On the short list for Book of the Year: Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor by Margot Starbuck

girl in the o.gifI have been a fan of Margot Starbuck since her stunning memoir, Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for the Father Who Does Not Fail (IVP; $16.00) which I raved about in a June 2009 BookNotes review.  Her next book, Unsqueezed: Springing Free From Skinny Jeans, Nose Jobs, Highlights and Stilettos (IVP; $16.00) is the best book of its kind, and an important resource for anyone who works with younger adults, especially. Although these days, bombarded, as the truism goes, by oversexed media images, we all should pay attention to these sorts of conversations about body images.  I named it one of the Best Books of 2010, even though I dumbly called it Squeezed.  As you might guess from the tone of the subtitle of Unsqueezed, Ms Starbuck is a pretty clever writer.  Shane Claiborne calls her “sassy” which sort of fits. She isn’t unsqeezed m.s..gifexactly snarky, as that may imply a cynical or mean tone, and she certainly doesn’t write like that.  She’s playful, punchy, upbeat, and really fun to read.

And, she has a lot to say—in this case about caring for those who most need God’s love, those who are friendless, poor, outcast, alone.  We saw it coming in the poignant memoir, and in some of the serious social analysis about gender, justice, and ethnic stereotypes that found their good way into the Unsqueezed book.  But I still wasn’t quite prepared for how darn radical this Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor (IVP; $15.00) was going to be.  Holy smokes, Batman, this is sizzling.

And  yet, it isn’t.  Sizzling, I mean.  Margot is friendly, encouraging, honest.  She calls us tostarbuck.jpg care for the poor, for the unnoticed or needy, no matter if that is an tough urban kid who needs a tutor, or a nearby lonely neighbor who needs a shoulder to cry on.  Yes, she’s got an endorsement on the back from uber-radicals like the Shanester and her new monastic Durham pal, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, but she is, well, pretty normal.  She talks about her kids, car payments and school loans, ordinary work-a-day jobs and middle class churches and buying outfits to wear on special occasions.  I can’t imagine Shane Claiborn mentioning T.J. Maxx.  She cites her share of visionary social thinkers, and tells of her inner city work (as a college student) with the amazing Camden NJ ministry of Bruce Mains and Urban Promise.  Heck, she even briefly tells of going to a trip to South Africa (“while Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robbins Island”) but at the end of the day, she’s a middle class mom with a heart the size of, well, the size of some pretty big state.  Texas?  “Let’s not overstate that,” she might say.  The point of this book is to do, as Mother Teresa famously said, small things with great love.” Or, as Margot might say, even a little bit of love.  We aren’t the saviors, here, people–I can almost hear her saying–so lighten up a bit.  We can make a big difference wherever we find ourselves, but we just have to take baby steps.

Small Things with Great Love.jpgAnd she knows about that.  She tells good stories from her not-so-dramatic life, and mocks her own ordinariness.  It is disarming.  I can do this, you might think.  I should do this.  I was all enthusiastic, telling Beth about this, how funny it was, how interesting, how she has this gift of really stretching folks, inviting us to be more kind and caring, without laying a guilt trip on anyone, how she is, is…”Convicting you?”  Beth inserted.

Yup.  Yeah, there’s that.  This book spoke to me, seriously, and while I don’t know what baby steps this middle-aged guy might take, I have to think that it will speak to others, too.

And here is the thing: she has something here for everyone.

I’m not just saying that, either; she really does.  She has a short chapter each (all of which I read and do not recommend skipping) for the young, for the middle aged, for older readers.  She has a chapter specifically for women and one for men.  There is an excellent chapter for introverts and a good one for extroverts.  There is a chapter for those who live in rural areas and small towns, one about urban life, and a great one for those living in the ‘burbs.  There are stories about serving God in school, at work, as a caregiver and as a parent.  I’m not kidding, there are little charts at the end of each chapter if you are right brained and impatient and wanna skip around to the best stuff suited just for you.  Again, I don’t recommend this—I’d say it was a cute device, but a dumb idea, because, really, you aren’t going to want to miss any of this!  There are wise and goofy and serious lines on each page; there are fabulous stories and tender illustrations to which you will relate in each and every section.  This may be a “choose your own adventure” sort of format, but I’m begging you: buy it and read it straight through and don’t skip a page.  All of it is really, really good.

I like how it lightens my own spirit, even as I am burdened by the sad stuff she writes about—the way that some less than pleasant persons are ignored in church, the way office workers don’t even know the names of their cleaning staff, the way we don’t remember people in nursing homes or prisons, even if we say we are going to visit somebody we know.  How we are all too busy to give ourselves to things that we think are important. She is good to point out to us our lack of love for those around us, but, again, she does so in a way that is generous, realistic, and (I hate to use the over-used word) empowering.  Okay, there, I said it.  This book can empower you, set you free, push you forward, get  you going.  I think it really can.

