Monthly Archives: October 2014

Part Six: And the Glorious People of the Vine (2/2)

This is part two of Sean’s story.

If you haven’t read the first part, click here first.

I wish it had lasted forever.

I wish that if you asked me “How’s Sean doing today?” that I could say, “He’s doing great. He’s back in school. He’s even dating someone.”

But when you’ve been as serially abused as Sean was and when the complications from that abuse result in a cascading set of mental and physical health problems, the story often doesn’t end the way that you wish it would.

Sean’s health declined badly over the next couple years.

I was walking by the coffee shop one morning, when his friend rushed outside.

“Something’s wrong with Sean! He can’t move and half of his face is drooping!”

We called the ambulance and I rode with him to the ER.

The doctor told him to go home and rest with a hot compress. I swear I could hear him quacking on the way out of the room.

Finally, we contacted his nurse practitioner, who prescribed him a set of medications before he went home.

It was Bell’s palsy.

Six months later, he suffered another stroke and was put into a nursing home to do rehab.

We cleaned his apartment top to bottom and threw him a welcome home party, stocking his refrigerator with two weeks worth of food, so he wouldn’t have to cook.

It cheered him up, at least for the day.

However, Sean never fully regained his ability to speak or to walk. He struggled badly with depression, triggered by his physical problems. His mood and health vacillated wildly, depending on whatever toxic set of poorly coordinated chemicals his often disengaged set of doctors and nurses had put him on next. He was in and out of the hospital a couple times, and by the time he was forty, he was walking with a walker or a cane, when he wasn’t hiding in his apartment.

We all worried about him.

One day, I got a call from a friend from the coffee shop where Sean had visited all those years.

She sounded panicked.

“Guys,” she said, “I heard that Sean is dead. Did you hear anything?”

I wasn’t particularly worried at first. This was not the first time that someone had called us, panicked because they heard someone was dead, only to call back a little later when they found the person remarkably alive and kicking, a little irritated at all the panic.

However, as we tracked down the rumors, as I visited his apartment and knocked on his door, as I talked to people at his apartment building. I started to get anxious.

Finally, we ended up in the apartment of one of Sean’s closest friends.

She had the number for Sean’s mother.

She called.

She began to cry.

And then we knew: Sean had died, of a heart attack, likely brought on by the combination of medications he was taking.

It was the first death in our community. Everyone came to our house that night. We ordered Chinese and other forms of culinary prozac. One lady, who, I think, was more there for the free food than for Sean, said, “Oh! Get sorbet! And coffee ice cream! I love coffee ice cream!” (I know that loving people means not punching them, but I still wish Jesus had made an exception for that one.)

We cried, we laughed, we shared stories, we were together, which is really all you can be when something like this happens.

When everyone had finally left, dishes and silverware scattered around the house like morbid mementos, I sat down, and I cried.

We waited to get the call to do Sean’s funeral. We were Sean’s pastors after all. Everyone knew that.

The call never came.

The funeral director had been instructed to give Sean a Catholic funeral, because he hadn’t been a part of a real church.

We found out the time of the funeral and we got there early.

The funeral director helped us carve out some time during the service for sharing about Sean’s life.

A lot of people said really positive, really hollow things about Sean’s life.

Then, Sean’s therapist got up.

I had never met his therapist before, but he had been part of Sean’s life for nearly a decade, meeting with him every week through both good and difficult times.

He spoke with passion about the truth of Sean’s life, about his real trials, about his real courage and determination.

As he finished, he said, “You saved Sean’s life everyday, his family, his friends, his social workers and – the glorious people of the Vine.”

This therapist, who had counseled Sean for a decade, who knew nothing about us except by the changes he saw in Sean, knew that we, the glorious people of the Vine, had saved his life.

There’s a lot that I mourn about my time at the Vine: relationships I screwed up, the wrong calls I made, the moments that my anxiety strangled my joy.

I’ve left a trail of mistakes behind me a mile long.

Sean is not one of them.

Sean was our brother and we saved his life. We saved it everyday.

