Love Stinks (But it Also Wins): A Delayed Review of Rob Bell

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photo by Javier Ramos via Unsplash

The problem with love is it’s easy to sentimentalize.  O heck, there are many problems with love, sentimentalizing being the least of them.  Love distorts our vision.  Love lets us down.  Love keeps us in relationships we should have left.  Love is a knife to the heart and a passionate madness.  Yes, love is a many splendored thing, but let’s be honest: Sometimes, to quote the J. Geils Band, love stinks.

The problem with Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell is not that the title is wrong.  Christian theology is all about love winning.  I high-fived Bishop James Swanson mid-sermon on the floor of the Virginia Annual Conference last summer right after he said roughly that.

The thing is: we’re not the best judges of love.

41SJcK3PlDLI’m a little late to the game on Love Wins.  It has been seven years since Bell made a splash with this book which challenges the idea that sinners will suffer consciously and eternally in a literal hell unless they find Jesus.  This was the book that led to infamous John Piper tweet which said simply, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  And the following year Rob Bell had said farewell—to the large Mars Hill Church he had pastored in Michigan, in part because of the fallout from his flirtation with universalism.

Bell landed on his feet under the wing of Oprah, who was enamored with Rob’s follow-up book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.  Becoming a celebrity spiritual guide only confirmed the suspicions of those who see Bell as a theological lightweight.  But it’s unfair to measure a man by his Nielsen ratings.

Let’s measure by the book.  And Love Wins does speak to an honest hunger among us to know a God of love.  Bell wants to give a lot of windows on that question.  He uses biblical examples like the parable of the prodigal son and the plight of the rich young ruler.  He pokes holes in the otherworldly theology behind an old, evangelical picture of a cross straddling a chasm between the darkened ‘here’ and the gleaming ‘there.’  He celebrates the kitchen floor conversion of a man who found God in the midst of smoking pot.  There are many ways Jesus can meet us, he concludes.

What Bell doesn’t do is to spend a lot of time describing who this Jesus is and how the Christian tradition has talked about the work of atonement.  “Not his job or his point,” you might say.  He obviously wants to talk about how Jesus’s story is the story of love.  “The love of God for every single one of us,” Bell says on the first page.  “It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” (vii)

True, that.  But it’s also a stunning, beautiful, specific love that finds its expression in the Christian story centered on a crucified Jesus.  That’s the story that lights up all those other stories that Bell brings to the table.

Arguing about hell is like judging a car by one ball bearing.  Whether you like it or not doesn’t help understand how the thing works.  And you’ll never understand the piece without comprehending the whole.

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Rob Bell, Religion News Service

Which is not to say that Bell is wrong about hell.  In his afterword he points the way to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce which is pretty great read and which offers a plausible rendering of what hell is within the tradition.  But the tradition holds the key, tends the light, and marvels at God’s love, which is unlike any of those loves we celebrate in our culture.

And to get a little lyrical about it: We see it as compassion—this willingness of God to go to the far country, to restore the divine image in the works of clay.  We call it love—the greatest love—but it has a character altogether different from any kind of love we know.  Our pale reflections are tinged by fear and grief and pain, sentimentality and need and failure.

But what is this love which is just doing its work—not out of necessity but out of some grand unicity—its beauty of a piece with its eternal wholeness?  It is love because God is reconciling all things to Godself in Jesus Christ.  Of course, we experience this as love—of the unmerited kind that so captivates us and makes for tender parables of prodigal sons restored and dead children brought back to life.  But Christ is just doing his job.  ‘Today and tomorrow I am with you and on the third day I’m in Jerusalem.’

This is the mundane job of the divine—to knit together what is wounded and to blaze a trail where there is no way.  But it comes with purely superfluous flourishes—touches that are in no way required.  A tear at the tomb of a friend.  The sensual pleasure of bathing in nard.  The intimacy of a mother and child.  Bread passed around a table and a shared cup.

Is it any wonder we reduce it all to love winning?  Rob Bell has the same instincts.

