“The only way we can go in and experience the transformative presence of Christ is to go in these difficult places assuming that we’re not coming back.”
Gayle Trotter: I’m speaking with Shayne Wheeler, author of The Briarpatch Gospel. Your subtitle is “Fearlessly following Jesus into the thorny places.” Where are the thorny places right now?
Shayne Wheeler: They’re all around us. It’s all of those places that challenge our comfort zone, challenge some of our assumptions about what a comfortable life should be. It’s the places of dealing with people who are different from us, whether it’s socioeconomically or how they think about life and think about God. It’s people who are different from us in terms of the suffering that they’re dealing with, social issues. They’re everywhere. We have an assumption, especially as Christians, that we’re going to come to faith in Jesus, and we’re going to follow God and everything is going to be great.
We spend so much time trying to make our lives comfortable and without any bumps and bruises. We end up trying to avoid all the briarpatches of difficulty. That’s just simply not the way that life actually works, and it’s definitely not the life that Jesus has called us to. I think he’s called us to go into those thorny places with the gospel of grace, hope and affection.
GT: Who would most benefit from reading your book?
SW: I wrote the book with two groups in mind — those who are dealing with difficulty in their lives, whether the reality of suffering, of persecution, and even a difficult relationship that they can’t quite get their theology around. I wanted to be able to give those people a pathway through the difficulty so that they can begin to realize that they’re not abandoned and alone but that Christ is actually walking down this path with them. But then secondly, I wrote it for people who are in relationship with people who are going through difficult times. I wanted people to have the vernacular to speak to someone who is suffering, to speak with someone who is perhaps theologically different than them or in terms of lifestyle.
We have a lot of people here in our church that have very, very close friends who are in the gay and lesbian community and many of them profess faith in Christ. I wanted to be able to give them a vernacular of how we can communicate and love and live together as followers of Christ with people with whom we disagree.
GT: You tell the fascinating story of two brothers in the movie Gattaca. How does this relate to the briarpatch?
SW: There’s one brother who is the older brother and is genetically inferior. The younger brother was conceived through the use of eugenics and he is genetically pure. The younger brother is stronger, faster, and smarter. They played this game called chicken where they would swim out in the ocean as far as they could and whoever turned back first lost. The genetically superior brother always won. Then finally the older brother who was supposedly inferior, he won and not only once, but he won again. And so, the other brother said “How did you beat me? How did you do this?” The older brother answered, “I swam out there and I was committed that I was never coming back. I was never going to swim back. I was committing full force into this.”
That’s the sort of mentality that we need to have when we’re entering into these difficult places with people, that we’re following Christ into some of these places where he does his best work rather than saying I’m just going to go and put my time in at the homeless shelter or at the food bank for an hour on Saturday and then I’m going to retreat back to my place of comfort and safety.
We have to say “No, I’m going to give my life to loving people who are homeless, loving people in the gay and lesbian community, loving people who are suffering.” The only way we can go in and experience the transformative presence of Christ is to go in assuming that we’re not coming back. This is a path that we’re going to walk down the rest of our lives. The degree of grace and affection and personal transformation and the palpable presence of Jesus that you experience when you do that, when you’re willing to not turn back, is extraordinary. It’s absolutely life changing. I wanted people to experience in their walk with Christ what I’ve experienced in mine and what we’ve seen happen here in our church.
GT: How can one find meaning in the crucible of suffering?
SW: That was probably the hardest part of the book to write for me. Our daughter was diagnosed when she was five with leukemia. I always tell people, as a parent when you imagine what it might be like to hear the words about your child having cancer, it’s ten times worse than you can imagine. I never would have imagined that Jesus could show up in the midst of suffering like we experienced him through those years of dealing with her treatment and almost dying for over two years.
I always remember lying there in her hospital room asking God where he was and asking him how could he allow something like this to happen and does he even care — really just crying out to him for answers. It was almost like the Lord spoke. I’m a Presbyterian so God doesn’t speak in audible voices to me, but I’m telling you as a Presbyterian I heard God speak very, very clearly. “Shayne, this is why Jesus had to come. This is why I had to send my son to die on a cross, to suffer for sin. It wasn’t just to get you into Heaven one day. It was because the world is all screwed up. It’s not supposed to be this way. Little five-year-old girls are not supposed to get cancer. That’s sin as well. That’s the effect of sin.”
