Tuesday, June 15, 2010

‘Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough?’ by Chris Plekenpol – Q&A and Book Review

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I just finished reading a book that touched me in a profound way – ‘Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough?’ by Chris Plekenpol. This book is Chris’s account of his outreach to James, a homeless man whom the Lord let him to, and how their interactions with each other - and the living Christ – changed both of them profoundly.

Here is the synopsis of the book:

What does it look like when believers dare to radically love those who are the hardest to love but most desperate to be loved?

In Stumbling Souls, former Army captain and recent seminary graduate Chris Plekenpol tells the compelling story of his interactions with a HIV-positive, homeless man, James. Chris asks James to move in with him, and then Chris and his friends try to help James get back on his feet. In reality, James helps Chris get back on his feet by finding out what happens when believers risk living out their faith in a tangible way.

Here is a video featuring James:

And here is a biography of the author:

Chris Plekenpol, author of Faith in the Fog of War, is a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and experience as a platoon leader and executive officer in the 82nd Airborne and as a combat company commander in the 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq. After completing seven years with the U.S. Army, he attended Dallas Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 2010 with a Th.M. with an emphasis in media. An irresistible communicator, Plekenpol, has a dynamic speaking ministry. After his experience retold in Stumbling Souls: Is Love Enough?, the author was led to join the movement and ministry I Am Second, where he serves as the conference director and community organizer. He intends to use the rest of his days on earth to reach as many people as possible with the gospel of Christ, hopefully by pastoring a dynamic, culturally engaged church.

Q&A with Chris Plekenpol

Q: Stumbling Souls tells of the lessons you learned about faith after having met James, a homeless man off the street who attended the newcomers’ meeting at your church one day. Why did you reach out to him? When you saw him walking away from church that day, why did you call after him?

A: For any disciple, there comes a time when learning Christ must become living Christ. As much as I was enjoying learning and being at seminary, the greatness of my seminary experience was complete only when the miraculous intangibles of God’s character became real in me. That day something awakened deep inside of me—maybe in the place where a small filling of the Holy Spirit resides. I couldn’t take my eyes off the figure walking away, and something inside me stirred. I tried to quell the desire to stop him and find out about his life. And before I knew it, my legs started walking after this stranger who had no idea of the welling up of something in my soul.

Q: How did you know God was leading you to reach out to James and serve him in the radical manner that you did?

A: One of the ways God really revealed his leading to me was through the encouragement of others, both friends and strangers. I began blogging about James and one reader contacted me and said he would like to help financially. He literally tracked me down to tell me in order to give something to help James. Not only did he give something for James. He personally encouraged me. There were moments like those when God intervened and let me know he was watching. No, they don’t come every day, but they serve as reminders that he wants me to live by faith.

Q: As readers make their way through Stumbling Souls, they will find themselves rooting for James, wanting him to change and turn his life around, and impatient when it doesn’t happen quickly and he seems to take some wrong turns. Why did you not give up on him?

A: I knew, as I said, that God was calling me to live by faith, but of course that was, at times, so difficult because I wanted to see results. I wanted to see life change, and when that didn’t happen, I got frustrated. But in one of those moments of discouragement this thought hit me. I don’t serve James because of James; I serve James because of God. So James’ actions don’t matter. If James never gets on his feet and I do an exercise in futility, it doesn’t matter, because my God told me to always remember the poor. So here I am doing it. Here I am living this thing called faith.

Q: “Is Love Enough?” is the subtitle of Stumbling Souls. But isn’t that exactly what we’re called by God to do, to love others?

A: Yes, we are. We are called to love and to serve. But I’ve found that our human love isn’t perfect. Selfishness and pride leave much to be desired, and, therefore, our love is never enough. I don’t have the ability to love unconditionally outside of Christ. That is why the only love that will ever be enough is the love of God. He gave his only Son to die on a cross for the sins of the world, and then he gets involved in the mess of ministry, of our working out our salvation with fear and trembling, by using flawed people to piece together another person’s redemption so that only he gets the glory.

Q: How do you believe God changed you through this experience?

A: I went from a Christian ideologue to a person who has an understanding of life on the streets and an understanding of how Christ makes believers righteous on the basis of grace, by means of faith. Through this process I really saw my own growth and I hope that those who read this story will see that too, the way that God used James to change me. I can’t help but notice the difference. I have more compassion. I have a deeper love for the lost. I have a better grasp at how rotten I can be in my own sufficiency. There wasn’t just one stumbling soul in this book; my sins were pretty apparent, and God is still working on my selfishness and pride. I know that with God all things are possible.