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How to Know Your Mission Field: Adapting with Jacob Armstrong

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photo by Justin Luebke via Unsplash

Jacob Armstrong, founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee, offered a provocative and helpful workshop on evangelism during the 5 Talent Academy in Virginia last October.  Provocative enough that I bought his book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015].  In an occasional series, I’m going to take a look at how some of the ideas in his book might apply in small towns and small congregations.

The title of Armstrong’s book encapsulates his basic belief that churches need to  adapt in order to thrive.  But what that adaptation looks like will vary with context.  So the first chapter in the book deals with finding a vision that matches the mission field.

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Jacob Armstrong

Armstrong went back to a community he grew up in to start his new church, but he didn’t assume that he knew that community.  He and his leadership team began their ministry by listening and praying.  He describes driving through town on a Sunday morning at 10 AM when church people were in church and getting to know those who weren’t.  The team rolled down their windows at stoplights to hear what was on car radios.  They observed what people were doing.

What they discovered is that the community didn’t need a hip church with a pastor in skinny jeans.  They needed a church that could connect with soccer moms and suburban struggles.  “As we began to pray for and over our community,” Armstrong says, “our hearts were turned to who they were, not what we wanted to do.” (5)

Armstrong goes on to outline other steps in developing a vision for your place:

  • use demographic studies of your community
  • spend time in the coffee shops and other ‘third places’ where people gather
  • identify & meet with people of peace
  • learn from other churches

As I think about Armstrong’s analysis I realize that one problem that established churches have is their unintentional insularity.  We spend so much time in our buildings that we lose the ability to see why they may be limiting our outreach to new people.  WE feel comfortable there, so why don’t others?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_But most of the small churches I attend have tired buildings that have not been updated in many years.  They serve the existing congregation well, but they do little to recognize the barriers they present to new people.

In a similar way, our mindsets, especially as clergy, have been shaped by the environment we are in.  Getting our bodies and our minds out of the building has got to help us learn about the people we are not seeing in the church.

In small towns, the number of ‘third places’ is shrinking.  Coffee shops may not exist. Old civic groups like the Ruritans and Rotary are disappearing and those that hang on do not attract young people.  But there is the local diner or restaurant where everybody goes.  There are soccer fields and school events.  There is the local community college.  There are the aisles of the grocery store.  We can put ourselves in those places to listen and learn.

This summer, during my month-long sojourn in Archer City, Texas, I got to know Ben Rigsby, pastor of the local United Methodist Church.  Ben knew everybody in Murn’s Cafe.  He ate lunch with the police chief.  His church was organizing a neighborhood party at the community pool on a Friday night.

This kind of work doesn’t show up on many pastoral evaluation forms, but it makes a big difference in getting to know your mission field.  And it can make for a vibrant church.

The Most-Read of 2017: A Heartlands Retrospective

freestocks-org-4875612017 began with a quaint and quixotic belief that one more blog might be helpful in addressing the Great Divide.  Post-election I was casting about for a way to explore this strange, new world we all seemed to be living in.  Were we really as divided as we seemed?  Had we forgotten how to talk to each other?  What new languages might we have for new conversations?  And how could the church reclaim its own language for this new day?

img_5321Heartlands is about the way these questions play out in rural America.  Over the year, it has developed a particular interest in how place and story can ground us.  Hence, book reviews, travelogues, and interviews with authors and artists.  But you have helped shape what this blog looks like.  And it’s time to count down the most read posts of 2017.  So here they are:

10. How to Preach a Bad Sermon – reflections by one who has delivered and heard more than my fair share.  Includes obligatory Annie Dillard reference.

9. Why don’t country people just get out? – What happens when we give up on country life?

19366224_10154952950103533_8737175430623632393_n8. In Which I High-Five a Bishop – The new bishop of the Virginia Conference, got me (and the whole conference) fired up at our annual gathering last June.  Here’s where I tell why.

7. We’ve Got an Open Door Problem – revisiting the deceptive slogan of the United Methodist Church.

6. Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters – not sure, but I think a few Duke alums might have helped goose this post up the list.  But the controversy did matter in helping us define the stakes of 21st century theology.

