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.