Here are some choice quotes:
Some days I would walk out of class [Dallas Theological Seminary] and my head would be spinning because of how great and incredible our God is – in theory. But for any disciple, there comes a time when learning Christ must become living Christ. The greatness of my seminary experience was complete only when the miraculous intangibles of God’s character became real in me – when I strove to be Christ to the “sinners” in my world.

But where did I find the “sinners”? Everywhere. Even for the most isolationist among our Christian ranks, the “sinners” are closer than we think. They’re our next-door neighbors, the person one cubicle over at the office, and the barista at the local coffee shop. Then there are those really big-time dirty sinners; the drug users, hard partiers, sexual deviants and the like (some of whom may also be your next-door neighbors, coworkers, and coffee-shop employees)….
When Christ went to the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, the wrath of God was satisfied for all sin. (p. xii)

Here are Chris’s thoughts after he invited James to stay with him:
For a moment I wondered how much I didn’t have a clue about. I wondered what my family and close relatives would think if they knew. Then I decided not to care. This is living! This is the gospel, and as I wrapped my mind around that thought, I felt a surge of power run through my soul, as I understood that we were, in a small, small way, pushing back the darkness of Satan’s grip. (p. 74)

Every now and then I’m confronted by God. Every now and then I realize that life is not about me but is instead about the story God is writing through me. I turned around, half expecting to see Jesus transfigured. A surreal feeling tingled my skin. I can’t explain feeling close to God. You just know it when you are. It’s like touching time. It’s like smelling color. It’s like hearing infinity. (p. 86)

Thos thought hit me. I don’t serve James because of James; I serve James because of God. So James’s actions don’t matter. If James never gets on his feet and I do an exercise in futility, it doesn’t matter, because my God told me to always remember the poor. So here I am doing it. Here I am living this thing called faith… God’s sovereign power and my working out my salvation with fear and trembling work in tandem. I’m still trying to figure that out – that God already knows how this story will end, yet he allows me to make active choices to play a part in his plan, yielding my soul to his Spirit so that I may be conformed to the image of his Son. I don’t understand God. I’m glad that I don’t… (p. 87)

God has opened my eyes to truth I had never experienced before. That is what it is to give back to the One who redeemed my soul. What a shame that it has taken me this long to figure out what all those verses meant [Matthew 25:35-40 “For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat…”]. But to be honest, they had never been applied to my life. I usually skipped over them. (p. 102)

The only difference between James and me is that I’m learning not to try to make it on my own. I have learned to just fail and fall into the arms of Jesus. That’s how God’s grace is enough. He forgives me, and more than that, he is a better high. He is a better love. He is flat out better. I wish James could experience that.  (p. 217)

….if we are going to be Jesus to our culture, it’s going to cost us. We must die to ourselves and give our lives away in order to see that transformation in others. We must be our brothers’ keepers and take a risk that may not be sake or easy. (p. 223)

Taking care of the poor is not a Republican/Democratic thing. It’s something for those who have the Spirit of God. The poor will not be transformed with more money. That only gives them a fish. I challenge the church to arise from isolationist suburbia and start the life-on-life discipleship that is very messy and guaranteed to cost. God has called the church to be responsible for taking care of the poor, needy and destitute, regardless of whether or not they deserve it. Perhaps a soul will be saved when they see God’s hand working through those who care for them. At the very least, Jesus will be pleased with his obedient bride.

We have one core purpose on this earth; to make famous and great the name of our God. Part of that is sharing the hope we have with a lost world that is in desperate need of salvation. We do this through serving them without regard for reciprocity. That is our call from Christ. (p. 224)

The end of the book touched me to the core; I literally cried when I read the chapter entitled ‘Resurrection.’ The book had its ups and downs; I was so glad it ended on such a happy note!

I was really touched by this story. I was amazed at the lengths to which Chris and his Bible study members went to reach out to James. Honestly, Chris and his friends stuck his necks out a lot further than I would have (at least as it stands where I am at this moment in my life/faith walk).  I thank Chris for his persistent pursuit of being Christ to ‘the least of these.’

You can order this book here.

This book is published by Biblica Publishing and was provided by B&B Media Group for review purposes. 


Loren said...

Wow Andrea....thanks for sharing! I LOVE stories like this....When no matter how we try to make sense of something the answer ~ the only answer ~ is Christ and Christ Alone!


Andrea Schultz said...

Hi Loren -

Thanks for the kind words! You've caught the heart of the book - that Jesus is the only answer! I think you'd love to read this one!

Blessings -


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