the hole in our gospel

Over recent years I have appreciated my links with World Vision. My brother-in-law (Jon Warren) is their top photojournalist internationally (well, I think he is!); two opportunities to speak at World Vision (NZ) prayer days stand out in my memory; I was thrilled to see the recent appointment of an esteemed friend, Chris Clarke, as the new CEO of World Vision (NZ).

While by heritage and instinct I am more a TearFund person, I have massive respect for the way these two organisations have commended and adorned the gospel in NZ public life with such credibility.

With all this in mind I decided to read Richard Stearns, The Hole in our Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2009) on my recent flight across to the UK.

Here are a few reflections...

1. This is a personal story. Stearns weaves in his journey from being a corporate high-flyer, excessively high-earner with different companies through to his current job as President, World Vision (USA). His honesty impresses me, even if this part of the story leaves me a little cold. However the book is pitched at those high-income Americans for whom a hole in the gospel exists and Stearns is to be admired for the way he generates some heat with that readership.

2. This is an easy-to-read story. This is not a scholarly book. While I appreciated the way every chapter engages biblical material, the content tends to be full of reminders rather than new insights or angles on the text. He gets himself around the big issues in a clear and succinct manner with the bulk of the book being about "a hole in the world" and "a hole in the church". And the momentum develops as the book goes on...

3. This is a useful book. All sorts of things stand out. His explanation of "the three major impediments standing in the way of anyone wanting to love their distant neighbours" to be awareness, access and ability (101-105). His description of poverty, neatly summarised on p131. He uses the word "imagine" a lot - for example, in his analysis of "the horsemen of the apocalypse": hunger, thirst, sickness (malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and Aids), nakedness (no money, no clothes, illiteracy, gender, refugees, war). This works to draw in the reader to participate in the statistics and the facts that would otherwise be kept at arm's length. Then he moves to a practical appeal for "time, talent, treasure" at the end with a "sharp elbow in the conscience" and the dream of a "mountain of mustard seeds". There is a Study Guide at the end which makes the book a useful resource if you are wanting to wake up people in a local church.

4. This is a courageous book. With his readership in mind, he sure does wade in to some 'sacred' areas. He knocks down the popular understanding of the Prayer of Jabez (40-42). His "tale of two churches" (171-180) helps shrink the globe and enables people to see that there are "beggars at our gate" to whom we must respond. He puts the issue of gender and the oppression of women where it needs to be - right at the top of the list: "the single most important thing that can be done to cure extreme poverty is this: protect, educate, nurture girls and women and provide them with equal rights and opportunities - educationally, economically and socially" (156-157).

He rightly observes that "one of the most disturbing things about Church history is the Church's appalling track record of being on the wrong side of the great social issues of the day" (190). And he hangs the idea out there that the current issues of global poverty and injustice could prove to be the slavery-equivalent for which our grandchildren mock and critique us. He has a chapter on "Putting the American Dream to Death" (203-209) - that takes some doing in his context! He attacks the lack of generosity of American Christians, "the wealthiest Christians in all history" (217), calculating that they give "two percent of two percent ... about six pennies per person per day to the rest of the world (217) ... (and if we just tithed as a minimum) it would raise USD168 billion dollars" (218).

5. This is a quotable book. Each chapter starts with some beauties. For example, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (Martin Luther King). He includes some great stories - like the one about forgiveness with Margaret in Uganda (158-160) - a contemporary Corrie Ten Boom story. His own paraphrase of Matthew 25 sticks with me:
"For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviours that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved".

6. This is a hope-ful book. Stearns does a remarkable job remaining upbeat - which could well be the book's greastest achievement. He builds this hope around three convictions: "(a) Everyone of these hurting people is created in God's image and loved by him; (b) Every one of these challenges has a solution; (c) Every one of us can make a difference" (151).

[As an aside, Stearns' own conversion occurred when he discovered John Stott's Basic Christianity and read it right through over seven hours one night. "Somewhere that night God had gotten hold of me and the truth came shattering into my life" (80). As I write this post, I am at The Hookses in Wales where John Stott wrote his books. Yesterday I found the little ledge on the cliff overlooking the ocean where Basic Christianity was crafted! How cool is that...]

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