Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon


If your spiritual life has become bland, safe, and completely flat, it may be time to look to some unlikely mentors: a band of “holy fools” who are unabashedly ragged, adventurous, and sold out for Christ. Pastor Mathew Woodley offers a fresh view of “holy folly,” an ancient spiritual approach that combines humor, irony, spiritual discipline, surprise, radical compassion, and passionate faith—many qualities that our postmodern world hungers for. The holy fools—from the desert fathers to Christ himself—challenge ...

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If your spiritual life has become bland, safe, and completely flat, it may be time to look to some unlikely mentors: a band of “holy fools” who are unabashedly ragged, adventurous, and sold out for Christ. Pastor Mathew Woodley offers a fresh view of “holy folly,” an ancient spiritual approach that combines humor, irony, spiritual discipline, surprise, radical compassion, and passionate faith—many qualities that our postmodern world hungers for. The holy fools—from the desert fathers to Christ himself—challenge us with an unconventional and unsettling approach to our spiritual journey. Unlike many of us, the holy fools of old were gutsy enough to push against the grain of society and the church—even to the point of appearing extreme and foolish. But God also used them to ignite the church to follow Jesus and bring His love to the margins of society—and he can use you in the same way.

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Library Journal

Woodley, senior pastor of Three Village Church on Long Island, NY, has written a moving and humble book about the humility and lack of self-consciousness that he sees as key to the spiritual lives of St. Francis of Assisi, Hudson Taylor, and Jesus himself: he hopes to motivate others to join the "motley band" of living and dead "holy fools," to "love Jesus with reckless abandon." Woodley's message is, in fact, well grounded in tradition, but his recasting of Christian dedication as holy folly is appealingly new. Includes "Questions for Discussion" in each chapter; for most collections.

—Graham Christian
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781414316307
  • Publisher: SaltRiver
  • Publication date: 6/1/2008
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon


Copyright © 2008 Mathew Woodley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4143-1630-7

Chapter One

Discovering God's Ragged Children

There are two kinds of fools in this world: damned fools and what Saint Paul calls "fools for Christ's sake." FREDERICK BUECHNER

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO I served as the pastor of a thriving church in a small town in northeastern Minnesota. Everyone in the church and even the whole town liked me. I suppose it was a tiny town-about four hundred people and nine hundred dairy cows-but most of them (the people, that is) really liked me. They liked my sermons, my dedication, my niceness, my spiritual maturity, and my professional competence. So based on the assessment of that teeny church in that tiny town of four hundred people, I decided to like myself.

Everyone seemed to like the deal ... except for some of my closest friends. For some reason, they thought my spiritual life was veering off course. I couldn't understand why. After all, everything seemed headed in the right direction. But as I look back on my life, I realize that they were trying to get my attention. For instance, my wife tried to tell me that in my pursuit of success I had ditched her heart. I didn't listen because I thought she was the one in need of a majorspiritual awakening; I wasn't. Personally, I swallowed the press clippings about my life: "Matt is a great guy who meets our needs. Hurrah for Matt!"

Then somewhere on my path it hit me: My heart really is dead inside. Actually, it happened while I was leading a ten-day youth mission trip, crammed into large vans, sleeping in muggy church basements, and tearing off dilapidated roofs with a dozen unmotivated teenagers. This trip was one of my more "spiritual" and "sacrificial" ministry moments, but even so, deep down, I knew that my spiritual life needed a jolt, a revamping, a kick in the pants, and a major awakening. My faith had become mild, respectable, safe, reasonable, and utterly dull. I went through all the right motions and applied the right formulas, but my faith had grown complacent.

That night, alone and desperate, I hunched over the steering wheel in our church van and wept. But in that moment of desperation, God initiated a new phase in my spiritual journey. Over the next ten years God started to awaken my heart with the stunning, tangy, mysterious, delightful, surprising, and heart-ravishing good news of the Gospel. Obviously, the Holy Spirit orchestrated the entire process. Obviously, God brought me back to his Word again and again.