5. The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the United Methodist Church – The legal wrangling over the status of the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop got me thinking about what I really wanted to be talking about.

14_working4. When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen – Passing through Farmville, Virginia one day, I took a break at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and discovered the work of a great photographer of place and memory.  Man, I’m glad I did.

3. This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale – One of my favorite people who lives in one of my favorite places – The Porches writing retreat.

2. The Empty Bench at the Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner – the Eastern Shore and the UMC lost a giant in 2017.

images1. What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville – a fitting #1 considering how much time we spent discussing that awful day in August in a city I love.  Race, faith, and the Great Divide in one terrible package.

But the true #1 is you, dear reader.  Thanks for giving these posts some life and breath and for moving toward something like a community – a far less quaint and quixotic concept.  Thanks as well to Christopher Smith and Sara Porter Keeling who contributed guest blogs this year and all the authors and artists who gave me their time.  Happy New Year!

Considering Our Hearts (& the Future of the UMC): A Review of The Anatomy of Peace

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photo by Gerome Viavant via Unsplash

Let’s get this out of the way first: If Dan Brown wrote a book about conflict resolution it would come out looking something like The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.  If that sounds like an endorsement to you, you’ll love this book.  If, like me, you threw The DaVinci Code across the room sometimes out of sheer frustration with its cardboard characters, forced allusions, wooden writing style, and overall smugness, well, you’re not going to have a good time getting through this book.  The author is listed as the faceless Arbinger Institute but I suspect a member of the Institute is, in fact, Dan Brown.

Whew.  That said: I came to the book at the recommendation of the Rev. Tom Berlin, one of the most gifted (and un-Dan Brown-like) communicators in our United Methodist connection. Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC in northern Virginia, is a member of the Commission on A Way Forward, the 32-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to craft proposals for maintaining the unity of the denomination in the face of divisions around questions of human sexuality.  The Anatomy of Peace is being used by the Commission to help them grow closer to one another as they confront their own differences.

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Tom Berlin

Berlin has led the Virginia clergy delegation at the most recent sessions of the General Conference, the global gathering of United Methodism held every four years to rewrite The Book of Discipline, the denominational rule book.  In that role he has seen the sad way that such gatherings devolve into the same rancor that plagues our national political dialogue.  “When these topics [e.g. ordination of LGBTQ clergy] are discussed,” he told the Virginia Annual Conference last summer, “the hearts of many delegates are at war rather than at peace.”

Berlin chose that phrasing purposefully.  It comes right out of The Anatomy of Peace and its unusual choice to use the Era of the Crusaders as an analogy for developing a ‘heart of peace.’  The conquest of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages was bloody, a character tells a group of parents who have been united by a desire to help their troubled teenaged children.  He goes on to describe how the Crusaders plundered and murdered in the wake of their victory, seeing their foes merely as objects to be eliminated.

By contrast, the Muslim sultan Saladin’s reconquest of the city was marked by acts of mercy towards the defeated Christians.  “The secret of Saladin’s success in war,” one of the leaders of the parent group says, “was that his heart was at peace.” (28)  Thus, he concludes, “there are two ways to take Jerusalem: from people or from objects.” (33)

If you can accept your history flat and unambiguous, this analogy might work for you.  Similarly, if you can accept the repeated interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as offered by the pair of leaders (one of each nationality) at face value, you may be able to see through to the point of the book more easily than I could.  I found these attempts to use one of the most complex international situations of our day as a simplifying and clarifying tool misguided at best.  I’ll chalk that up to Mr. Brown again.  But I digress.

41XwiBMyjRL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The point of the book is very simple.  The heart of conflict is seeing people either as people or objects.  When we see our opponents as people we can have hearts at peace.  When we see them as obstacles or objects, our hearts are at war.

