Stifling Contradictions

After the exchange in the comments on my post a few days ago on the book Up Close And Personal: Embracing the Poor, I went through the book with a fine tooth comb again and picked it apart critically with a pen in the margins.  I will give the book my endorsement, but I give it with reservations.  The message is in there; it is a good one, but it is muddled in various places.

Like any fellow thinker I might engage in conversation, I find points along the way where I agree and where I disagree, and those disagreements vary.  In a few places I disagree powerfully; in a few others, mildly.  However, I am really jazzed by the places where I find commonality!  In fact there are numerous paragraphs and vignettes that inspire and thrill me.  And given that the book is written by three ministers who sensed God’s call to serve the poor, who then were challenged to navigate serious pitfalls along the way, and who finally want to tell their story so as to inspire on the one hand, and help navigate on the other, I accept it’s humble offering as appropriate.

The use of Scripture starts off slow.  The opening chapters treat Scriptures like a bit of salt and pepper sprinkled on your meal.  There are a few references here and there, but they don’t drive the agenda.  Later in the middle and toward the end, there are a handful of places where the use of Scripture becomes substantive.  As I said before, and in fact as I have said numerous times in the past, kudos for even opening a Bible!  Just acknowledging God’s Word is an important step that goes lacking in so many Christian circles these days.  This alone, is noteworthy.  But it is just a start.  For there are good uses and, sometimes, bad.  Sometimes a different passage would make the point better.  Other times, Scripture is arguably mishandled.  Sometimes use of Scripture is done quite well.  But just opening a Bible is an important start.  In my view, this book is all over that map.  Some points don’t use much Scripture, some points use it with amazing impact.

I firmly place the book in the plus column.  But it is no rock star of books.  It’s wisdom is not the most profound.  And I think the self contradictions within it are the most glaring weakness of it.  One important point that sticks in my craw is found even in the excerpt I reproduced in my post 3 days ago.  “We found that working among the poor was not a matter of programs or bureaucracies.”  I took that to mean being Up Close and Personal eschewed “programs”, but I found several embraced all through.  One notable program the writers themselves employ is called the “Life Skills Lab”.

I was most troubled with what I found in chapter 4, “A Whole New Brotherhood”.  There the writers describe a needy person’s interaction with a church where the poor lady did not “fit in”.  One of the ministers attempted to address the problem but could not get the church to accommodate for certain kinds of cultural differences – things to do with poverty/wealth but also with race.  Here is a bit of that discussion:

There was a long silence.  Ken shook his head slowly, knowing he could not provide the answer Don needed.  “Our church is not ready to minister to people like Latisha.”  Latisha, Don, and Ken all came to the same conclusion: not everyone fits into God’s church.

We know the feeling.  We want the poor, the ex-offender, the homeless to feel welcome at our churches, but no matter how hard we try, how much we care, they don’t.  They find few relationships, little meaningful fellowship, no feeling of belonging….

Shortly following this account, the writers provide one of the first meaningful uses of Scripture.  They go to John 1:14 where it is said Jesus came “to dwell among us”.  The passage is unpacked suggesting that Jesus, being God who dwells in heaven, left heaven to come to earth and live among, with, and like us mortals in all our mess.  I read that and think, okay… not bad.  Reasonably good point.

But then I wonder:  If Jesus humbles himself to take the form of a human, even a slave, (different passage, but with a similar point), AND if the church is his Body incarnate in the world today (some other different passages that quickly and reasonably come to mind), THEN why is the church not humbly coming to dwell among the poor?  This was Jesus’s stated agenda, why is ours different?

Sadly the writers of Up Close and Personal suggest that the right thing to do is plant inner-city churches where the poor, the ex-offender, the homeless will feel welcome.  Sort of a “separate but equal” ideal – which is not biblical!  AND not only is it not biblical, it allows the church of white, middle-class folks to continue doing their country-club agenda instead of being the Body of Christ that does what the head leads it to do.