Small Things With Great Love is hopeful and helpful and practical.  Here is what another great writer, Tracey Bianchi (pastor, activist, and author of the wonderful Green Mama) says, cleverly, but accurately, “I highly recommend this book to anyone who ever comes in contact with another human being.”

So there.

Here is an example of how she writes, and how she delightfully sets up a good bit of punchy Bible study:

My sons are losers.  They are.  Specifically they are losers of stuff.  They don’t lose Legos or remote-control vehicles or action figures; somehow those stay permanently affixed to the floors of our home.  Put a sweatshirt on one of my boys, however, and that garment is as good as gone.

I’ve tried all the things parents try.  I wrote names and phone numbers with fat black pens. I nagged my boys.  I reminded others to nag them. I threatened.  Because none of these proved effective, we eventually ended up layering long-sleeved T-shirts and any sweater we could find.  Now the sweaters are missing.

a particularly bad week, my youngest son lost three sweatshirts.  Three.  One had been a hand-me-down, one had been a gift and one my husband foolishly purchased at an actual store. Each time I fly, I scour the Sky Mall catalog for some sweatshirt-locator device. I want there to be a discrete safety pin with a locator chip, like they put in dogs, so that we can track down these sweatshirts.  Inevitably, the locator costs more than the sweatshirt.

Clearly, I’m pretty driven to hold onto stuff.  I’d rather keep my stuff than lose it.  I’d rather keep my life than lose it. Unless you’re an eight-year-old boy being okay with losing stuff can feel pretty counter-intuitive. Jesus, though, has been pretty clear–both in word and deed—that losing your life, for the sake of others, is the way to go.

Okay, that’s a good way in to the topic, and she then seriously explores “rational and irrational” fears.  She wonders if there are sometimes good reasons to hold on to things, to be protective, to use prudence and care.  She’s wise and right, but never allows “responsible” concerns to allow us to wiggle out of the big commands of Jesus.  I rarely am around people who respect legitimate concerns and fears but who also push, gently and joyfully, for us to more intentionally wear our hearts on our sleeves, to reach out to others, to be agents of God’s own love to the loveless. Are you?

And—and she is really good at this, in explaining it, pondering it, and telling stories about it—this way of life, this loving well, even in small ways, often ends up being a “win-win” scenario for everybody involved. Coming to know those who have few friends may be a drain and a bit of a hardship, but doing it with great love is meaningful and good for your own soul.  And you know what? Maybe those new folks you’ve enfolded into your lives are, in fact, not only “needy” but have gifts, stories, families, resources, which can enhance and bless your life.  Starbuck is relentless about not pushing us towards condescension, but inviting us to share in amiable actions of real grace. She is about mutuality, the sorts of expressions of love that are profoundly respectful.She knows that even “the poor” have gifts and assets to share. She draws a bit on the best book on this matter, in fact, the excellent Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission by Christopher Heuertz and Christian Pohl (IVP; $15.00.)  It isn’t as funny as hers but it is a very, very good book about these exact themes.

I could quote STwGL for pages and pages.  Here is part of one nice story that sort of illustrates Starbuck’s conviction that involving ourselves in the lives of those in need may take some sacrifice, but it isn’t always that bad and may yield blessings all around.

The section is the chapter for parents of young children and is entitled, with her typical sense of stating the obvious, “When You’re Decidedly Not Fluent in Arabic.”

A few year ago my friend Erin was working from home, caring for a baby. Many desperate mothers, in this same position, have felt as though the only influence they have on the world is the diligent prevention of diaper rash. When that falls through, which it inevitably does, it can feel as though a stay-at-home mom isn’t making even a fraction of the impact of Mother Teresa or Father Romero.  Been there, felt that.

One day Erin was reading the worship bulletin from her church detailing the needs of the local World Relief agency. Noticing that another young mother needed a ride to the doctor, Eric figured, “If I strap my offspring into car seats, I can drive a car from point A to point B and back to point A.  I can do that.”  A few days later, Erin took Amira, a recent refugee from Iraq, and her own toddler to the public health clinic.  If you’ve ever experienced one of these places, you know this is no two-hour affair.

Early in the morning, approaching a desk at the public health clinic Erin explained, “Amira doesn’t speak English.”

Looking over a stack of her paperwork, the desk attendant asked, “So, you’ll be translating for her?”

Without an Arabic word to her personal lexicon, Erin replied, “No.”

Unfazed by the receptionist’s look of disgust, Erin returned to wait with Amira…

The rest of the story continues and it ends up that Amira is quite a good Middle Eastern cook, her husband speaks English, and there are now a couple of families who are friends, whose kids play together at a nearby playground, with all enriched beautifully.