The book goes on to show how that plays out in any number of situations, from dealing with family conflict to business relationships to international relations.  The journey towards peace, as in most journeys with a spiritual dimension, is first an internal one.  When we address our own “way of being” it begins to have an impact on those around us.  “As important as behavior is…most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy but failures of way of being.” (39)

There are some good psychological insights here.  The book addresses how we collude with those we oppose in producing the very things we say we’re fighting against.  There is a long section on self-justification and how our own preferred methods for doing it serve to perpetuate conflicts.  And there is a pyramid of actions that emphasizes personal work and building relationships before attempting anything like correction.

There is no doubt that our relationships and institutions would be better if we approached one another with hearts of peace.  Given our tendency toward anxiety and the belief that we can only lose in conflict, we need some practice in the art of engaging with those we regard as enemies.  That’s just what Rev. Berlin suggested to the Virginia Annual Conference last summer.  Noting his own congregation’s attempt to start some conversations on human sexuality, Tom said, “The church hasn’t fallen in.”

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photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

I’m grateful for Tom’s encouragement to keep trying.  We all know the deadly taste of cynicism and despair in our mouths.  We are thirsting for something more.

Whether this book, beyond its flaws, holds out hope for United Methodists is an open question.  I know that others are reading it as well and earnestly seeking a new day.  The hope Berlin talked about as a result of reading it seemed to be that we Methodists, by “walking together loosely” instead of seeking to come to conformity or agreement, might be able to concentrate on the mission objectives of the church rather than its divisions.  In the year to come, as we see the Commission’s work come to the form of proposals, we’ll all have a chance to sound our hearts to see what’s there.  I’m praying we find hearts of peace.

God, love, God, love: The Winn Collier Interview Concludes (3 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeIn previous segments of this interview with Winn Collier we talked small towns, small churches, and his use of letters to tell the story of Granby Presbyterian Church, the fictional congregation at the heart of Collier’s new book.  Love Big. Be Well.:Letters to a Small-Town Church is a big-hearted, hopeful book that celebrates what Christian community can be.  My review of the book is accessible through the title link above.

In this segment we talk about the book, the recent Texas church shooting, and the rhythm of writing:

I was reminded of [Marilynne Robinson’s] Gilead as I read your book.  When your preacher, Jonas, starts talking of the virtues of blessing, it reminded me of the story in Gilead of trying to baptize the cats and just the importance of blessing.  They’re both very human stories and a very human vision of what life in a community of faith is all about. 

How do you connect that to how God works in the world? I’m thinking about Karl Barth who said, “You can’t speak about God by talking about man in a loud voice,” but in a sense, you are kind of pointing that direction through human relationships.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Again I go back to Incarnation.  In the world I grew up in there was a grand separation between God and the rest of the world. The culture and the creation and all these things really, they were just functional they had nothing to do with God’s revelation to us. I was overwhelmed and saved by sacramental theology and so I reject that.  But I am aware that it’s possible, if you never name God, then our human mind really can forget God.

Jonas, in Love Big. Be Well., talks about how his job as a pastor is to stand within the community Sunday after Sunday and point to God and to speak the words of God and to speak the word love and speak ‘God, love, God, love’ into the world.  And that’s how I see it. I think that’s fundamentally my job.

I think that’s what a small church, or every church, should do—to stand in the middle of this community, to be enmeshed within it, just as Jesus was, not separate from it, not trying to draw these huge dividing lines, but to say, “We are here.  We are immersed.  It is messy.  It’s wheat and tares.  We’re going to be here.  We’re going to claim the love and presence of God in the world.”

That’s a destabilizing factor because I think God is a disruptive reality.  If the church forgets its mission to be the presence of God and not just a vague idea of God as we define it but the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ…If we don’t speak that presence into the world then we are abandoning our identity and our calling and ultimately, we are abandoning the possibility for the depth of healing and redemption that God is inviting us to bring into the world.

So it definitely is not just, in a loud voice, saying all our ideas.  But it’s also not divorced in any way.  It is manifest through or built through friendships and dinners and work and all the things that make up human existence because that’s how God has chosen to reveal himself.

imagesWe’re talking in the week after the shooting in Texas in a small church. I was doing some writing this morning to the churches here on the Shore about church security and  struggling with what that means and trying to come to terms with what it means to be vulnerable, which is part of our call as a community.  Do you have any reflections in light of that event about what small churches mean?

