Monthly Archives: October 2014

Part Two: R-Rated Bible Study

“I need to tell you something,” I said, as I leaned over to my Bible study leader one cold evening in February.

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to drop the f-bomb tonight.”

I was co-leading a Bible study in a ratty little apartment on Normand Street, one of the tiny spots of hell in our city. The group was, in the words of one of its members, the island of misfit toys: a collection bin for all the people who were a little too screwed up or crazy for “normal” church. We had addicts cycling through some stage of recovery (or non-recovery), the mentally ill, and demi-street people, everyone so rough around the edges they could be used for sandpaper.

I had noted something odd. These people, who would un-selfconsciously turn the air blue when when they didn’t know I was listening, behaved like a bunch of old ladies at a tea party when they were in Bible study. As if by magic, their profanity was transmuted into a series of religious aphorisms like “God’s got a plan” or “That’s why I love Jesus” that must have had been ripped from a particularly milquetoast tract.

It was very nice.

It was also complete bullshit.

I knew it was bullshit when one guy, who had come to our group once and used stunningly pious language, saw me a couple months later on the street. He clearly did not recognize me as The Pastor Who He Had Done Bible Study With, and so, in the course of a three minute conversation, managed to squeeze in the better part of four dozen expletives and a dozen sexual references before genially walking away, obviously having no clue that this was the same man who he had spoken to in old-lady Jesus language just a little while ago.

Incidentally, this is one of the things that I hate the most about being a pastor.

When people are around me, they think that it’s their responsibility to be nice. If anyone says, “shit”, “damn”, or even “crap” while in my presence, I get a stream of obnoxiously obsequious apologies, for having been so rude around them. None of this language bothers me at all. For many in my generation, these words are not laden with the emotional content that they were for previous generations of people.

Ironically, this same group of very nice people will have no problem gossiping, complaining, or denigrating people based on their gender, income, sexual orientation, or ethnicity to me.

That, incidentally, I find very offensive.

(It was the same phenomenon I experienced once when we were pastoring a traditional church and wanted to go to a slightly seedy club in the downtown on a Friday night.

“You can’t do that!” said one of our church ladies.

“I hear they do drugs down there! We don’t want people to hear that our pastor is going to places like that.”

This, of course, was taken directly from the example of Jesus, who, as anyone knows, always made sure to check with his old church ladies before hanging out with anyone who might be considered inappropriate.)

I realized that our Bible study was filled to the brim with people who were trying really hard to be nice church people.

It was horrific.

They were so concerned about being nice that they weren’t able to talk honestly about their lives. And so, that February evening, during a conversation about the Sermon on the Mount, which is such a brutally practical document that it can’t help but incite charged conversation, I dropped the f-bomb at my first opportunity.

There was a pause.

Nice church people don’t say words like fuck.

Nice pastors definitely don’t say words like fuck.

There was a slight shocked pause, as the group of disreputable, poor, demi-addicted, high school dropouts took in my breach of social etiquette.

And then, as if by magic, the conversation opened up.

It was beautiful.

The group came alive.

I discovered stories about people that I had never heard in the previous six months I had known them.

People argued.

They talked about where they disagreed with what Jesus was saying.

They asked good questions.

They shared deeply about their struggles.

They prayed together.

They took smoke breaks. (This was the inviolable rule of Bible study. I had to call a smoke break 45 minutes in, or else three quarters of the group would simply get up and leave in ones or twos, feeling at their pockets for a lighter.)

It was the best Bible study I’ve ever been in.

Once they knew that it was okay to bring their actual lives to the scriptures, they poured out wells of wisdom, honesty, and insight that put most of my seminary classmates to shame (including me.)

I knew that we were getting real with each other, when our group leader, during closing prayer, asked God to whack John’s ding-dong so he could overcome his lust.

I know we were in the right place when one of the residents of the apartment had a psychotic break and we had to grab the kids and hustle down the stairs while the police hustled up them.

I knew we were hanging out with the right people when someone’s highly dysfunctional boyfriend came one night. He responded to the question, “How do you know that Jesus is real and not just bull shit?” by saying, “Well, I’m here!”

I knew God’s Spirit was at work when one person spent her last twenty dollars to buy four Little Caesar’s pizzas for the group’s dinner. At the end of the night, the group passed a hat around to support her, (many people giving the last dollars out of their pockets), and she ended up with fifty.

We became known as the R-Rated Bible Study: the place where we ate good food, (mostly meat, soda, and chips), connected with one another, and studied scripture using language that would make good church people (and a lot of other people) very uncomfortable.

