Ecumenical book review: The Power of Ugly

“It is not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I want kindness more than I want animal sacrifices.’ I did not come to invite good people but to invite sinners.” – Matthew 9:12-13 (NCV)

Vineyard pastor Jamie Stilson is Ugly. He’s not much to look at, he has a checkered past, and his congregation meets in a converted office building.

He is also the founding pastor of one of the most energetic congregations in Cape Coral, Fla. In his debut book, The Power of Ugly: a celebration of earthy spirituality, Stilson takes you through the life experiences that led him to the realization that we all have a bit of Ugly; it’s the awareness of that Ugliness that brings us closer to Christ.

Stilson’s offbeat, sometimes bordering on crude, sense of humor will offend more conventional Christians. But he’s not writing for them. You can find more than a few criticisms of picture-perfect televangelists and ivory tower theologians. Without naming names, he writes:

These Christians worship a nice, safe, and pretty Jesus. There is no room for ugly, weak people who struggle, fail, sin, and pick their noses. Christian books and worship music are produced by spiritual superstars that are smart, successful, and magazine cover-ready. If they ever did have any sins and failures, they happened “years ago,” and off camera. These superstars appear to be worthy enough to tell the rest of us ugly people how to get our lives together. They tell us how to be spiritual and successful, spiritual and happy, spiritual and good-looking. They want to share their “secret” with us so that we can be thin and victorious like they are. The sad reality is that what they present as truths are often gold rings in the noses of people who remain ugly. If you scratch just a little deeper you will discover the real and nasty secret that all of these “Spiritual Giants” are flawed, struggling, sinful, weak, insecure, (normal) humans – just ugly people in need of God’s grace. (Chapter 1, “Ugly Beauty”, p. 10-11)

powerofuglyBut the purpose of this book is not to bash the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s weekday lineup. With self-deprecating candor and numerous anecdotes – some involving bodily functions – Stilson drives home the point that it is Ugly People whom Jesus associated with, preached to, and eventually died for. The story of The Power of Ugly is one of an Ugly person learning how to lead Ugly people to a life with Jesus.

Don’t be fooled, though; it’s not all story-telling. Stilson’s research was extensive. Quotes of and references to St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, Mother Teresa, John Calvin, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, D.L. Moody and other prominent Christian minds appear throughout. They fit seamlessly into the narrative, showing that Stilson has this writing thing down.

The message is genuine. I have visited Vineyard Community Church of Cape Coral (bias alert: I live in the city). Though Stilson did not preach at the service that I went to – and it was before I even knew the book existed – my sense of this place was that it was a haven for the downtrodden. Associate pastor Caleb Neff preached about how Jesus loved being around people, all kinds of people. I knew that this church was fulfilling an important role in the community.

The Power of Ugly is not for everyone. But if you want an easy read that will make you laugh and make you think about Christian faith – and you are not easily offended/grossed out – then you will not regret checking it out.

Note post: As I’m writing this, my two-year-old woke up from her nap having wet the bed. It’s time to do some Ugly Parenting.

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