Can God show up among ordinary folks, weirdos and losers? Can followers of Christ find Him and His ways more evidently in ordinary moments than in ecstatic worship and highly polished ministries? What might we learn from the life of those who are not part of the church, or who are outside, on the margins, maybe a bit odd? This is the question that young writer Jim Palmer sets out to discover, and writes about so well in his wonderful new book, Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the Unlikely People Who Help You.) Maybe I shouldn't say he "sets out to discover" this, as it seems to slowly creep up on him, moments of great grace amidst his foibles, serious failures and deep brokenness. He was given this insight, and he faithfully tells of his findings.
This memoir tells of Palmer's journey away from traditional evangelical faith, churchianity, his "got-God-in-his-pocket and a wonderful plan for his (oh so successful) life" charismatic worldview. After some very tough times, some serious re-questioning of his life as a big time mega-church pastor with all the right (if simplistic) answers, and a bit of a walk on the wild side, he finds a move towards wholeness that is truly wonderful. Wonder-full. The ups and downs, the authentic journey, the steps towards healing, the radical life following the way of Christ, the passion for God and his new freedom, all comes to him, mostly through a variety of encounters with the unlikely nobodies that populate his odd life.
From the Waffle House waitress to the blue-collar tire salesman, from the spiritual kids at a Montossori-like Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium* to a mystical Catholic monk that guides him on retreat; from a street-wise, rowdy drummer in a hard rock band to a dear friend who walked through unspeakable grief, each illumines a new truth, a particular insight, a step towards wholeness. Each encounter helps him piece his faith back together, invites him more deeply into Kingdom living, and challanges us to live into the mystery of authentic life with God in a seriously-troubled world.
Palmer is a funny writer--for good reason, Brian McLaren likens him to "the next Donald Miller"---but he is also full of good insight and a pretty hefty dose of pathos. This is one of the best books I've read this year---moving, interesting, clever and, yes, I had to wipe a few tears as I was drawn in the stories he shares.
Find God and Kingdom truths from a hard-core rap fan? A young girl with severe cerebral palsy? An abandoned kid in a group home? A politically-correct, liberal swimming instructor?
You bet. Each chapter stands alone, some are more serious than others (man, the chapter on his work in Thailand with International Justice Mission helping bust child sex traffickers was powerful) but all weave together to form a vision of life in a world were God works in mysterious ways. Or, maybe, and I guess this is the real point, in pretty ordinary ways.
It is a bit frustrating (as it is with much of the emergent conversation, it seems to me) that Palmer seems to suggest that this is a really new insight, something edgy. I guess there are some churches out there that never teach about God's common grace, that God shows up all over this big 'ol wonderful world, that the doctrine of creation is insightful for more than refuting evolutionists, that the arts matter, that the abused and hurting reveal Christ in special ways. For some of us, this is central, foundational, almost common sense stuff, and it is curious to read about it as if it is newly discovered. (Where has this guy lived for the last twenty-five years if this is that new?) And, then, having discovered common grace and seeing truths outside the institutional churches, do you really have to be so utterly unconnected to institutional churches, now that the mega-church thing has been shown to be wanting? (Surely there are ordinary congregations that are neither mega nor legalistic, that would be better than the no-church/house thing.)
But even for those of us who will not be surprised by this insight that God-shows-up ("playing in ten thousand places", as Gerard Manley Hopkins has taught us) it is really, really good---I mean really, really good!---to hear somebody say it, once again. Thanks, Jimbo. You are one of these unusual suspects that have helped me remember what it is all about.
Jim Palmer (Word) $13.99
*anyone who works with young children, especially in religious education, will find that this one chapter is worth the price of the book. For a some-what similiar, brief essay telling of another such encounter, check out my good friend Denise Frame Harlan's blog (which features well-written tales of the splendor of the ordinary). This post is called Weather Report: Spiral of Light which describes a gentle experience with children in an Advent candle thing.