Some of the churchier people in our sphere visited the R-Rated Bible Study because, they said, “it sounds interesting!”, but really because we happened to be the most interesting ecclesial exhibit at the zoo.

It was just a moment. After a couple years, the group blew apart due to a combination of re-activated addictions and lack of people skills.

That was okay. It was a beautiful moment, nonetheless.

What do you think?

What gets in the way of people being real in your community?

Profanity? When might it be okay to swear in a religious context? (Or is it ever?)

Coming Tuesday: Part Three: Running With The Bulls

Part One: “Well, That Sucked”

Over the next month, I’ll be reflecting on my journey with the Vine. If you’re looking for more context, check out my post: Rules of the Road.

“Well, that sucked,” I said, as I sat on the brick steps of our house one early October morning a couple of years ago.

(I just asked my wife, “Which event do you think I’m talking about?

She said, after a long pause, “Well, it could be a lot of them.”)

There was the time I led our first Bible study, proudly demonstrating the connection between the Psalms and the work of a famous post-Holocaust artist, while the two young men in our living room drank coffee and looked at me in benevolent confusion.

Except, that time I sat on my front steps, smiling like an idiot, because I had thought the whole event had gone pretty well.

There was the time we hosted a worship gathering at our house. The people taking communion had all discovered long strands of gunk in the grape juice, someone had hidden in a bedroom upstairs because he didn’t want to participate in worship, and everyone drove off as quickly as possible afterward, leaving my wife’s broken spinning wheel and a chaos of dirty dishes behind them.

I did say “Well, that sucked,” that time, except it was on our back bench while drinking a very large glass of scotch, as the strains of “I Can See Clearly Now, The Rain Has Gone!” played with cheerful irony on my ipod’s speakers.

No, this was the time I was sitting down on the brick steps on a Saturday morning.

We were a year into our ministry. Everything was sunshine, pretty flowers, and amazing stories that made me feel proud to be such a damn good pastor and Christian.

We had the missional wet dream of a small group: two ex gang bangers, a guy recovering from mental illness, a recovering alcoholic, and a post-Christian millennial hipster twenty something, with an additional few church people in the mix. They had asked if we could study how they could better relate to their finances in light of their faith.

People asking if we could study how to use their money to the glory of God, (which, naturally, would include a tithe to our as-yet-unfunded-running-on-a-7000-dollar-a-year-primarily-for-coffee-budget)?

Of course, I said yes.

I created a four week curriculum with that group particularly in mind. It was participatory, concrete, used lots of media, and engaged every learning style.

I was very impressed with it.

Class was scheduled for 9:00 AM that Saturday morning.

I was prepared.

I had folders. I had a class outline so detailed that a brain-dead chimpanzee (and even most pastors) could teach it effectively. I brewed coffee. I even made muffins. Homemade muffins.

I sat on my brick front steps, 9:00 AM, basking in my excitement, ready to change some lives for Jesus.

9:05 rolled around.

I was not worried. I had a group for which on-time perpetually means 15-30 minutes late.

9:15.

Crickets.

I began looking up and down the street.

9:30.

Still no one.

I started pacing.

9:35.

I started looking down the street, trying to force every passing car into my driveway by sheer force of will.

9:40.

I started calling.

I left three voice-mails.

I finally got someone. “Hey, sorry, I’m too tired to go today, maybe I’ll come next week.”

You’re too tired to take my lovingly hand-baked class?

You’ll just come next week? The class is sequential. There’s homework. You can’t just come next week.

Asshole.

Another person: “Sorry, I was able to work today, needed the money, you know?”

I didn’t point out that, perhaps, in the long term, learning how to manage your money, (e.g. don’t spend it on an iphone when you’re in debt and you live in a shared apartment that smells like drugs and shit) might be a better long-term strategy.

I sat on the steps again.

The smell of muffins wafted tauntingly from inside.

“Well, that sucked,” I said, not for the last time.

Rules of the Road

Over the next month, I’ll be sharing the story of my journey with the Vine.

Here are a few rules of the road:

1) This is not the Vine’s autopsy.

I will, from time to time, draw out some lessons from what we learned about what it takes to plant a church (successfully or unsuccessfully). However, this is primarily about telling my story as honestly as I can. Not every good story will have a moral or ministry lesson at the end, (and I’m okay with that.)

2) This is my story.

This is not the Vine’s story. I am just one person: carrying my own wounds, stories, insight, blind spots, and bias to these past five years. There’s a lot of beauty in what we experienced these last five years. There’s also a lot of ugliness and mistakes. I’ll be as honest, open, and truthful as I can about all of it.

3) This is Ben – not Pastor Ben.

