So I went back to Mount Moriah church randomly earlier this year because I was hoping to hang around afterwards- something I did not get to do last time. The service seems to run rather late and the second visit I couldn’t even stay to the end as I had work in the afternoon. So one my way out the door, one of the deacons or somebody came after me to ask if I was leaving. When I said I was, he gave me a book titled: Surprised by God in the Midst of Hell, A Pastor’s Story of Surviving Horrors in the Church World by Meredith Giles.
I’m not going to apologize for saying how bad this book is, since they chased after me to give it to me. Obviously they are looking to have people read it and that’s what I did. I will say it wasn’t as bad as the other bad book I reviewed on this blog. There wasn’t anything grossly offensive in it, it was simply a jarbled-up mess that made me sad.
The book seems to be both the story of the formation of Mount Moriah AND a sort of workbook to guide one through a crisis based on the author’s own crisis. The only problem is, it sounds like some of the worst parts of this crisis could have been avoided. While it’s clear the author experienced significant suffering and anguish, I think many of her decisions (like taking on half the church and the local denomination) made the problem worse. Quite frankly, it sounds like in some cases, she manufactured or subconsciously ramped up all the negative feelings she describes. Either that or she’s just a terrible writer who cannot describe the actual situation adequately.
Looking in the first chapter I find a story about the young couple, husband and wife, pastor and pastor, trying to find a placement in a church through the usual channels of their chosen denomination. They get an interview in New York State (Albany area obviously) and Meredith starts feeling apprehensive. She decides this church is wrong for them. Why? Beats me. Here are some passages that sort of almost explain it.
Where we came from, everyone was comfortable with each other, personable and friendly. Oh yes, people here were nice enough and seemed excited about us being there, yet it wasn’t the same…The congregation was thrilled that I happened to be an accomplished pianist and worship leader. This seemed to raise the enthusiasm of everyone to a higher pitch than I had seen in the stuffy board meeting. Of course, my husband preached a stirring message, explaining to them what he would expect if he came to be their pastor. I didn’t think they would think much of that. It seemed like a very conservative group and change may not have been the thing they were really looking for…Yet even as he spoke, people were responding as if receiving a drink of cold water after a long time in a dry, dusty desert. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Lord, You really wouldn’t make us come to this place!”
Well I’m completely failing to see the reason Meredith is freaked out at this point. And this type of thing continues throughout the book. The author spends more time describing her emotions than she does explaining what bad or good thing caused the emotion in the first place. She clearly felt strongly enough about this stuff to write a book on it, but I can’t feel any empathy for her situation because she never quite describes what is going on during all these feelings.
The book continues, describing the couple landing this New York job and setting up here. They realize after some time that the congregation is growing and a newer, bigger church facility is in order. The story meanders a lot with plenty of time spent on minute problems and visions and dreams, but the gist of it is, the church decides to purchase land and start work on a new building (again presumably the current Mount Moriah location). Trying to fund and manage the building project causes a rift between a person only referred to as ‘Deacon’ and the pastors. They wind up with a schism that turns into a nasty legal battle. But what I just said in two sentences, Meredith takes 233 pages to say. She spends a huge part of the book detailing her own emotional/spiritual turmoil but gives very little story. What she does give is blurred by lack of detail regarding the physical reality of the situation, and way too much focus on describing how the devil is behind it. This makes for a difficult read.
Another difficulty I had with the book was Meredith’s stereotyping of non-church stuff as negative. In chapter one she casually mentions that Christianity is in her blood. I’m not even sure what she’s getting at. Is her position as pastor more legitimate because her family includes pastors? Is she saying church is some kind of genetic predisposition? What would that even mean? Then there’s an incident she describes regarding a guy named Obie. She is in the throes of what sounds like a depression, in her room not moving. Obie stops by but she won’t come out and see him. He drops off a bouquet of flowers for her and leaves again. Meredith finds that this gift brings her out of her sadness makes her feel able to function. She explains that it’s not like Obie is really a church person and this is how she knows the gift is really from God. Somehow she manages to devalue this guy’s kind gesture, suggesting he could never have done it if the Spirit of God didn’t direct him. It’s almost as if she is writing this guy off as incapable of such a gesture on his own agency, simply because he does not regularly attend a church. That’s at best, rude.
I’d also like to mention that the notes at the end of chapters aren’t working for me at all. I don’t know who they are meant to work for. One chapter, for example, details a reporter appearing at Meredith’s office to try and get a juicy story. Meredith rebuffs her and warns the family to go to the neighbors so to avoid the reporter following them home. The end of the chapter offers the following questions ‘to ponder’ :
Do reporters have the right to barge into someone’s office with cameras rolling without permission?
What would your reaction have been?
What should the reaction be towards these women who were slandering?
Discuss the statement, “Be as wise as a serpent, yet as gentle as a dove- only be ninety percent serpent and ten percent dove when it comes to the tricks and attacks of our adversary and those he works through.”
These strike me as extremely leading, and pointless questions. The first two sound like the type of third grade reading comprehension questions designed to make sure little kids are getting something from the text. As a grown-up, I feel I’m past this. And that last question makes no sense to me. Is it advocating trickiness? Is it saying to defeat the devil, be like the devil? God’s ok with deceit now as long as you use it to flummox Satan?
This brings me to my next point actually. Much of what Meredith describes regarding “Deacon” uses imagery of the devil. She is convinced God is on her side and the devil is against her. Several times she describes messages coming from God. The problem with this is, the other side seems to believe the reverse is true. Her own words describe a meeting with their denominational leadership in which the higher up (presumably her supervisor) says he has a solution from God. His answer is to allow the two pastors and any of the congregation who wish to follow them, to leave. Presumably this means setting up their own church, possibly creating a new denomination. Meredith thinks this plan is terrible…except in the end, this very thing happens! They do break off from the denomination and they do set up their own church. They just do it with that nice new building. The crux of the matter is the land bought and the shiny new church to be built on it. What I really can’t understand is why Meredith and her husband drive themselves so hard to get this building from Deacon. If she really thought God was telling her to lead an offshoot group, why not just leave and start fresh? Trust in God and he will provide, right? She subjects herself to a giant headache of a legal battle and I cannot fathom her reasons. There is clearly pain on both sides from multiple parties. I’m sure I could write a book from the Deacon’s point of view along with his half of the church and it would say that God was with him and the devil against. All for a thing, a building. And it sounds like nobody won in the end.
Far from being inspirational, much of this story made me sad. From the protracted legal battle and petty jabs to the fact that Meredith’s obvious symptoms of situational depression, I just feel terrible for everyone in this story. Meredith never mentions once if she went to a therapist for all her anxieties even though it sounds like she really needed to. I worry about her and the church she is leading. She seems to think God speaks to her and that she and her husband have the market cornered on what God says. This has some very dangerous potential and has already been detrimental to her based in the pain she describes in this very book.