I’ll tell you one thing I love: I love the way the community of Sutherland Springs, even ones who were not part of that church on a Sunday rhythm, seemed to see that church as very much part of who they were and their identity together.  I think that’s potent.

My hunch is that in Granby (the fictional town of the book), Jonas would have had a couple people who really wanted to make sure the next Sunday they had their fire arms to use.  I think Jonas would have resisted that with everything within him simply because we are peculiar people who are here to proclaim God.   And to proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.

“To proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.”

At the same time, I think Jonas is kind of befuddled about some of these things.  He’s not a consistent pacifist but in his heart he is. So, I think he would struggle with that like all of us are in knowing where is wisdom and where is the prophetic voice. But at the same time, I think he would just keep bringing it back to Jesus and what does it mean to be a people of Jesus and trust it in the long work.

That’s well put because I think the struggle I’ve had this week is allowing the gunman and the incident to determine the field on which we play and the kind of things we talk about and it’s so easy to do because it seems like an easy fix to just say, “Well, if we just had a good guy with a gun at the door, it wouldn’t happen.”

Yeah, and this is for every Christian and every church, but if we can hold on to the fact that we are resurrection people and that death is our enemy but is not our final enemy, then there actually are things worse than dying.  If we can release that stranglehold on our heart then it opens up a lot of possibilities.  As long as our self-protection is the ultimate god to us and God will never be God then we are ultimately going to make grave errors.

Well how are you finding ways to keep writing a part of your life these days? This is me being curious about how you fit it all in.

aaron-burden-90144I have a weekly rhythm and Monday is set aside as my creative day so anything like writing, sometimes other things, but that’s my day. Most of this book I actually wrote on sabbatical two and a half years ago.  I wasn’t planning to finish it but I just knew I wanted to write every day and have that as one of my main practices and it ended up happening.

I’m actually working on a biography now and I’m finding it much more difficult because the kind of research that has to happen is of a different level.  I am actually in this precise moment feeling more anxiety about that because that’s basically the time I have.  The rest of my time is given to church and family. So, every once in a while, if there’s a week here or there where I don’t have to preach or other things are less pressing I’ll slip in some extra time but I am definitely wondering how this is going to work.

I know that struggle when you’re trying to be precise about some things, like you’d have to do with a research-oriented book, coming back to it after you’ve gone away from it for a while.  It’s so much uploading of information again just to get to the point where you can write again.

Yeah that’s right!

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photo by Peter Feghali via Unsplash

Anything else about the book that you would particularly like folks to know?

I would be really pleased if people read this book and felt more hopeful.  Because I feel like we’re in a time that’s devoid of hope.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville.  You can access his blog at winncollier.com.

How to Make Your Church Inefficient: The Winn Collier interview continues (2 of 3)

fullsizeoutput_18a7In the first part of my interview with Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Charlottesville and author of Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church, we talked about his decision to set his novel in a small town.  We also talked about the use of letters as a way to tell the story of a pastor and his congregation.  In this segment we dig deeper into why small congregations should treasure a particular kind of inefficiency.  Click on the title link for my review of the book.

I know you lived in Waco, Texas.  Did you grow up there?

From sixth grade on, yes.

Before Chip and Joanna Gaines turned it into what it is today right?

Exactly.  Now it is the Magnolia Mecca.

Yes, and with the new Baylor football stadium.

Oh, it’s massive.  Yeah, it’s changed drastically since when I was there.

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Winn Collier

So, when you were there it was probably more of a small city.  You’re living in a small city now.  How much is Charlottesville or the places you’ve lived before in the place you imagine in the new book? 

[The fictional town of Granby is] definitely smaller than any place I’ve lived so in that sense its feels very different but it feels like a lot of places that I’ve maybe visited.  It’s probably more like places that I drive through and maybe towns that I’ve visited when we lived in Colorado.  One of my favorite authors is Kent Haruf and all of his stories are set in one fictional town in Colorado, and there’s just something I think that I love about that.  So it’s just where I go.

