification in the things of the impermanent world. When they encounter life's storms, whether ordinary or severe, that self-identification comes crashing down. Only by rooting our lives in Jesus himself can we build lives and selves that weather storms.

Kings is written with a breezy and simple style that might not be directly aimed at young people but which will probably be best received by them. Wilkerson also has aimed more at people beginning their relationship with Jesus than those who may be searching for paths of deeper discipleship. Most of what he says is operating in the binary "with Jesus or apart from Jesus" arena. This is perfectly legitimate and doesn't preclude reading Kings for fuel on a disciple's journey, but it does add an extra layer to that task.

The third section -- dealing with John the Baptist's question to Jesus about his Messiahship -- is probably the one that most addresses issues that confront people already in their walk with Jesus. The fourth, expounding on the nameless woman who washes Jesus' feet while he eats at the house of Simon the Pharisee, seems most focused on those who may not have started that walk. The kind of fuzzy focus weakens Sandcastle Kings and might make you wish it had been packed together a little more tightly.

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