The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places by Shayne Wheeler
Have you ever felt what it’s like to fall down a steep ravine into a patch of briars, a collection of thorns and thistles that rub against your skin? With the concept of the briarpatch, Pastor Shayne Wheeler of All Souls Fellowship in Decatur Georgia, weaves together the notion that Jesus is both found in the context of corporate worship and in the briarpatch (the world which we live in). Shayne writes, “our lives matter - to the homeless man on the corner begging for a quarter, the bald lady at church going through chemo for the second time, or the gay man who loves Jesus but has been rejected by Christians so many times that he finally given up trying. This is life in the briarpatch” (10). Too often believers in the church segregate themselves from the concerns and difficulties in their own backyards, not desiring to be stained by the concerns of the common man. Yet, as Shayne points out, the desire for healing is not some fanciful notion about heaven, but rooted in the work of Jesus. Shayne writes, “Christ’s resurrection shows us that his life, hope, healing, and renewal are happening today, in this place, in our world” (20). Revealing the healing presence of Jesus means following him into the ‘thorny thickets of our world,’ and knowing that he will be us through turmoil, doubts and suffering.
One of the powerful testimonies of this book was its insistence that making room for people in our congregations goes a long way in helping them identify with Christ. Shayne tells a moving story about a musician named Brian, who began to use his talent in the worship band at church while remaining a skeptic of all things religious. As time went on, Brian went from a casual onlooker to a man seeking to destroy the pastor’s arguments to a person who got swept into the story of the Scriptures (31-33). Shayne makes a unique point in saying, “We had made room for him – not just in the pew, but in our lives” (33). Brian caught a vision of the way Jesus Christ shapes the story of the lives of his children, and in turn, he wanted to be a part of that believing community. Wheeler goes onto to bear witness that we will always have people who don’t believe in God in our midst, it’s how we welcome them and all their questions that makes the difference. Shayne continues on in this second chapter to make a bold statement that relates to making room for people by writing, “..the reason most people avoid our communities of faith….is because of our own corporate self-protection and judgmental attitudes toward anyone who does not look, act, or believe like us” (35). Even using biblical language in our services without careful elucidation can provide a protective self-covering keeping others out. Instead of providing road blocks for people, we should desire to meet people where they are, displaying the power of the gospel through the trusting relationships.
Combining a gospel focus in the midst of discussion on pain and suffering was another highlight in the book. Shayne writes, “Through suffering and adversity we develop a hunger for change” (72). Living in constant fear of being found out leads to alienation and enslavement to our fear. Shayne reminds us, “The death and resurrection of Jesus was precisely for frauds, sinners, and failures like you and me. We simply need to apply the truth of Christ’s resurrection to the deep places of our lives, the briarpatch in our hearts” (73). As you follow Jesus into pain and suffering, there is freedom because you are no longer tied to the power of sin and death, but find your freedom in what Jesus has done for you. Therefore, the feelings of despair and hopelessness do not have to be your guide through life’s valleys. Time and time again Shayne brings out the movements of grace in his writing, giving the reader a clear glimpse of the way God acts in the world he has made.
The rest of the book is an exploration in the briarpatch of life with an eye towards loving your neighbor, bringing the gospel to bear in painful situations and God’s grace toward gays. In chapter 10, Shayne explores the way the Christian community has responded toward gays and how we should. Communicating in mercy, Shayne writes, “To deny God’s mercy to our gay and lesbian family, friends, and neighbors is to deny the sufficiency of the blood of Jesus for ourselves. In our judgment, we place ourselves under the judgment of God” (189). We are all in the same boat together, profaning God in our sinful attitudes and actions, deserving the full brunt of God’s judgment. How can we be judgmental and hateful toward gays when we all have fallen short of God’s glory, yet, God has saved us by his own work. Shayne reiterates that the homosexual lifestyle is not consistent with Christian discipleship but does not deserve the title ‘unpardonable sin’ either (188). While not agreeing with everything written in this chapter, I was confronted with my own prejudices and sinful attitudes as I read about the mercy he extends every day to gays in his community.
Overall, I high recommend this book to those wanting to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and his church. Briarpatch Gospel is a rather challenging read because it calls its readers to take stock of their own lives, their own sin, and seek to follow Jesus into the midst of thorns and thistles. Taking his cues from N.T. W right, James Davison Hunter and others, Shayne points his readers to the grand story that God has been weaving from the beginning which falls squarely upon the person of Jesus Christ. For all of those desiring to take their place in the story, this book will be of great encouragement.
Thanks to Tyndale Momentum and Tyndale House Publishers for the copy of this book in exchange for review.