Where I live now on the Eastern Shore is very rural and I’m working with a whole lot of churches that feel like the kind of church you’re imagining in the book.  Confronting a  narrative of despair and decline is a huge challenge.  Do you see new opportunities even in places like that?

Absolutely!  I absolutely do.  In fact I think in some ways these small, rural churches are actually on the front lines of what’s happening because it’s a place where we are grappling with the most human realities that we are struggling with.  Sometimes in massive churches with massive resources, that are run in many ways like a Fortune 500 corporation, they are actually more disconnected from some of the harsher struggles that our communities are facing.

I’m not trying to paint one as bad and the other one as good. I think these large churches also are able to amass energy and resources towards large questions and they are able to ignite some kind of movement and responses to things.  Sometimes it’s really helpful and sometimes it’s very short-sighted.

In some of our larger expressions of faith it’s just very difficult to keep the human at the center and if the incarnation tells us anything is that this joining of humanity with God is at the very heart of what God’s doing in the world.  To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships.

In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.  It has its own struggles.  It has its own questions about sustainability and we have to be creative about those sorts of things, but there are things a small church is attuned to and can respond to and be for people that a large church absolutely never can.

“To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships. In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.”

In some ways, lots of small churches spread all over the vastness of our country is actually our hope way more than a growing handful of massive churches.  So I think that there’s actually a lot of hope there and in lots of churches where people are.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_What I find most encouraging and interesting and hopeful is those small churches that really are reflections of their community.  They really are a part of the fabric of the life of that community.  They’re living out a parish model that most of the rest of us are doing our best to try to fabricate and so were left at the end of the day doing the best we can.  We do have to do the best we can but doing the best we can is trying to fabricate something.  That’s why we have things such as small group ministry.  It’s important because where else are you going to get connected?  But we have to be honest and say were having to do this because we are so uprooted and because our lives are no longer bound together.

Yeah.

We’re no longer working in a couple square blocks or neighboring our neighbors farm, and were no longer going to one another’s place when it’s time to harvest, pulling up tobacco or corn or what have you.  We’re no longer showing up at the same diner at noon for lunch as three or four of our other friends and we’re going to see them two or three times a week because there’s only one or two places to eat in town.  We have three churches to choose from and it’s one of the three and five times a year those churches are going to get together and do pancake suppers.

That kind of life that was so common fifty years ago, for many of us, because we’ve moved to urban centers, has been obliterated and so now we’re trying to find ways to get people in proximity.  That’s always, to some degree, going to feel orchestrated because it is.  In small churches all they have is each other and the storyline they’re being told is that’s the problem, and I think it’s a gift.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Charlottesville.  His blog can be found at winncollier.com

The final segment of this interview, ‘God, love, God, love,’ can be found here.

The Lure of Small Towns: The Heartlands Interview with Winn Collier – (1 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeWinn Collier’s new book, Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, is a generous celebration of the potential of church.  In my review I noted that it is a gentle, human love story between a pastor and his congregation told in the form of letters written to the church over the course of his tenure.  Winn is not only an author but the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In the course of this interview we talked about the book, the realities of small church ministry, the writing life, and even church security in the wake of the Texas church shooting.

Winn: So, you were telling me about your blog.

Alex: Yeah, I started it after the election last year, thinking that the theme I wanted to work on was: Why don’t I understand the place where I live anymore?  It has developed into an exploration of the Great Divide that we’re in and also rural life and rural ministry.  So it’s not only that I appreciate you having a new book, but that it’s written to a small town church.  It feels like it’s right in the wheelhouse for this blog.

Well, hopefully it resonates somewhere with some folks.

What has the response been like so far?

It’s definitely been far different from any of my other books, but I feel like that’s such a low bar. Definitely getting more responses, more curiosity about it, more notes, people saying kind things about it and stuff. So, in that sense it feels like its connecting with certain people,

I’m definitely hearing more from some different groups, saying, “Hey I think we’d actually like to read this and talk about it.  And from lots of different angles—like one pastor wants to give it to his Elder Board because he struggled trying to explain some things of where he’s coming from, he feels like the book gives a language for them.