It is a little too ironic then when in the next chapter, “The Multicolored Jesus”, the writers lament that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week and that black churches and white churches don’t get it together!

To my mind, this is a stifling contradiction!

Two chapters after that the writers describe how they grew up in a racist culture with a racist heritage.  They describe their own sense of coming to terms with that as they found conviction and made changes within themselves.  I can’t help but wonder why they don’t insist the church at large do this too, and then apply that conviction to other related areas that are not strictly to do with race.

I read to the end of the book and found where the writers actually quote Acts 4:34-35.  They present this as some ideal alright.  It’s actually there in the book!  This is HUGE!  Yet I can’t understand why/how despite it’s presence there on page 144 (near the end of the book) it isn’t driving the whole book, the whole agenda.  I don’t have the words for what I see happening here.  Somehow the rug is pulled out from under this powerful passage!  I mean the writers highlight it in glowing terms and everything, but somehow it winds up being an afterthought that never catches the drive gear.

I think that if the writers had started with that passage of Scripture and wrote the book based on it’s foundation and used it as the lens through which to look at ministry to the poor, then the book would retain a lot of the same wonderful observations, some of the same powerful anecdotes and so forth, but I think it would have gone largely in a different direction.  AND I think when and where it comes to confronting the passive white, middle-class church, there would be some harsh prophetic warnings about a need to repent.

As it is, I see the book choked in stifling contradictions.  Lots of good points along the way, but they never quite set the imagination free to follow the Jesus who dwells among us.

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6 comments

  1. T. F. Thompson · June 9

    I also believe in placing those ‘churches’ where the poor are. I don’t care what the rest of them do back there in the country club churches. Jesus went to where the people were and the temple remained. That’s how it should be. All in all, you did a good analysis. Hang in there and keep the faith and too…keep pushing and fighting for the poor and homeless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agent X · June 9

      Tom, Thanx for your response.

      I sense a bit of clarification is in order here. You may not agree with me, but I think this might be lost in the transfer, so let me clear it up.

      I, too, am in favor of establishing churches in the inner city. Though I did not say it, I am in favor of grooming leaders from among the poor for those churches. But I am NOT in favor of the suburban churches doing that so IN ORDER to avoid further contact with them. On the contrary, I think the suburban churches should sooner consider pulling up suburban stakes and moving to the inner city.

      In the meantime, IF THEY WANT TO CALL THEMSELVES CHURCH, AND AVOID TAKING THE LORDS NAME IN VAIN, THEN they really must open their own doors to the poor, make the poor welcome there, and if that means sacrificing a lot of white, middle-class comforts and traditions…. SO BE IT. What is not negotiable is the ONEness we must share with the poor. And that, biblically speaking, is expressed in hospitality at least.

      Hope that is clear…

      Thanx again for your feedback. It is so highly valued here…

      X

      Liked by 1 person

    • Agent X · June 9

      Thanx again. Glad we have that clarity. And yes, I see our agreement.

      That said, I still think that “rich” church side of this equation needs to get fixed. I am in no way letting that off the hook. What would a prophet of Israel say to the “cows of Bashan”?

      There is work to do on that side too. And isn’t it ironic that we could easily find an attitude among the rich suggesting that the poor need fixing when the rich are not seeing themselves in need of fixing too?

      You say your are “not comfortable in rich church buildings” too. And I see two approaches to this issue. Both valid, though they may sound like they cancel each other out. On the one hand… just how “comfortable” do you need to be? Comfort is important. It is biblical (Isa. 40, anyone?), but it is not everything. And I think our consumerist society uses comfort (a rather nebulous yardstick to begin with) as a mark, or even the mark, by which to measure a church experience.

      What if church was about ADVENTURE instead of comfort? What if it was about WORSHIP instead of comfort? What if church was about DISTURBING and SUBVERTING the world order put in place by the Tower of Babel instead of comforting that order? Why does comfort seem to always be the measure?