That’s a moment I’m willing to hang my hat on.

 

Coming Saturday! Why I Talk About My Failures

Coming Tuesday! Part Seven: Quick Everyone! Act Normal!

Wisdom Wednesdays

“Years ago, someone told me that humility is central to the spiritual life. That made sense to me: I was proud to think of myself as humble! But this person did not tell me that the path to humility, for some of us at least, goes through humiliation, where we are brought low, rendered powerless, stripped of pretenses and defenses, and left feeling fraudulent, empty, and useless- a humiliation that allows us to regrow our loves from the ground up, from the humus of common ground.” – Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Part Five: And the Glorious People of the Vine (1/2)

Sean

I remember when I first met Sean.

It was at our community game night, an event we hosted a couple times every month at a local coffee shop. Free snacks, no beer, and enough Apples to Apples to make you want to puke: a perfect fit for a downtown with the better part of eight bars in two blocks.

Sean was the sort of person nearly everyone overlooks: short, rotund, baby-faced, with a perpetual “please-don’t-hurt-me!” expression that begs to be pitied or ignored.

We learned quickly that Sean’s greatest daily accomplishment was managing to traverse the three blocks from his apartment to that same local coffee shop every morning, where he would order a latte while his face turned red, and then sit in the corner to drink it, before returning home to his cat.

Sean came to game night, tentatively playing Scrabble and sweating bullets for the better part of two hours.

It did not look like he was having a good time.

At the end of the night, he walked up to me and announced, “I think I’d like to come to your house for that life group you’ve been talking about!” He said it with the same air of frantic determination you might hear from someone announcing that they wanted to take a walking tour of Antarctica.

Sure enough, next week he came to our house, sitting in the corner, smiling a little bit, and sweating bullets.

It did not look like he was having a good time.

I gave him a ride home. (When you work with people who don’t have cars, you end up one quarter pastor, three quarters taxi cab driver.)

He said, “I’m glad I came. I’ll see you at game night next week.”

And so it continued from there. Life groups. Worship gatherings. Picking up trash on the streets. Once Sean learned that we were safe people, he simply couldn’t get enough of us.

We began to learn about his past. We learned that he’d had a difficult childhood. We learned that he suffered from depression and social anxiety. We learned that he had dreams to become a travel agent one day.

We also learned about his experiences with other churches.

From what I learned as I read between the lines, they had all treated him in one of two ways. Some churches had ignored him: letting him sit in the back, occasionally giving him a ride, and politely ignoring everything he said. (I expect that socially anxious five foot five men who turn red and stammer whenever they’re around people were not their target demographic.) The other set treated him with perfectly tuned condescending acceptance. They’d tell them how glad that they were that he came to their church, (in tones normally reserved for puppies or small children.) Sean was their mascot and they’d happily trot him out on occasion, no doubt very proud of what an accepting bunch of people they were.

Many churches have people like Sean.

If you are a part of one of them, listen to me.

People like Sean are not your fucking mascots.

They don’t need to be coddled.

They don’t need you to praise everything they do, like you might a three year old who just made a sculpture out of her own poop.

Their ideas and opinions don’t need to be ignored for their own safety.

They don’t need to be trotted out like a bunch of trained monkeys every time you need to prove how wonderfully inclusive your church is.

They need to be loved.

Just like you love everyone else.

Here’s the difference between the way we treated him and the way every other church treated him.

To many, he was their mascot.

To us, he was our brother.

We got to know him.

We laughed at his jokes (when they were funny and sometimes when they were not.)

We rolled our eyes every time he started talking about how much he hated Barack Obama. We even reminded him that everyone might not share his distaste for him.

We listened to his stories like they meant something.

We laughed (or winced) at his Jeff Dunham videos.

We let him tour us around Boston.

We brought him over to our house to watch sports and eat food.

We got pissed at him when he used his disease as a crutch to lean on, rather doing the hard work of healing.

We harassed the hell out of him when he became depressed and started isolating.

In other words, we loved him like he was an actual human being.