I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber, noted Christian author and user of profanity, speak at a church earlier this year. In regards to her language, she told the crowd, “This is who I am. I understand if you don’t like it. But, I’d appreciate it if you give me permission to be me and I’ll give you permission to be you.”

I made a conscious choice to be as true as possible to my own voice, even if that occasionally offends my audience’s sensibilities.. Some of you may be surprised to learn that that includes a lot of sarcasm, self-deprecation, and profanity. If you’re a little off-put by that, I understand. But, I hope that you can give me permission to be me, as I work through my story with you.

4) Please talk back to me.

Meaning-making is a community event, so, please, talk back to me. If you have comments, make them. If you have questions, ask them. If you have objections, state them. If there are things you want to hear more about, let me know. It will be incredibly helpful as I try to make sense of these last five years of ministry.

Poetry Mondays – Do You Burn?

Do you burn?

With passion? With anger?

With worry? With despair?

With joy? With expectation?

Do you burn?

Legs running from a future you cannot control?

Feet stepping to a hope that rises with each new sun?

Heart pounding from fear or anticipation?

Do you burn?

But with a fire, reflected from the sky

Refracted from a million voices

Speaking one Word?

Do you burn?

Or has your spark gone out

Blowing wind on a thousand tiny embers

Glowing briefly in the dark?

Do you burn?

Like a parent for a child?

Like a spouse for another?

Like lovers at the first kiss?

Do you burn?

Do you stare into the darkness like at midnight

Waiting for shadows to show another step?

Do you burn?

Hot with fresh fire;

Torch bright in blackness?

Do you burn?

Steady and simmering;

And light a room on a cold night?

Do you burn?

Tinder for God’s life,

Kindling for the Spirit to light?

Do you burn?

Or do you hold the match at arms length?

Afraid to catch fire?

Do you burn?

Not for success or security,

Not for newly minted superiority

Or the seductions of materiality?

Do you burn?

Not like a list,

Each mark of goodness safely checked,

Ensuring your self worth

Do you burn?

For justice? For righteousness?

For transformation and forgiveness?

For love and peace to explode, like fireworks, in the darkness?

Do you burn?

Overcoming, overwhelming,

Consuming, subsuming, remaking, renewing, reinfusing,

Until all is flame, swiftly diffusing.

Do you burn?

New Chapters

Most of the time, chapters of my life have ended so quietly that I didn’t notice until I was well into the next one.

However, as the time approaches for my church’s final worship gathering together tomorrow afternoon, I can almost hear the pages coming together with a bang.

Lots of people have asked me, “What are you going to next?”

I’ve joked and said, “That’s Monday’s problem.”

Well, Monday is just two days away.

In two days, I will be more or less jobless.

In two days, I will have to wrestle more concretely with my vocation than I have since I was sixteen.

In two days, I will have to figure out what to do with all that time that used to be taken up by perpetually being so damn busy.

In two days, a new chapter of my life will begin.

I’m both anxious and excited to see what will be written there.

Quote Thursdays

My wife and I pray from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals every morning. Yesterday’s reading was suspiciously relevant, considering the stage of life we’re currently in.

Andy Raine of the Northumbria Community has written, “Do not hurry as you walk with grief; it does not help the journey. Walk slowly, pausing often: do not hurry as you walk with grief. Be not disturbed by memories that come unbidden. Swiftly forgive; and let Christ speak for you unspoken words. Unfinished conversation will be resolved in him. Be not disturbed. Be gentle with the one who walks with grief. If it is you, be gentle with yourself. Swiftly forgive; walk slowly, pausing often. Take time, be gentle as you walk with grief.”

Sometimes It’s Not About Me

Sometimes it’s not about me.

A couple years ago, I went to a writing group at the library.

It was the end of a very long day.

I needed it, not in the way that you need those 50% off sales at Kohl’s for those clothes you wear once and then use for closet decoration.

I needed it.

I was exhausted.

I was sick at people looking at me as if I could give them something.

I was sick of people looking at me, period.

I needed just an hour where I could just be another writer working on another writing project.

I opened the door and winced. Sitting in one the library’s demi-indestructible chairs, with suspiciously perfect sight lines to the front door, was Marcia.

Marcia was one of those people who I try very hard to love, generally with little success.

Life had clearly beaten on Marcia a few too many times. She was so fat she just looked like a bunch of cylinders and spheres stacked on top of each other. She had a mouth with teeth that would make a dentist cry. She radiated stench like her own personal fog.

I had met her at a community event and made the mistake of giving her our number.

She had called, almost daily ever since, leaving long, rambling, only slightly coherent voicemails about her troubles.

She waved at me.

I said hi, trying to sound like I was pleased to see her.

