A Review of
Good Works: Hospitality and Faithful Discipleship
Keith Wasserman and Christine D. Pohl
Reviewed by Jeff Kennon
Here I am, working with a ministry on a university campus, agreeing to read and review a book that for the most part, tells the heartbeat of Good Works, a ministry designed for the marginalized in our society. Not exactly the type of folks I encounter daily. Therefore, it could have been easy for me to have read it from a distance, that is, underline some catchy quotes, write a helpful review, and then place it atop my stack of read books. But such was not the case.
I guess you could say that the reason I couldn’t just write a simple and perhaps a more objective review of Good Works: Hospitality and Faithful Discipleship is because of two things. First is my continued recollection of what Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited, “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?” (12)
Second has been my recent study of the Gospel of Mark. To aid me in this endeavor I picked up a copy of Timothy Gombis’s work on Mark in The Story of God Bible Commentary. Throughout, Gombis has caused me to think afresh about what it means “to take up the cross.” He writes, “Jesus calls the church to join him on the way to the cross and to cultivate community life orientated by the cross, which is embodied through service to the least and hospitality to the marginalized” (379).
So as I began to read Good Works, I found myself once again confronted and challenged with how I see those on the margins. But not just those on the periphery. The question became, How do I view anyone with whom I cross paths? The truth for many of us is that we can be dehumanizing to others without even knowing it. And to realize this reality is part of our discipleship. This means we have to ask some hard questions of ourselves of which personally, Good Works caused me to do.
In no way am I going to exhaust in this short review the questions Keith Wasserman and Christine D. Pohl bring to a reader’s mind, or at least to my mind. However, I do want to present just a few. First, and I feel this is a major component of Good Works: What kind of disciples are we making? According to Wasserman and Pohl, “The practices of discipleship available through the traditional structures of the church are not always expansive enough to challenge believers to mature in faith by asking them to interact with folks different from themselves” (29). I’m fearful that much discipleship today leans more toward discerning proper doctrine than seeking to emulate God’s Kingdom in which the least of the least are invited to the party.
Second, why do we sometimes worry about being efficient in ministry? We are a results-oriented society and if things aren’t happening at a pace we are pleased with, we have to analyze the situation for the sake of productivity. And sometimes this might be an okay thing to do. But ministry does not always work in a timely manner. “Much of ministry is accompaniment,” writes Wasserman, “walking with a person through difficult circumstances. And that is rarely efficient. It is slow and can be painful” (53). Jesus journeyed with the disciples for close to 3 years and at the end of it, they were still struggling to understand who he was. Making disciples is messy. Patience is needed. There is nothing fast or efficient about it.
Third, how are we seeking to understand those in need? I have found that I am much better at judging others than empathizing with them. Wasserman might classify himself the same way. But to gain perspective of the homeless with whom he ministers, he takes journeys to other cities in which he, for a period of time, lives as though he were himself homeless. “I believe that since God became flesh for our world in order to be a bridge for men and women to have a relationship with their Maker, we too must incarnate ourselves into the world of those whom we care about” (64). And as he does so, he says that his “reservoir of compassion is replenished” (63).
Fourth, and finally, does our serving others lead to our knowing, loving and becoming friends with them? Wasserman mentions that our serving others, that is, meeting a need in which there are defined roles of giver and receiver, can cause both giver and receiver to remain quite distant from each other. We may pray, as Wasserman points out, “Lord, I may be able to serve these people, and I want to love them, but please don’t ask me to become friends with them” (93). Yet it is when we start being “with” and moving into friendships with those unlike us that “we discover something of the kingdom of God we could not experience in a Bible study or church meeting” (94).
I don’t claim that all who read Good Works will have the same experience with it as I did. And by the way, it was not all euphoric-type reading for me. There are some parts of the book in which I felt I was just trudging through while looking ahead to the next section. Some of the details in leadership selection and programming related to Good Works as a ministry were not as beneficial to me. However, another reader might find them extremely helpful.
Regardless, though there might be a few pages of grinding it out, it’s worth the grind. No matter where you are on the journey of following Jesus, and no matter who lives in your neighborhood, Good Works will challenge you to think a bit outside the box. It will push you to think differently about being with those who need healing. And hopefully, it will be a catalyst to help us live in ways so that others can see “what the good news of Jesus looks like when it is embodied in real life—flawed, forgiving, encouraged, and deeply loving people” (157).