One year, we learned that his birthday was coming up.

He was not looking forward to it.

We said to him, “Sean, why are you not looking forward to your birthday?”

He shrugged, “I just don’t like birthdays.”

We asked more questions. We learned that he was worried that his birthday might trigger his depression. Birthdays often did for him.

We said, “Sean, come hang out with us. We’ll throw you a party!”

He had shrugged. “No one celebrates my birthday.”

We got about a dozen people together. We had silly hats. We had balloons. We bought him a cake. We had cards. We even had presents.

We brought him to our house, sang him “Happy Birthday!” and did all the other assorted silliness that comes with birthday parties.

After cake and presents, all of us shared, in turn, what we loved and appreciated about Sean.

I didn’t think it was a big deal.

A cake. A few people. A few presents. A little love.

But, when we finished sharing, Sean spoke. He had a huge grin on his face.

He said a lot of things, but there were only three I remembered.

“This is the best birthday party I’ve ever had.” (Forty years on this earth and this was the best anyone has ever done for you? I’m so sorry, Sean.)

“I, well, I love you guys.” (We love you too Sean.)

“The Vine has saved my life.” (And, I knew, he didn’t mean that metaphorically.)

It was another beautiful moment.

I wish it had lasted forever.

What Do You Think?

1) What does it mean to treat people like they’re people, and not just scapegoats, monsters, or mascots?

2) What are the challenges of accepting people like Sean into your community?

Coming Thursday! Part Six: And the Glorious People of the Vine (2/2)

Poetry Mondays – I Cannot Offer You My Wisdom

I cannot offer you my wisdom:

Bullets shooting

To turn ignorance into red dust.

 

I cannot offer you my success:

Bands marching

To the beat of my drummer.

 

I cannot offer you my wit:

Night club singer crooning

To make you laugh and blush.

 

I cannot offer you my strength:

Adonis in a mirror

To catch your hurried glance.

 

I can offer you my foolishness:

Drunkard stumbling

Too early in the day.

 

I can offer you my failure:

Left feet tripping

Too clumsy to stand.

 

I can offer you my stuttering:

Gears grinding

Too jagged to glide.

 

I can offer you my weakness:

Broken and straining

Too small to be Atlas.

 

Will you accept?

Poetry Mondays – The Ringing Phone

The phone it rings,

Again I say,

Please hang up!

Please go away!

 
 
No, I’m afraid

I’m not at home

Just leave a message

At the tone!

 
 
Don’t call back

And simply trust

That I’ll respond

When I must.

 
 
There are others,

You should see

That need me more

Than you need more.

 
 
Not a war?

Not an attack?

Can’t it just wait

‘Til I get back?

 
 
My phone rings once,

Two, three, four, five

Are you scared

I’m not alive?

 
 
So just wait,

My dear goodwife,

Please hang up,

And get a life!

Church Is As Simple As…

I asked people on facebook to finish the following statement:

“Church is as simple as….”

Here are the responses I received.

  • …Offering a meal, hospitality and good discussion.
  • …Modeling Jesus
  • …Building for Christian worship or whole body of Christians.
  • …Kindness. Service. Hospitality. Empathy for others.
  • …A dinner for strangers.
  • …Love
  • …..Loving God and your neighbor.
  • …Joy
  • …Loving your neighbor
  • …Following Jesus together
  • …Being together in the presence of God
  • …Conspicuous love
  • …A thing you do, not a place you go
  • …Dignity
  • …Being present
  • …Fellowship
  • …Believe
  • …A walk through the woods
  • …Love, but what a devil love can be!
  • ….Family
  • …Worshiping on a regular basis because of what he’s done for us
  • ….Being with Christ at the center
  • ….Fellowship
  • ….Agape
  • ….Breathing. Learning about, sharing and praising God and Jesus is life.
  • ….Ubuntu
  • ….Breaking bread together on our knees
  • …Jesus, the people and I, changing and growing and becoming
  • …Accepting God’s love
  • …The believers coming together and living like Christ

I was struck by the simplicity of everyone’s answers. Virtually none of them had anything to do with buildings, professional clergy, worship services, charters, committees, polity, theology, or any of the other  markers that we typically use to identify our faith communities.

