For All Who Hunger: Searching for Communion In A Shattered World… A Review

For All Who Hunger: Searching for Communion In A Shattered World… A Review January 10, 2020

I apologize first for a bit of throat-clearing before we get to a review of For All Who HungerFirst, I have to tell you this photo I’m featuring to the left is from Emily’s book launch page, and it’s fantastic, most of all because it captures one of the spiritual gifts of this book, it’s self-effacing humor and joy.

Second, I can’t not mention a few books-by-comparison, because this is a book by a pastor, about pastoring, and I am regularly updating a “best books about pastoring” list as a resource for recommendations for those considering ordained ministry.

Without burying the lead: Emily’s has now gone to the top, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the closest and best comparison is to Niebuhr’s classic Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Both share in common sympathetic, close to the parish meditations on pastoral life in urban America, although admittedly Niebuhr’s classic takes place a long time ago in Detroit, and Emily writes from quite contemporary Manhattan.

Finally, I don’t know what it is about New Yorkers, but some of my favorite books about pastoring are by ELCA pastors serving in New York City. Heidi Neumark’s Breathing Space. Lenny Duncan’s more recent Dear Church. Stephen Bouman’s Grace All Around Us. New York, New York isn’t everything they say. It’s apparently also fertile ground for Lutheran pastoral authorship.

Enough throat-clearing: to the book itself.

Reading Pastor Scott’s book renewed my own energy for pastoral ministry. The line that truly did it for me came late in the book, on page 194. She writes, “In my seventh year at St. Lydia’s, I start to get tired.”

She continues, “It’s a wearing, aching kind of tired that keeps me in bed longer that I should there in the mornings. At work I stare at my computer screen, wondering blankly what exactly it was I was just trying to do.”

As a pastor now in his ninth year of ministry here in Arkansas, I went through precisely that moment in my seventh year, and I think for similar reasons to Emily. Part of it was work discerning next steps in my call. But also underneath was the weariness that comes from pastoring during a Trump presidency. These last three years have added a layer of moral and spiritual exhaustion that is difficult to overstate.

By the time a reader gets to this line in Emily’s memoir, however, they have grown to trust her voice. This book is not a proud display of pastoral “success,” a church-growth how-to. Instead, it’s a story told with studied, lucid moderation.

Many things, like loneliness and dating, are hard but not impossible. Other things, like growing a church, are difficult but doable.

Which isn’t to say this memoir trucks in spiritual platitudes, like “with God everything is possible.” No, instead you get the sense at times that launching a new dinner church in Manhattan is more like “with God everything is impossible,” and precisely in that impossibility worth doing.

Scott includes multiple stories of experiments in congregational and public ministry. Often, as she is leading them they feel embarrassing, like abject failures. That Scott is willing to tell these specific stories in such detail, all the while narrating the internal landscape of her emotions and spiritual life as the pastor experimenting in such ways, ends up as nothing short of marvelous.

Because such stories are funny. I get the sense with Emily that it’s really not much about her, that although she is self-reflective (very few pastors aren’t, it’s part of the job), she herself is willing to be the one to be the brunt of the joke, to own up to her failings in community, to recognize the gifts in others.

This is one way she is an excellent pastor. She’ll say things like, “The part no one ever talks about is the humiliation. It’s humiliating to try to start a church in an aggressively secular city.” Then I’m over here in Arkansas raising my hands and crying out, “Yes! Also like attempting to pastor a progressive church in Arkansas!”

While reading the book, I find myself particularly drawn to the stories she tells over the last decade, of the new tragedies and events that have affected her community. With New York, those of us in the Midwest still think of 9/11, but a lot has happened since.

Stunning levels of gentrification. Ongoing interfaith work and community organizing. #BlackLivesMatter. Hurricane Sandy. #TrumpResistance.

Something I find remarkable about this book: it takes place in New York City, and yet somehow New York doesn’t function as an out-sized “character.” I mean yes, descriptions of how to organize church are quite different from church life here in the Midwest. We don’t have to think about subways and $4000 per month rent for store-fronts with flooded basements.

But her story made me feel very at home with her people. I think this is actually the way much of Manhattan may be, people living life together in local neighborhoods, always with the intersection of millions of others living just blocks away.

Scott is also incredibly transparent about the struggles of dating as a single female pastor. She offers it always as her story, never as a kind of “on message” or too on the point approach to faith and sexuality. In fact I found this to be one of the great strengths of the book. It’s simply woven into her life and ministry.

So a couple especially remarkable passages. An early passage about communion at St. Lydia’s has stuck with me, and will continue to stick with me, perhaps as long as I officiate at the Eucharist:

“Malika,” I say, pressing the piece [of bread] into her hands, “This is my body.”

I meet her eyes and then avert mine quickly. These are not easy words to say. They evoke a letting go of self, the smell of sex, an errant thought of cannibalism in the back of the mind. Malika takes the bread and eats it.

“Amen,” she says.

She takes the loaf from me and gives a piece to Will, standing next to her, owlish and academic in his horn-rimmed glasses.

“Will, this is my body.”

Also of note, Scott is particularly nimble at floating between her own personal story, and biblical stories. Of course, this is something pastors do. But unlike many books where the two seems forced or smashed together, Emily’s telling of the Scriptures comes so naturally, it’s as if the reader never leaves behind Emily’s story at all. Scripture and personal narrative weave together seamlessly.

Emily has offered up a pro-tip I will take with me as I pastor social events. She writes.

“At dinner, a congregant passes me a bowl of soup. I scan the three tables to make sure there’s someone at each with enough social skills to keep the conversation going. We’ve had trouble with this. The most confident Dinner Church participants tend to arrive later and end up seated at the table closest to the door. Soon they’ll be guffawing loudly at a joke somebody’s cracked while at the table where I’m seated, near the kitchen, we sputter and lurch through small talk” (9).

In such a passage you see all of Emily’s gifts on display. She seats herself at the sputtering table. She’s still pastoring. In a few brief sentences she gives you an entire scene to imagine.

Emily also offers an admirable redirection for all those who fantasize about new church mission plants. She writes, “I had thought St. Lydia’s, in its preformed state of pure imagination, had the liberty of being perfect, but I was wrong. It had the liberty of being a fantasy. Perfection, I would come to see, came with the particularity of the real–with the love that is practiced among those who are broken” (52).

Finally, there’s the moment Emily preachers her first sermon about race at St. Lydia’s. She’s a white pastor, so this is likely fraught with difficulties, fragilities. She captures perfectly what it is like to stand before a community and talk about something hard, something you perhaps even feel ill-equipped to speak on.

“After church, I go home and basically curl into a ball, feeling vulnerable and exposed. Words and I have never exactly gotten along” (148).

A remarkable admission for a pastor, right? And yet to this pastor reading the book, a liberating and freeing proclamation.

There is so much more to love about this book, but I’ll leave that to readers and simply encourage everyone to pre-order a copy now. I’ll be handing this book to folks in my own congregation considering the call to ministry. It’s not a how-to, and won’t tell you all the nuts and bolts about forms and finances strategies.

But it will show you what it feels like to show up and pastor in community, alive to possibility and the God of (im)possible things.

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