      On the other hand… as I said, comfort is important and it is biblical. So why is it that the richest church on earth – the American, White, middle-class church, can’t seem to bring comfort to the poor? Do the poor just have too high a standards? Or is the white, m-c church of America just out of touch with the poor, with the Bible, with Jesus, and perhaps even itself?

      Yes, I want to see church in the inner city. I want to see RICH churches stop their tendency for white flight and instead go build those million dollar cathedrals down town and turn out in full force to SERVE the poor and the lost of the hood. I want to see the Acts 4 church come alive. And this isn’t just me being picky… its in the Bible!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. T. F. Thompson · June 9

    Agent X. It was clear to me from the beginning. I am just as you are. I want the ‘churches’ where the poor are as an ADDITION to what the church proper should do. Your motivation and reasons are identical to my own. Personally, I’m really not all that comfortable in ‘rich’ church buildings. But then again, I’m not part of it either. However since I don’t believe the mainstream is ever going to really ‘catch on’, then I simply want the tools and resources to do what I think the Lord instructed us to do. Yes, I do believe most Christians would agree. Yet, you and I know that they would not follow, but instead, would send us. I would do that as a beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. LoiterLarry · June 9

    Good of you to share this, X. I appreciate your effort to be fair and balanced. I am not sure you are thorough in you analysis, but I don’t doubt the bits you highlight. You make your concerns plain to see.

    Personally, I am dumbstruck by part of the quote you offered. I wonder if further context might clear it up, but the last sentence in the first paragraph troubles me. “Latisha, Don, and Ken all came to the same conclusion: not everyone fits into God’s church.”

    We are talking about welcoming new souls into the church here – right? I mean if we are talking about putting out an unrepentant sinner, then that would be someone who does not “fit into God’s church” – at least not AS IS. But, I don’t think that is the point being made here. It appears, based on this bit you lifted out of the book, that Latisha, Don, and Ken (whoever they are) share a conclusion that could as well be stated that God’s church cannot truly welcome everyone.

    Your analysis suggests we are talking about white, middle class churches where poor, black people do not fit in. And if that is the only reasons for the misfit, then the problem is not with the poor, blacks but with the rich whites. And based on the quote you share here, it appears the writers are okay with that. Yet, as you point out, elsewhere in the same book, they seem to contradict that exact idea. Why is it going unchallenged in this context?

    This is actually a simple notion. It is not complex at all. I am sure rich, white people (and the scholars and publishers they employ) are happy to present it as complex – or better yet ignore it as far as possible. But that would be untrue, and anyone who suggests it is all that complex is lying.

    To be fair, I should read this book before I go any further down that path. So, I couch that comment as an “IF” statement. But IF you are being fair to the context in which the quote is written, then I am alarmed by it. That really troubles me.

    Thank you for sharing this. I will want to borrow your copy.

    Larry

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agent X · June 9

      It troubles me too, Larry. Good point. I probably would have addressed it myself, except I am already attempting a complex, as you say, fair and balanced critique. There are a lot of reactions I could post that I have not. These were the important ones, I think. And I was particularly jazzed by your observation about the lack of Acts 4 making an appearance. So, I rushed through the book looking for it. Sure enough, it is there, but then I wondered why it is not more prominent and potent. I think your question/observation about it the other day is still valid actually. But it is there. They did not ignore it. But somehow it is tamed.

      That said, you zero in on just the ugly spot of this quote too. It is quite an anomaly right there in the print. The writers have my sympathy at a number of levels, but stuff like that quote right there just goes unchecked like a spreading cancer in an otherwise healthy person.

      And yes, you can take my copy. But I must say this old copy is wearing out. A couple of the pages almost came loose from the binding as I thumbed through it this week. It probably wont stand up to much more handling. Oh, and I marked it up a bunch. (I don’t usually do that too much, but I was arguing with it all through and thought I should note the discrepancies so I could find them easily when I reported on them here.

      Thanx for your response!

      It is highly valued.

      X

      Like

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