It’s easy to make church too complicated.

I certainly did.

Even without a building or weekly worship, complexity is an easy trap to fall into. It may not have seemed this way publicly, but for me there was always a set of overlapping, sometimes contradictory set of missional models, grant-oriented benchmarks, theological convictions, and structural concerns that overlaid how I interacted with almost everyone. It was hard to keep track of all the important complexities that I added to my work.

If I was to do it over again, I would have closed most of my books, burnt my organizational flowcharts, and sprinted towards simplicity.

If church is complicated because…

You can’t find consensus on the right worship style or hymns,

You can’t figure out whether your vision fits into your denomination’s rules,

You can’t agree on a set of doctrinal or political statements that define who you are,

You can’t figure out how to successfully inhabit a committee structure,

You can’t decide on the best ways to keep your building open and your pastor paid,

That is the wrong type of complicated.

It’s the type of complicated that leaves everyone so busy, worried, and paralyzed that they forget to follow Jesus.

It’s the type of complicated that turns molehills into mountains. (Do you think anyone really cares whether you sing or don’t sing a praise song from 1996 or that you decided to rename all your committees?)

It’s the type of complicated that prevents the church from being the church.

As a couple people also pointed out to me, church is not always simple.

There’s a right type of complicated as well.

If church is complicated because…

You are struggling with how to forgive the person who wronged you,

You are still learning what it means to see those who are different than you as your brother and sister,

You are still discovering what it means to serve people before you expect them to serve you,

You are seeking to move from religious obligation to spiritual transformation,

That’s the right type of complicated.

It’s the type of complicated that makes you consider all your personal growing edges before you judge someone else’s.

It’s the type of complicated that draws you further into living a life that looks more like Jesus.

It’s the type of complicated that makes the church more the church.

It’s also the type of complicated that requires a lot of simplicity in order to embrace.

Here’s hoping that your faith community is simple (and complicated) in all right ways.

What Do You Think?

1) Complete this sentence! Church is as simple as….

2) Where should simplicity be embraced in faith communities? Where should complexity be embraced?

Part Four: A Beautiful Mess

Sometimes you get run over by something beautiful as well.

We once held an Easter sunrise service in GAR Park, near the center of the city.

The park was a leftover from Urban Renewal: an open field, a couple memorials, and a sad looking concrete hatchshell for all the public concerts that never ended up happening. It was home to the dregs of the city: the prostitutes, the addicts, the chronically homeless, and anyone else considered too disreputable for the better kept parts of town.

For all those reasons, we decided that it was the right place to celebrate Easter.

Before worship, we invited several people who were sitting around the park to come and worship with us, if they were interested and to eat our donuts afterward, if they were not.

There was one man who I invited very tentatively.

His name was Rob. He was in his sixties, with a large white beard that looked like it was eating part of his face, and a pair of crutches that he belligerently stumped around town on.

He was also known as one of the more violent people in the homeless population.

Someone had told me that he had been kicked out and banned from all the homeless shelters because he frequently got into fights.

I did not particularly want to invite him to our gathering. I did so anyway, not because of the love of Jesus beating in my heart, but because I felt like I had to.

Rob declined my invitation and walked by to sit underneath the overhang of the local citizen’s center, where people frequently found shelter from the elements and took advantage of the unprotected outdoor electrical socket to plug in their radios and listen to music.

As the service progressed, I noticed that Rob was circling us. He seemed to me like a great white bearded vulture, occasionally swooping in to see if our service was dead yet and if there was any food he could get from it once it was freshly deceased.

This did not bother me. It was not the first time that someone on the edge had hovered around the edges of our gathering.

We came to our closing community prayer.

I closed my eyes. Suddenly I heard a big voice booming, “Lord, we thank you for your resurrection!”

I opened my eyes. I had never heard that voice before.