But along the path of this major reawakening, God also brought some powerful and wise spiritual mentors into my life. Just to warn you, this isn't exactly a touching Tuesdays with Morrie kind of tale. The mentors God placed in my life were, shall we say, unique. Okay, at times they were utterly bizarre. First of all, most of them have been dead for a long time. And they probably wouldn't qualify as cool and competent spiritual guides in most of our churches. As a matter of fact, most of them wouldn't qualify to write Christian books, lead church growth seminars, serve as pastors, or even pour the orange juice during our Sunday morning "bagel time." These mentors have far too many sharp, quirky, ragged edges. In the history of Christian spirituality, they're called the "Holy Fools," a strange breed of Christ followers marked by an unconventional, edgy, countercultural but entirely Christ-haunted, God-passionate, and Spirit-drunk approach to a journey with Christ. Through these unlikely guides, God gave me the jolt, the wake-up call, and the kick in the pants that I so desperately needed.

This is the story of my long, slow awakening and the strange band of ragged mentors-the holy fools-God used to lead me deeper into his grace.

Who Are the Holy Fools?

Like children playing peekaboo, the faces of God's holy fools began to jump out at me during this slow journey of reawakening to Christ. As I read the story of Christian spirituality across the ages, I noticed the startling presence of these unsettling saints who followed the path of holy folly. Let me share a few of the stories of holy fools that I encountered.

In the Old Testament I discovered a ragged gang called the prophets. "The prophets are crazy and the inspired men are fools!" according to the people in Hosea's time (see chapter 9:7). Hosea blamed the prophets' low approval rating on the hard-heartedness of the people, but one could also argue that the prophets brought it on themselves. Hosea married a prostitute (see Hosea 1:2). Jeremiah wore a back-bending oxen yoke (see Jeremiah 27:2). Isaiah "walked around naked and barefoot" for three years (Isaiah 20:2-3). Ezekiel "out-follyed" all the prophets by baking his bread over a pile of human excrement (see Ezekiel 4:12).

Perhaps the apostle Paul had the prophets in mind when he wrote his first letter to the church at Corinth. Writing to a Christian community riddled with elitism and arrogance, Paul claimed to be exhibit A of holy folly. In sharp contrast to the "super apostles"-those ultraslick, dashing, polished, and eloquent spiritual leaders who were wooing the church-Paul ironically proclaimed, "We are fools for Christ.... We have become the scum of the earth" (1 Corinthians 4:10, 13, NIV), or as The Message puts it, "potato peelings from the culture's kitchen."

Nearly four hundred years after Paul, just as Christians were achieving personal comfort and social respectability, a group of countercultural believers fled the comforts of noisy streets and cozy church buildings. They moved into the desert, building small huts, weaving baskets for the poor, memorizing Scripture, wearing ragged clothes, eating rough bread and oil, engaging in contemplative prayer and spiritual warfare, and practicing radical compassion with unlimited hospitality. And that was only the beginning of a legacy of other holy fools who followed in their footsteps.

A young man named Moling, a seventh-century Irish holy fool, had such Christlike love for lepers that he developed a ministry of caring for their physical needs, even to the point of wiping the snot from their running noses.

Christiana, a young woman living in medieval France, developed a deep aversion to unpleasant body odors. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to bring the love of Christ to peasants with poor hygiene. As she bound their wounds, she avoided vomiting by frequently bolting outside for fresh air. Christiana continued her ministry to hygienically challenged peasants throughout her life.

A young man named Francis came to Christ and promptly cast away all his possessions (and his father's too). He walked barefoot (and buck naked at least once), kissed lepers, and rebuilt a dilapidated church building on the outskirts of town. We call him a saint; his neighbors called him "Pazzo!"-madman.

In Russia during the sixteenth century, a yurodivi (the Russian word for "holy fool") named Basil scandalized and enraged respectable church people by tripping the most "righteous" church members as they entered the church, throwing stones at the homes of rich people who ignored the poor, and bathing the feet of prostitutes and demoniacs with his tears.

In the late 1800s, a forty-year-old single woman named Mary Slessor left her conventional church in Scotland and ventured into the heart of western Africa. After mastering the language and learning the culture, she spent the rest of her life in the jungle adopting unwanted babies, protecting battered women, and warding off enraged hippos and tribal chiefs.

About the same time, a young man named Hudson Taylor, a missionary in China, scandalized his respectable Christian friends by shaving his head-everything except the long, braided pigtail worn by the Chinese men of his day. He also wore the traditional Chinese pajama-like clothing and ate with chopsticks. We consider him a paragon of cross-cultural engagement; his own mission board deemed him an extremist.

I must confess, at least initially, these people irked me. Some of their antics qualified for a "spirituality of the weird." What's the point of weaving baskets in the desert, wiping snot from lepers' noses, or walking around buck naked? Is it really commendable to throw stones at houses? If body odors disgust you, perhaps it's time to take a "spiritual gifts inventory" and find a ministry that matches your unique temperament. How could these people serve as spiritual role models to me?