Another pastor wants his church to read it because he feels like it will start some conversations that might open up some possibilities for them. And then there’s a group of retired Presbyterian pastors that meet cordially and they want to read it and me to come talk with them about it. So, in that sense, the narrative form of it maybe has allowed some possibilities that maybe other forms might not.  So I’m thankful for all that.

This isn’t your first foray into letter writing as a literary form though is it?  Wasn’t your first book in a similar style?

41DSa3mfXpL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_No, it was my second book [Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of François Fenelon] and it was letters that François Fenelon wrote to friends that I reworked.

This book obviously is also [written as series of letters], but a good friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, and I write letters to each other on our blogs.  So that’s connected with a whole other sort of group of readers which has been kind of interesting.  It does seem like something about me keeps coming back to that.  There’s something about that that resonates with me.

Is it the second person voice?

I think it’s the relational component, that it’s been written to a particular person or persons. The way I enjoy letters, is it kind of gets to the point and there’s something about the particularity, like you’re writing to particular people.  It’s so steeped in friendship and there’s something about the form that’s so counter to the realities that we live right now.  Nobody writes letters anymore.

Yeah.

I do wonder: How is that changing us?  How does it change us that most of our communication now happens in email blasts?  There’s a lot of good about that—I can communicate with our church in a rapid fashion and its very nice for the budget, doesn’t require the manpower, office staff, stamps and  envelopes and even the time—but also I wonder if we’ve grappled at all with what we’ve lost because it’s not our world anymore and I don’t know what to do with that.

Right. It’s not just the texture of the paper but the texture of the communication too.

Yeah, that’s right.

So why a small town?

41q15SgR88L._AC_US218_A couple different reasons.  It wasn’t a conscious choice.  Partly what’s important for me to say is that this book didn’t come with a message.  The fiction wasn’t just a tangential device I chose because I thought it would be the most effective way to get out the message I wanted to get out.  It was a story, and it was one that was going to be told in letters and we would see where that would go, not because it was going to be a pastor writing to his church, (which is different than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which was a pastor writing to his son, telling his own story).

This is really different and it forced me to think about: there’s lots of things a pastor actually wouldn’t say in a letter to his entire church community.  I had to think long and hard about what kinds of stories he could tell that he would feel he had permission to tell, all these sorts of things.

So the fact that it is a small town was just the way the story came to me.

Then the question would be: Why did the story come to me that way?  There’s something inside me that’s resisting the storyline that’s often getting played out which is overtly or covertly signaling that large and urban is better…that the center of power definitely is moving to the urban centers.  Sometimes I wonder if the [last presidential] election is a reaction to that…kind of a last grasping.  A ‘no!’

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_But it’s inevitable.  It’s happening and it’s a train that’s left the station.  But it’s not the whole story.  There is something in small towns that I find myself drawn to because there are still vestiges of a kind of humanity possible there that I don’t want to completely lose.

I also don’t want to in any way idealize it.  There is also another kind of humanity that happens in urban places that’s a new expression and I’m not discounting that in any way.  I’m also not saying that small rural towns are always these humanizing places because sometimes they’re just desolate. I totally get that.

But there is something that’s at least possible in those spaces that no longer feels possible in larger urban areas.

The second reason would be that I spent the last 5 to 6 years immersed in Wendell Berry’s fiction, so it seems obvious that my brain would probably naturally go to some place like that.

Winn’s blog is at winncollier.com.  The second segment of this interview, How to Make Your Church Inefficient, can be found here.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#5 The Crucifixion

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fleming Rutledge is having a long-overdue moment in the wake of her 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I finally finished it in 2017, qualifying it for this list, and gushed about it in my review, (which you can access through the title link in the previous sentence).