There was Rob, eyes closed, praying with authority, passion, and confidence, as he thanked God for the gift of Jesus and prayed for the suffering world..

My wife opened her eyes too.

We looked at each other.

We gave a collective shrug and let him keep going.

He was praying better than we ever could have.

After worship, Rob cheerfully chattered to our group while he munched on a donut and drank a cup of coffee.

He noticed my guitar, which I had brought for the service.

“Hey! I used to play the guitar. Can I play it?”

My stomach clenched.

This was the guitar that I bought, when, at age nineteen, I had entered a guitar-makers shop with more disposable income than good sense.

It was a beautiful classical instrument in great condition, far more guitar than I was ever going to be able to play well, and one of the most expensive possessions I owned.

I gulped.

Jesus said if you had two coats give one.

He hadn’t said anything about guitars.

But there, standing around me were a bunch of wide eyed new Christians from that R-Rated Bible study, with whom I had inconveniently studied that very teaching not a few weeks before.

I wish I had picked a passage that was at least slightly more theoretical.

I winced and handed him my guitar.

He picked it up and began to play and sing.

It was beautiful.

A smile transfigured his face.

He probably played better than I did, even if all he seemed to know was one song, which he performed over and over for the next twenty minutes.

When I finally got my guitar back, (very quickly putting it in my case and returning it to my car: I didn’t want Jesus to get a second chance at that one,) I reflected that that was probably the best hour that Rob had spent with anyone in a very long time.

The fall after, we heard that Rob had planned to beat someone up, so that he could be thrown in prison and therefore have a place to spend the winter.

I didn’t see him that winter, so I assume that he succeeded.

That was the work: a lot of messy moments.

I was not comfortable with messes.

I wanted everything to be respectable, well ordered, and well planned.

I expect I’m not the only one who feels that way.

But sometimes, in our efforts to systematize and organize, we organize out the very things that God values the most.

I did not understand this when God threw me out of my well-ordered church bubble into the wilds of Haverhill.

But it was on the edges, in those wilderness spaces, where no respectable church person dared travel, that I encountered God in beautiful, wild ways that I had never seen before.

Sometimes beautiful moments are just that: moments. They’re there for a flash, they’re gone in a heartbeat, and before you know it, you’re not sure whether it was real or you just imagined it.

I like to think, for all those people we interacted with, sometimes for precious few hours or precious few months, that when the moment was gone, and their brokenness again took hold: whether that be in sex, drugs, drinking, co-dependence, or just general screwed-upedness, that they carried something different with them, even if it was just a memory of one brief better moment.

It was a mess.

But – it was a beautiful mess.

Even if it was only for a short season before it came and was gone, that didn’t make it any less beautiful.

What Do You Think?

1) Church is not the only place beautiful messes happen. Where have you experienced a beautiful mess? With family? At work? While serving others?

2) What gifts do messy situations offer us?

Coming Saturday! Church Is As Simple As…

Coming Tuesday! Part Five: And the Glorious People of the Vine (1/2)

Wisdom Wednesdays

“Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess–the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” – Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Part Three: Running With the Bulls

Our R-rated Bible Study was the best Bible study I’ve ever led.

It was great.

It was great in the same way that:

A) Digging for diamonds in a septic tank is great.

B Directing a three ring circus is great; if you’re the only worker, the rest of the cast is lions, and you manage to escape with only one limb slightly gnawed.

C) Running with the bulls down the streets of Pamplona is great.

I ran with the bulls for the better part of a year and a half.

Some nights, I strolled home, stunned by the goodness of God and the goodness of the people God had placed in my life.

Some nights, I staggered home, shoving my metaphorical intestines back in their proper place, while dusting off the hoof tracks.

Sometimes, I was too tired or was on auto-pilot, and the night ended up a frustrating failure.

Those were the nights when I forgot to give the group a smoke break, and just as our conversation was getting deep, everyone simply got up and left for the back staircase.