At least that was my initial response. At times these radical saints still bewilder me, but in the past ten years I've also developed a strange fascination with them. They didn't give neat formulas or pat answers for the journey in Christ. They didn't "settle" my spiritual life. Instead, like a strong wind rushing through dead leaves, they unsettled and scattered the dry fragments in my heart.

I noticed that every holy fool fit a certain profile-a profile that stood in marked contrast to the sad state of my spiritual life.

1. The holy fools had passion. Unlike me, the shocking believers in this stream of Christian spirituality were anything but mild; instead, they were excessive-excessively in love with God. All of them were willing to play the fool to follow Christ. All of them were willing to let the message of Christ "have the run of the house" in their lives (Colossians 3:16, The Message). I was busy serving Jesus, but I couldn't say I was living passionately for him. Somehow in the midst of doing stuff for Jesus, I had disconnected my heart from Jesus.

2. The holy fools exuded "messy" spirituality. Most of my previous mentors were models of spiritual neatness and order. For instance, when I was in junior high I remember spotting a huge billboard advertising the slick spirituality of a "decent" Christian family. The billboard contained a family of four-father, mother, boy, girl-who confidently displayed spiritual tidiness. Father and son were dressed neatly in a suit and tie, their hair slicked down with a shiny, greasy petroleum product (probably our favorite brand-Lucky Tiger). The mother and daughter wore conservative dresses, their hair tucked straight and crisp. All four of them folded their hands in prayer as they gazed off into the heavenly realms. The caption told us their secret: "The Family That Prays Together Stays Together."

The billboard's implications were clear. To be a Christian-or at least a churchgoer-implied respectability, cleanliness, conventionality. Christians are nice, decent, mild human beings who reinforce the status quo. I was trying hard to be that kind of Christian, but after twenty years, my spiritual life was unraveling. I was a tight, tidy, pompous Christian bore.

As I met the holy fools, I encountered another approach to the spiritual journey in Christ. They were anything but orderly, conventional, or even "appropriate." They didn't care about appearing "spiritually mature" or "religiously suave." They knew that spiritual growth is like giving birth: It's a painful, inconvenient, and messy process. This leads to some unpredictable conclusions: The sign of progress is not laughter but the gift of tears; the best ministry is to be silent with God; the best deeds are hidden from sight; the path to spiritual power is through our weakness; freedom comes from total surrender. The Lucky Tiger family had everything laid out so neat and clean. In sharp contrast, the holy fools were a long way from the family on the billboard; instead, they were counter-cultural, disorderly, shocking, and wild. They certainly weren't tidy, pompous Christian bores.

3. The holy fools liked messy people. They never flinched from engaging the culture around them. Instead, they strategically dwelled on the margins of society so they could embrace other marginal strugglers. I, on the other hand, had entrenched myself behind the cozy walls of my Christian ghetto, feverishly impressing clean, religious people. The holy fools engaged the dregs of their culture-prostitutes, demoniacs, the poor, the insane, the lepers, and the disabled. Their mission was to love misfits, people untouched by the respectable and righteous church people of their day. And they wanted to awaken the church to this mission as well.

4. The holy fools were always in trouble. With their excessive passion, their messy spirituality, and their sketchy friends, the holy fools weren't very popular. Good people mocked them. The good people's children threw stones at them. Public authorities locked them up. Church leaders branded them extremists. Average churchgoers wanted to wring their necks. In a church culture based on self-righteous separation and a cool and passionless spirituality, the holy fools just didn't fit.

The Ultimate Holy Fool

As I continued to engage this motley crew of holy fools, I began to notice a distinct resemblance to another very famous holy fool-Jesus. In my clean and tidy Christian world, we never classified Jesus as a fool. Instead, Jesus was the nice, well-mannered, conventional CEO of the slick Lucky Tiger people. But as I read the Gospels through the lens of holy folly, I discovered that Jesus was not a Lucky Tiger kind of guy. Yes, Jesus was and is the eternal Son of God, the perfect radiance of the Father's glory (see Hebrews 1:3). Yes, Jesus' teaching sparkled with wit, wisdom, and sanity. But the more I read the Gospels, the more I concluded that Jesus also fit the profile of a holy fool, and not just any holy fool, but the ultimate holy fool.