And then Starbuck observes this:

I doubt that Erin’s tiny charges have yet been inspired toward service.  What I do think, though, is that they have a mom who is more whole because she bravely living into the vision that Jesus has for his followers. If you think the best thing out there for parents is free childcare so you can sculpt a nice butt by taking five spin classes every week — well that is not the good life at all.  Rather it’s this thing about loving the ones who need to experience God’s loving touch through human hands.

Yes, she said sculpting your butt.  I love this book.  

Here is another example of her clever sentences:  in the beginning of the chapter for older readers called “Old (Goodbye La-Z-Boy, Hello World)” she writes, “If you’re old–and yes, I am too weak-spined to define old–then, uh, you’ve lived a little.  Fair?”   Ha.

Or, in a good chapter about extroverts (she is a serious introvert, by the way) she ends, after some fine illustrations of using the gift of schmooze to do Kingdom work in energizing relationships, by writing this: “I’m not even going to belabor this, because the bazillion ways that you can positively affect a world in need are so stinkin’ obvious.  I simply remind you to go do your friendly thing among the unlikely folks God loves.”  Nice.

But don’t let me lead you into thinking it is a radical Christian version of Chicken Soup for the Soul with a bunch of hip one-liners. It is inspiring, but it offers more than just inspiration.  It ends up with some very, very provocative notions about grace and goodness, offers genuine insight about the power of love and the truth of the gospel, incarnated.  Starbuck is a bit of a comedienne, but she also studied at Princeton Theological Seminary (now there’s a head-spinning vision.) She writes with some postmodern irony, perhaps, and she crafts interesting sentences, (“without an Arab word in her personal lexicon”), even zany ones, (she defines influences as “roping others into Kingdom shenanigans”) but importantly, she is inviting us to something very, very real.  She calls it “holy friendship with a stranger” and invites us to be carriers. Holy friendship with the poor?  Almost sounds like Dorothy Day. 

There are two very good discussion guides in the back of the book, one for those who are reading it solo, another for small groups or classes.  There are websites to visit and a few other books to consult.  She’s got enough good suggestions here to provide even the least intrepid follower of Jesus some next steps.  I’m tickled to have read this, challenged, (as Beth noted) convicted, even.  Let’s see where it goes.

I do know this much: it is my calling to recommend books to those who trust my voice, whosmall things small cover.jpg like our shop, who are part of our family of friends and fans. Most of you who are reading this seem to appreciate our blend of titles and authors, our world-and-life per
spective, if you will.  I think you should get this book.

If you are of the tribe that really values good (Reformed?) theology and rigorous Christian thinking, I beg of you to give this a chance.  It’ll do your heart good, and help you apply the truths we make much of in a real, broken world. It is intellectually stimulating, but it isn’t systematic theology or all that ponderous. Those drawn to that kind of reading may benefit from it a lot, learning to really love in the real world about which we formulate proper doctrines.  Dare I cite Matthew 23:23 and suggest that our Lord himself might want you to consider this?

If you are a justice-seeker, an emerging activist, one who cares about the worlds of racial injustice and fistula and Palestine and climate change and political pluralism and fair trade economics, come on down: this will remind you to actually show the love of Christ to real people, not just agreeing with progressive political causes or blogging about Important Ideas. We can hold all kinds of convictions about causes and issues and structural reforms, but how kind are we to the person next door or at work or at the bus stop?  There are ways to engage with people in need that are entry points for real involvement beyond signing on-line petitions for the cause of the week.

And the rest of us?  This is ideal for ordinary folks, wanting to put flesh on their gospel living, taking more steps, learning to love.  Who doesn’t need some help with that?

Small Things With Great Love is a great line, isn’t it?  Perhaps it isn’t all that discipleship is, but it is a good part of it.  

The subtitle of this book, too, is clear but precious, and the stories Starbuck tells show us how it’s done.  This great book is an adventure itself, a fun ride exploring “adventures in loving your neighbor.”  I think she is a reliable guide, and if even half of the many stories she tells are true, she has been looking at the right stuff, paying attention to God’s quiet revolution, noticing the needy and the neighbor and gathering examples of great good efforts in ways that most of us have not.

Tony Campolo writes of her,

If you want to experience the glory of love for yourself, then this is your lucky book. If you have been looking for a wise, understanding, thoughtful, encouraging, experienced and very funny people-lover to talk you through the process of getting into people-loving yourself, then Margot Starbuck is your lucky friend. Here is a real woman of God who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers or to be especially holy or to be unbelievably sacrificial, but how has a unique and very helpful angle on getting better at the stuff that matters most….Her insights make what is often ordinary living into something extraordinary, if the values of Jesus are implemented in the home and in the workplace.”

Here is a great youtube video that shows Margot talking about the book.  Many thanks to the good folks running the likewise imprint of InterVarsity Press for doing this kind of thing.   



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