Those were the nights when someone started talking about their problems, and I was too polite to tell them to shut it and let someone else take up all the oxygen in the room for a change, and the group devolved into a competition as to whose life sucked the most.

Those were the nights that I fought with the devilish little telephonic banes of every good small group experience: cell phones. I alternated between pausing passive- aggressively mid-sentence when someone checked their phone and aggressively telling people to put their phones down. Finally, I set down a blanket turn-off-your-damn-cell-phones-at-the-beginning-of-Bible-Study-the-world-won’t-end-in-the-next-ninety-minutes-but-if-it-does-you-won’t-need-a-cell-phone-to-know-about-it policy.

Those were the nights when I literally said to the group “Stick with me! We only have a few minutes left!” (Naked pleas for attention, as it turns out, are not a particularly effective leadership strategy.)

Sometimes, I took a potential disaster and danced with it like a pro.

Those were the nights when I started leading a minute of silent centering at the start of group, which turned our chaotic beginnings into deep focus almost instantly.

Those were the nights when someone said, “Why does my life suck so much?” and I responded, “Let’s pray for you.”

There was the night we studied the Book of Jonah and everyone complained about how much they hated Haverhill. I was able to say “Aren’t you being just like Jonah: wishing for destruction of the city rather than its welfare?” and people actually listened and we started doing service projects together.

Sometimes, it didn’t matter either way.

When we started the group, one of our first members was Kate, who was an ex-addict, ex-internet porn-star. (After about a year, I finally realized what she was doing a few of the times she was texting during Bible study. I can guarantee you that they don’t tell you about how to deal with that in seminary). She was trying out Jesus with the same enthusiasm with which she had tried out everything else: full of boundary-less enthusiasm that did not involve even one drop of discretion.

I asked people to invite their friends to our group. Kate was excited. She told me that she was going to invite all her friends.

“Great.” I said.

I had heard this before.

Everyone, once they got excited about the Vine, said they were going to invite all their friends to it.

Despite their best intentions, I learned quickly that people:

A) Didn’t have as many friends as they thought.

B) If they did, that most of them weren’t particularly interested in Jesus.

C) If they were, that inviting them required a lot more courage than most would-be evangelists currently possessed.

For all the “all my friends” promises I had received before, I think a total of four people had shown up to something we did.

Next week rolled around, and I was hopeful by everyone inviting all their friends, we might grow the group from four to six.

Then, Kate’s friends showed up.

Twenty four of them.

You don’t host Bible study when twenty four people unexpectedly show up at your house. You just pray that they don’t tear the house apart.

I called my wife and our friends.

They graciously talked to guests, picked up dishes, and took care of the children.

Fifteen minutes before we were supposed to end, I sat down with all the adults,  shared about who we were, and opened the Bible.

It was then that I learned something very important.

None of them realized that they had been invited to a Bible study.

It was a very awkward fifteen minutes.

(I asked Kate later about this. She said, “Yeah! None of my friends would go to a Bible study! So, I just told them they were coming over to a friend’s house for a free dinner! Isn’t that great?”  She winked and laughed. “I fooled them!”)

Do you know how many of those newly invited, unintentionally bait-and-switch surprise guests made it back next week?

Not one.

One week and twenty four people worth of chaos later, and it was back to four of us sitting around my dining room table.

There are days it doesn’t matter how good you are at running with the bulls.

You’re just going to get run over anyway.

What Do You Think?

1) How do you deal with situations that simply go sideways?

2) What does it mean that messes are so often beautiful? (And beauty is so often messy?)

Coming Thursday! Part Four: A Beautiful Mess

Poetry Mondays – Faith is Not

Faith is not belief

That echoes hollow

Cold statements

in stone spaces.

Faith is not belief

That cocoons

A cloak

From pain and failure.

Faith is not belief

That swings

Like a sword

On other’s blindness.

Faith is a seed

That grows or dies

In dark, fertile places.

Faith is a vine,

Engulfing

Even unwanted spaces.

Faith is a tree:

Roots always deep, without thinking

Branches always wide, without stretching

Leaves always reaching, without trying.