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Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church

Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church

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LOVE BIG. BE WELL: Letters to a Small-Town Church. By Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017. 166 pages. $16.99.

Love Big. Be Well is a novel about Rev. Jonas McAnn who receives a no-nonsense hand-written letter from a pastoral search committee asking him to be the pastor of Granby Presbyterian Church located in the fictional small-town of Granby, Virginia. Jonas replies to the hand-written letter with one of his own, which he concludes with these words, “Oh—and one more thing. Aside from the normal financial and vacation considerations . . . I’ve just now decided that I would insist on one further contractual obligation. If I were your pastor, I’d want to continue this letter-writing thing. We’re onto something” (p. 14). Jonas is accepted as the pastor of Granby Presbyterian and the rest of the book is the collection of his promised ongoing letter-writing to his small-town charge, ultimately spanning the course of seven years of ministry among them. Every letter is signed, “Love big. Be well. Jonas.”

The book is masterfully written with well-turned phrases and a pastor’s heart. Each letter is full of the honest reflection of life by a pastor to his people. The wide range of topics addressed are refreshing and a delight to read. The book was a top-rate page-turner that I could hardly put down.

On the cover of the book there is the following endorsement from Eugene Peterson, “A tour de force—an angle on understanding the life of both congregation and pastor that exceeds anything I have ever read.” This is high-standing praise from the likes of Eugene Peterson, and it’s not hard to understand why Eugene Peterson said this, because the book is packed with wisdom; wisdom about blessings and benedictions, prayer and perseverance. Wonderful insights are proffered about being the people of God, rather than spinning your wheels in striving to be the people of God. Again and again I found myself nodding in the affirmative and saying, “Yes! This! A hundred times this! More pastors needs to read this! More parishioners need to hear this! I really needed to hear this!” The excitement from the insights of this book were that visceral, legitimately earning every exclamation point typed above.

And then around page sixty (of 166) it dawned on me. This fictional pastor Jonas McAnn has a lot to say about love, God, grace, mercy, patience, the Eucharist, creeds, the church calendar, and authenticity; this pastor is incredibly well-read, effortlessly dropping citations from Wendall Berry, Thomas Merton, Jaroslav Pelikan, Thomas Aquinas, Jürgen Habermas, and Sister Ruth Fox (making his congregation the most well-read small-town congregation in the history of the world); this pastor can disarm his people by casual references to dropping an expletive in times of frustration, or can make his reader smile by telling the story of skinny-dipping while trespassing in a pool with a good friend in the sweltering heat of summer; but the one this pastor has not done was talk about Jesus.

St. Paul, as you well know, endeavored to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified, but the cross of Christ is conspicuously absent from Jonas’s pastoral epistles. And for this reason, I must say that this book falls short of Eugene Peterson’s praise. What I thought was going to be one of the greatest books I’d ever read turned out to be another good book that fell short of being exceptional.

Jesus Christ was there. Don’t get me wrong. But he wasn’t front and center. He wasn’t high and lifted up. He wasn’t preeminent. He was never proclaimed as boldly as John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 1:18, or 1 Timothy 1:15. Jesus was always hiding in the shadows, always playing second fiddle to the concepts of love and grace and mercy and patience and justice instead of being the fulfillment of them.

When recommending this book to a friend, I said, “It reminds me of the book of Proverbs. It’s chalk-full of wisdom—godly wisdom—but you have to look pretty hard to find Jesus.”

Do I recommend this book? Yes. This book is thought-provoking without being mind-numbing in its complexity. There’s no technical theological language that distances the uninformed reader. This book could be handed to any layperson and they would enjoy and understand it just fine. I cannot stress how very easy this book is to read, once you pick it up, you'll struggle to put it down. For any Lutheran readers, I gently remind you that the fictional Jonas McAnn is a pastor of Granby Presbyterian Church. Consequently, the doctrine expressed is consistent with those who belong to Presbyterian churches, so if you read something that doesn’t sound Lutheran, that’s because it isn’t. With that said, wisdom is wisdom no matter where you find it, and there’s plenty of wisdom to be found in this novel.

Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.

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