For starters, Jesus had a messy approach to the spiritual journey. Consider his birth. Theologians call it the Incarnation, which is a nice way to describe the wild story of God's shocking and messy descent into our bloody brokenness. The early Greek intellectuals were repulsed by this gross and indecent hallmark of Christian belief. I read an obscure Greek philosopher who ridiculed the Incarnation by asking sarcastically, "How can one admit the divine should become an embryo, that after his birth he is put in swaddling clothes, that he is soiled with blood and bile and worse things yet."

Soiled with blood and bile and worse things? What bad form. Surely a proper God, a really smart God, a slick and impressive God, could think of a better entrance into the world. How utterly messy, ragged, and foolish!

Then consider his messy approach to death. There's nothing quite as ragged or shocking as a crucifixion. Death by crucifixion was not only bloody and noisy and obscene (decent people didn't even mention the word), it also stigmatized the crucified as a troublesome rebel and a low-life loser. God redeeming the world by dying on a cross? The "logic" of a Savior dying on a cross, an instrument of execution reserved for common criminals, seems beyond inappropriate and illogical-even downright nonsense. Only a powerful, wonder-working, enemy-smashing God can really save people. But God on a cross, a Messiah who became vulnerable, a Savior of suffering love? How stupid can you get?

During my first pastorate I met a fiery fifteen-year-old foster boy named Jimmy who clearly understood the scandal of the Cross. Jimmy wasn't his birth name. Born on the streets of Chile, Jimmy lost his mother early in life, and his father, a drunken and enraged man, used to beat Jimmy and his sister. So when most children were adding two plus two and eating peanut butter sandwiches, Jimmy was learning to run and fight-fighting his father, fighting corrupt cops who despised runaway children, fighting other street kids for scraps of food in hotel Dumpsters.

One day a nice couple from Minnesota adopted Jimmy and his sister, but Jimmy couldn't stop fighting. He fought so hard that his new parents released him to the state and he was, at last, delivered to the home of Leon and Nancy, committed Christians, members of my first church, and foster parents to ten boys at a time. Jimmy helped make punch for our coffee fellowship hour, and he seemed interested in God ... until we discussed the Cross. As I explained the last days of Jesus' life and how he chose to die a painful death on a Roman cross for our sins, Jimmy's eyes widened with shock and horror. With a look of utter disgust, Jimmy asked, "Why would anyone do something that stupid? Jesus is a fool!" Then Jimmy proceeded to tell a more suitable ending to the story: Instead of dying, Jesus pulls out an AK-47 assault rifle and guns down his enemies. Rather than the "victory" of his crucifixion, Jesus, the big man with the fast gun, stands victorious over a pile of bloody, bullet-ridden corpses. "Yeah," Jimmy concluded, nodding his head in approval, "now that would make Jesus cool and not a fool."


Excerpted from HOLY FOOLS by MATHEW WOODLEY Copyright © 2008 by Mathew Woodley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Holy Fools: The Ants in Our Spiritual Pants....................vii
Chapter 1: Discovering God's Ragged Children....................1
AWAKENING TO A LIFE OF COMPASSION Chapter 2: Subverting Self-Righteousness....................19
Chapter 3: Demolishing Ghetto Walls....................39
AWAKENING TO A LIFE OF VULNERABILITY Chapter 4: Receiving the Gift of Tears....................61
Chapter 5: Engaging Our Brokenness....................79
AWAKENING TO A LIFE OF DISCIPLINE Chapter 6: Training as an Athlete of God....................101
Chapter 7: Praying like a Hermit....................119
Chapter 8: Practicing Secret Goodness....................139
AWAKENING TO A LIFE OF SPIRITUAL PASSION Chapter 9: Living in Joyful Surrender....................159
Chapter 10: Walking with Discernment....................179
Conclusion: Creating a Movement of Holy Folly....................195
Recommended Reading....................199

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2008

    Great Read

    Matt Woodley has written a thoroughly refreshing and enjoyable book. While this book is well researched and academically impressive, it is also fun to read because Woodley has written it with a very personal and humorous style. We are invited to see him (and ourselves, if we will admit it) in all our flawed and sometimes ridiculous glory. <BR/><BR/>We, as Christians, are invited to consider the possibility that we may be taking ourselves way too seriously. This book shows us that we can and should be ourselves, even if we are imperfect and messy. God can handle the challenge of using us in way that truly makes a difference in this world. And sometimes what we think of as foolish can turn out to be miraculous.

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