Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017.
Summary: Letters written through the seasons of the church year by Jonas McAnn to the people of Granby Presbyterian Church on the varying facets of believing and living as a church, the warmth of friendship and the dark nights of doubt, each ending with the words “love big, be well.”
It is still early in the year, but I think this book is going to end up on my “best of 2018” list. Perhaps it is because I resonate with so much here, and because it is written so well.
A disillusioned pastor making his living selling insurance receives a letter written by Amy Quitman and signed by rest of the search committee at Granby Presbyterian Church. In it, she writes:
“Here are our questions. We’d like to know if you are going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience?…Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church-thing straight? Or might we hope that our church could be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?
In other words, the question we want answered is very simple. Do you actually want to be our pastor?”
Jonas writes a long and frank response about why he’d packed it in as a pastor, and why he started looking to serve a church again. He confesses, “The truth is, my give-a-shit’s broke.” But he concludes,
“This letter is too long, just like my sermons. I’m working on it. But all this is to say that if our conversation leads anywhere and I were to join your motley band, being your pastor is the only thing I’d know how to do. I’m at an utter loss on anything else.”
And then he adds,
” If I were your pastor, I’d want to continue this letter-writing thing. We’re on to something.
Love big. Be well.
The church agrees and this is the first of many letters from 2008 to 2014, when he takes a sabbatical. The letters sparkle with the warmth of his growing friendships with the people of this church, notably big Don Brady, a hulk of a man who came to faith later in life, and who later experiences a recurrence of a cancer that had been in remission. He reflects on the nature of this thing they call church and the high-blown language and cant that obscures the reality of friends on a journey together in a place. He honestly confesses to the mystery in much of which he preaches, and his own struggles to believe the things he proclaims from the scriptures–how often he preaches, prays, and lives into things when the feeling of confidence is absent.
The letters continue when the honeymoon is over and they wrestle with the hard realities of this relationship between church and pastor. Toward the end, he includes a letter from Luther, chair of their elder board, the lone black, and what it is like to “represent” his people when he is just Luther, and yet how he does in feeling the pain and the disjuncts of racial history, even in their own congregation.
One of the letters that summed up the ordinary and yet compelling vision of church being worked out in this book is titled “The People Who Bury You.” It concludes,
“As the church, we’re the people (whenever we live true to ourselves) who will welcome you into this world, who will join you in marriage and in friendship, who will bless your coming and your going. We will pray for you to prosper and know love’s depths even if you think our prayers are foolish or offered in vain, and we will mourn you when you leave us. We will bless the land and the nations we share, and we will grieve together through tragedy and heartache. We will celebrate, with you, everything beautiful and good, everything that comes from the hand of mercy. And then, when your days conclude, we will bury you. We will return you to the earth and pray God’s kindness over you.
This is who we are. This is who I hope we will continue to be.”
This was one of a number of passages that caught my breath with the beauty, or the blunt acknowledgement of things for which I did not have nearly the words. I’ve been in a church for twenty-eight years that has been doing all these things, groping, imperfectly to be sure, to live out the realities of what it means to live in Christ both through the seasons of the church year, and all the seasons of life. We’ve been through vision and church growth processes, the products of which mostly reside in a file drawer somewhere. We’re not a large bunch but we are blessed with a pastor who reminds me of Jonas McAnn. We celebrate births, seek to teach our children well, revel in marriages and housewarmings and summer barbecues. We’ve marveled as we’ve walked alongside saints like Betty, whose life seemed to burn brighter and brighter as cancer consumed her body. And we’ve sat with families in times of loss.
Winn Collier describes a reality both of pastoral ministry and church life that seems from another time, what with all our language of “missional communities,” all our strategies, and what not. In a society of virtual relationships, of celebrity pastors, and transience, I wonder how many find places like Granby Presbyterian? And I wonder how many simply want to be pastors of such places?
Perhaps some will read this book, and it will feel like waking from a dream, and wondering if the good stuff here really can be so. My hunch is that there are places like Granby Presbyterian in neighborhoods and small towns that you have driven past many times. Maybe it is our church building you’ve driven past, oblivious to the beautiful and good that is happening among our people. The only thing that I’d ask if you decide to stop in is that things will work a lot better if you leave your grandiose dreams and “flaming visions” at the door.