Next month, on election day, Paraclete Press will republish my first “church book” The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything. I put this book together upon arriving at Duke (the first time), having served a couple years in my first South Carolina appointment. You can preorder it from Amazon here.
Here’s the preface I wrote for this new edition:
Years after writing his momentous Romans the great theologian Karl Barth reread his world-famous book. Much had happened to Barth in the intervening years since he had written Romans in his first, forlorn parish. After reading, Barth exclaimed, “Well roared, lion!” I’m not Barth nor is this book Romans. Still, I’m happy and honored that my work from long ago is being again set before the church.
Picture a young pastor, a couple of years out of seminary, stuck in a congregation by a bishop who said, “Son, do what you can, and we promise to rescue you in maybe a year or two.” Two years passed without the good folks of Trinity United Methodist pledging the budget or fixing the leaking roof. Nevertheless, Duke Divinity School somehow thought it wise to invite inexperienced, unsuccessful me to teach seminarians. The dean welcomed with, “Publish!” So, sitting at our kitchen table, I reworked one of my articles from Christianity Today (“Congratulations,” said the CT editor, “first timers usually don’t get this much negative mail”), strung together five or six of my sermons from Trinity, called it “The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything,”andhad my first “church book.”
Orson Welles said that a person’s best work is done before age thirty-five or after seventy. Though this septuagenarian is not feeling too creative at the moment, the continued life of this little book may prove Welles half right. After four decades, the work of a callow, untested thirty-one-year-old preacher lives again. I’m pleased to see that, before I met Stanley Hauerwas, served Duke Chapel and the episcopacy, or wrote eighty other books, even in my youth, I wasn’t too shoddy a preacher.
My rereading of The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything surprised me: From the first days I was already working some of the themes that characterized four decades of ministry. I’ve changed and grown along the way but not as much as I thought. Though kept standing in the wings, Karl Barth was behind many of my arguments – and Kierkegaard too. In this book are Barth and Bonhoeffer for everybody: grace and law are two sides of the same work of the same God, God is so much more interesting than we are, and salvation is integrally tied to vocation. Though, I should note that Barth would disapprove of my apologetic intent and Bonhoeffer would challenge some of my interpretation. The book is curiously Wesleyan in its stress on Christ’s summons to service, on enacting love on behalf of others in need, and on sanctification as being as significant as justification. Christ calls us not to make our lives a bit less miserable but rather to enable our lives to count as part of his mission in behalf of his beloved in his world. So, here’s evangelism the old-fashioned, Wesleyan way rendered into contemporary idiom.
Though there are dated references to Oral Roberts, the Rev. Moon, and Erich Fromm, I’m impressed by the continued relevance of the book’s major concerns. That’s a bit depressing. The notion that Christ is among us mainly to meet our self-defined needs – that Jesus is a somewhat primitive therapeutic technique for solving our problems and soothing our complaints – is a hard heresy to defeat. In this book I set out to nix the notion that Jesus is here to give you whatever it is you think you must have in addition to Jesus. Judging from many of the sermons I hear, and some that I preach, my goal for this book, to defeat Pelagianism, isn’t yet accomplished.
Just this past week I worshipped in a church where the pastor opened the service by plaintively saying, “We are here hurting, anxious, and groaning, seeking answers, lamenting amid the racism, sexism, ageism, and anthropocentrism.”
Looking around the gathered all-white, upper middle-class congregation, they looked to me like they were in pretty good shape. A congregation of modern, relatively affluent, North American folk like us need pastoral encouragement to be even more self-centered and self-consumed? Can worship be reduced to a weekly deep dive into our innate narcissism.
Decades before we learned to label our theological pathology as moralistic therapeutic deism, this little book, for any of its flaws, named it. Perennial is our attempt to turn Paul’s “the gospel of God” (Rom 1:2-4) into a means of getting what we want out of God. But the gospel is God’s means of getting what God wants out of us.
When Methodists stop talking about God, we enjoy talking about ourselves. How is it in your church? Without God, we are free to fall face down into the worst excesses of carping moralism and saccharine sentimentality. Except for a few notable lapses, by the grace of God, I’m glad to see that in this book I avoided both. The book’s title begins, not with my attempt to assess human need but with the word “gospel” – the most interesting (and ultimately truthful) word the church has to say to the world of any age.
Sure, there’s the awkward phrase, an occasional sappy illustration, a cringe-worthy idiom or two. Although I like the opening sentence that states our pastoral ease “with the person in the gutter rather than the person at the top,” I wish I hadn’t ended the book with a paragraph that sounds close to a blathering platitude by Joel Osteen. That makes me even more grateful that Lillian Daniel – one of the most clear-eyed, risk-taking, tell-it-like-it-is, platitude-free preachers I know – overlooked my youthful indiscretions and wrote this edition’s preface.
Still, for any of its faults, I’m rather pleased with the book’s straightforward, eager-to-be-heard style. I’m surprised that a thirty-one-year-old, novice theology professor, fresh from a little, nowhere Methodist congregation, had the self-confidence to lay aside concerns about what my sophisticated theological friends might think, or how my inexperience and ignorance disqualified me, and just say the good news of God that people deserve to hear. I don’t remember feeling self-confident at the time. A three-hundred-member congregation that no one has ever heard of, where the Treasurer sheepishly says, “If you can’t find a way to make these deadbeats put more in the plate, you won’t be paid this month,” had not instilled in me self-confidence.
I therefore believe that any strength in the book is attributable, not to the poise or solid academic preparation of a young preacher, but rather to a reckless God who saves by capturing unqualified people like me and using them – even though they be unawares and ill-prepared – for good purpose. Perhaps I talk about risk and vocation so much in the book because three years into ordained ministry, I was still reeling from the shock of God having picked me, of all people, to deliver the word.
That vocative God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is so much more interesting than the rookie preacher who wrote this book. Yet I am bold to believe that the Gospel announced by and embodied in that God explains me and this book.