Jesus had to come to put the world right. How we met Christ in the crucible of our own suffering was we realized that he was there with us. Suddenly his incarnation and his suffering and his death and his resurrection had meaning beyond just getting me saved. It showed my wife and me that Jesus is concerned about our daughter’s suffering so much so that he came and suffered himself. Knowing that he’s there walking with us even in those dark places in a hospital room was extraordinarily comforting to know our daughter’s suffering and our suffering was not in vain but it was under the gaze of a loving God.
GT: Describe what makes your church community different from others.
SW: I assume most of them are wonderful in their own right. But what I love about our church’s community is the deep sense of honesty about who we are. For our church family Sunday mornings is not the time when we get all spit shined and polished and put on our nice little self-righteous Christ veneer and come to church and try to impress everybody. Sunday morning is a time where we come as brothers and sisters in the faith, where many come who are not Christians but who are looking to find God, to figure out if God is even real. We’re coming together to worship God through Christ with all of our successes and all of our failures, with all of our hopes in faith and with all of our doubts.
When you have a group of people who take off all that veneer and they’re simply there as they are, not hiding their joy and not hiding their pain, it creates a very strong sense of raw intimacy. What it also means — people say this all the time when they come into our church — it means that no matter where people are they feel welcomed. They don’t feel judged. They see pastors and leaders and old people and young people who are dealing with the same things that they’re dealing with.
I think what might set our church apart a little bit would be that sense of you don’t have to clean up and dress up. You just have to show up.
GT: How do we transform the Briarpatch?
SW: Jesus said very, very clearly, “You are my disciples. Your job is to go. Your job is to not be perfect. Your job isn’t to be religious or anything like that. Your job is to go and love and serve.” They are going to know you’re my disciples he says, by the way that you love one another. He says go and serve in my name when you give food to the hungry, when you give clothing to the naked, or go visit those who are in prison. You do so in my name. What he’s saying to us is that we are the living embodiment of his gospel — the gospel of reconciliation, of grace and mercy and healing and forgiveness.
He says when you go and you serve in this way you’re actually bringing my presence into this world. We’re living as a lamppost saying this is what the transforming of presence of Christ does. We have a hope that when he returns that he’s going to make all things new. He’s going to restore his creation. He’s going to wipe out sin and our job is to be a signpost, a lamppost to what that can look like. We’re not going to do it perfectly. Our light is going to flicker and sometimes even be snuffed out, but we’re still called to go and love and serve in a way that shows that the presence of Christ is real and that something even greater is coming.
Just in practical terms, it means obviously things like you go and serve the homeless and you serve the poor. But, it also means that we go in our marriages, in our families, in our work relationships and we live lives of forgiveness and mercy. It means we don’t hold grudges. It means we show compassion to people — even the people we love the most are sometimes the hardest people to show compassion towards. It means we live lives in repentance. It’s showing the people that are closest to us and the people perhaps who are watching us, observing us from afar, showing them what a life of repentance and faith looks like — a life that’s not lived for ourselves but lived for the glory of God through Christ and lived to be poured out for the sake of other people.
When that happens, when you start infusing forgiveness and compassion and radical love into your relationships at work and at home and in your community then it will necessarily begin to bring transformation. It changes the conversation. It changes the ethos of the place.
GT: Yes. What’s something that surprised you in writing this book?
SW: Beyond that it was going to take three years from start to finish? I was honestly thinking I’ll knock this thing out in like three months, write it, and then it should be on the shelves by Thanksgiving that year. That was two years ago. I was surprised at how much fun it was to write. How much I enjoyed sitting down and working through many, many, many hours of putting these thoughts and these stories onto paper. It was cathartic for my soul. It absolutely was rejuvenating and refreshing to me.
I didn’t expect to enjoy the writing part as much. I was surprised by that. And, I was surprised by how long it actually takes to go from me typing it out on my computer to it actually coming out in book form.
GT: Was that frustrating for you knowing that you could just throw it all up on the internet?
SW: I know. It’s unbelievable. I will give a compliment to Tyndale, our publishers. I was surprised to find people in the publishing industry who were so fantastically competent but also kind and generous and loving. Every man and woman that I worked with at Tyndale has shown more concern for me as a person and as a follower of Christ than they have for me as a commodity. Writing a book is all worth it just for having met my friends at Tyndale.