Rutledge sees her book as an exercise of religious imagination, drawing together biblical and theological images of the atonement and exploring their significance.  “The principal purpose of this book,” she says, “will be to strengthen the reader’s surmise that the cross of Jesus is an unrepeatable event that calls all religion into question and establishes an altogether new foundation for faith, life, and a human future.” (2)

I credit this book with drawing me back to a love of theology, primarily because Fleming doesn’t insist that such a pursuit be done at the expense of beauty and literature.  In fact, she insists on such things.

This is my top theological recommendation these days.  Solid, comprehensive, generous, and insightful.  With the occasional quote from Flannery O’Conner, Dostoevsky, and MLK.  An easy pick.

The Greatness of the Small: A Review of Love Big. Be Well.

IMG_7336When Amy Quitman writes a letter to the unknown pastor that the Pastoral Search Committee hopes to call to their Presbyterian church in the small town of Granby, she includes an invitation that would set the hearts of potential candidates like me aflutter:

We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Mary Karr now and then.  Oh, and we like a good guffaw.  I’ll be up-front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. (5)

Jonas McAnn, unhappily stationed in a cubicle as an insurance company employee, answers the invite, as you might expect he would.  After all, his folder of potential church profiles and questionnaires is sitting beneath a stack of books that includes the likes of John Irving and Karl Barth.  Burned by his previous pastorates, Jonas is tired of plans, programs, and church growth strategies.  A lover of beauty, he is looking for an opportunity to be a pastor:

“Lots of churches don’t actually want a pastor,” he writes back to Granby Presbyterian.  “They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover (often performed under the moniker of evangelism or missional engagement)…Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something.  I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something.  Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?” (12-13)

The epistolary match-making works and soon Jonas is moving his family to the mountains of Virginia.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church [William B. Eerdman’s, 2017] is a gentle, human love story that begins with these two letters and continues with many more.  It is a novel that has big things to say yet finds its transcendence by staying close to home.  For instance, when the church plans for a new eucharistic table, two members suggest using trees from the church property and Jonas reports:

Now, every Sunday, we receive grace around a table intricately woven into our story, our place.  It’s true that a church in Seattle could feast at this table, but it’s also true that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them.  Particulars matter.  Stories matter.  Places matter. (130)

There’s more than a little Wendell Berry in Collier’s small town characters.  They value the small, the local, the sustainable.  And they celebrate the elemental gifts of long-lived community.

Pastor Jonas is continually directing his congregation’s focus to interactions that could be easily overlooked, such as the significance of a BBQ dinner with friends or breakfast at Stu’s with the Order of the Roasted Bean.  “Showing up, doing the work, being together–that’s our liturgy,” Jonas writes to his congregation.  “And it matters.” (99)

As a denominational official in The United Methodist Church who works with many pastors and programs, I appreciate Collier’s empathetic portrayal of a small church and its clergy leader.  Explicitly and implicitly, those who labor in small churches are often told that they don’t measure up–that they need to be more than they are.  Jonas pushes back:

When religious experts suggest an identity update, the whole proposal amounts, in my book, to nothing more than a grand slogan and a fresh coat of paint.  We could try to re-envision ourselves as a community center or a social advocacy firm if we want to wrench ourselves trying to fit into someone else’s clothes.  But look, we are the church.  We’re incompetent at most endeavors, but the Spirit has gifted us with divine energy to live into a simple and straightforward vocation.  Gathered at Jesus’s table, we feast on true life and the disperse into our run-of-the-mill lives as witnesses to the Kingdom of this Jesus who loves the whole world.  The world needs more of who we are, not less. (26)

winn-mountain-lumber_large

Winn Collier

Rural churches and pastors are having a hard time of it these days.  The letters that Jonas writes to his parishioners are a tonic for weary souls seeking to be faithful with what always seems like less.  Shining through Jonas’s words are those of the author, who shares his art and wisdom as the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Winn also writes regularly on his self-titled blog.)

Without calling attention to itself, Collier’s writing delves deeply into questions of prayer, baptism, and the nature and mission of the Church–all sprinkled with humor, quotes from literary and theological greats, and a lot of love.

Jonas McAnn is the kind of pastor I want to have and strive to be.  Winn Collier is the kind of writer we all need for such a time as this.

Check out my interview with Winn Collier.