I walked by by as quickly as I possibly could.

I was positive that there was no way, at the end of a day like this one, that Jesus would ever expect me to have a conversation with her.

She followed.

She talked at me about her problems.

I disengaged myself with as much trained politeness as I could muster and headed to the library’s front desk.

She followed me to the front desk and talked at me about her problems.

I gave her a good thirty seconds of listening and told her I had to go.

She followed me to the writing group and talked at me about her problems.

The other people in the group started to look up.

I was getting pissed: a little at Marcia, but mostly at God, for not getting rid of this woman who I clearly did not have the energy to deal with.

She continued talking.

Her significant other/boyfriend/fiance/enemy, depending on the day, was back in jail.

She was on the street and she couldn’t sleep, the cops kept finding her spots and waking her up at night.

She told me that her stomach hurt, because she hadn’t eaten for three days.

That’s when, in the middle of swimming through the aimless torrent of woe escaping from her mouth, I realized that God wanted her to eat more than God wanted me to have my hour of peace and quiet.

It’s a good thing I’m well trained.

I took her aside and asked her if I could get her a sandwich.

Yes, she said, a sandwich with ham, cheese, lettuce; and also oil, mayonnaise, and mustard.

This did not sound like a wise dietary choice to me, but it wasn’t my stomach, so I headed over to a nearby shop to get her a sandwich.

The guy at the counter looked at me oddly when I ordered. I explained, multiple times, that it wasn’t for me.

I gave Marcia her sandwich, which looked like a yellowish soup held between two piece of bread, asking her to please eat it outside.

I went back to my writing group, which was nearly over.

She returned a little later, told me that she found someone who would take her in for the night, and shared with me, a little reproachfully, that her stomach hurt.

I was not sympathetic.

This is generally the point in a story like this when I’m supposed to say that I suddenly felt a deep sense of peace and joy at being the hands and feet of Jesus to someone else, when I was glad that Marcia had walked into my life, disrupted my plans, and reminded me how important it is to serve others. This is the point where I should tell you that I smiled, was grateful for this opportunity, and went home refreshed.

That was not what happened.

I packed up my laptop and left, telling her that she could always call and leave me a message, which is pastor-speak for “I’m too nice to say it, but leave me the hell alone.”

I received no emotional satisfaction from the experience.

I was even more tired, more strung out, and more anxious leaving than I had been going in.

But in the end, it’s not all about me.

Sometimes hungry people have to get fed and I have to be the one to do it.

We get this idea sometimes that following Jesus is a road map to joy, happiness, and success.

In the long term, I think that’s probably true.

But often times, it means setting aside our own egos, our own needs, and doing something that just plain hurts, because it’s not about us.

It’s about serving the people that God loves.

I haven’t seen Marcia many times since then.

I can’t say I regret that.

But, wherever she is, I hope God’s finding people to buy her a sandwich, no matter how it inconvenient it might be.

Prayer Is Like Washing Dishes

I was talking about prayer with a few friends earlier this week.

“How do you pray?” someone asked the group.

I sat in the corner, sipping my drink strategically, trying not to say anything.

Naturally, someone said, “Ben, what do you think?”

“I’m not an expert.” I said.

“Well, you learned a lot about the Bible and Christianity. We want to hear what you think.”

I thought about telling them that I wouldn’t be their pastor in about ten days and I needed practice at sitting in the corner while  saying as little as possible.

Instead, I said, “I think prayer is like washing dishes.”

And, if it’s helpful for you, here’s my explanation, (with all the extra umm’s and superfluous words neatly excised.)

When people talk about prayer, it often sounds like something ripped from a movie on Lifetime: someone miraculously healed, someone’s longstanding addiction/anger/bad habit mysteriously taken away, someone saying, “Write a check to this stranger for $401.50 and lo and behold, that person had a child with a serious life illness and they needed exactly $401.50 to do their surgery! A miracle!”

Sometimes, prayer is Lifetime-movie amazing.

However, if you’re like me, prayer is often just like washing the dishes. I don’t get “anything” out of it, but I do it, because I don’t need a leaning tower of plates polluting my sink.

Prayer is about learning to communicate with God. As with all relationships, it takes practice, a lot of practice.  Sometimes that practice is satisfying, even fun, and sometimes it just feels like a waste of time.

I’ve had dry periods of my life, months, even years, where I “felt” absolutely nothing whenever I prayed.

I’ve had other periods of my life where I had incredibly moving experiences almost every time I talked to God.

Now, when I look back at the seasons of my life where God did the deepest work in me, almost all of them coincide with the dry periods, where praying was as inspiring as washing dishes.

When we pray, even if when we don’t feel like we’re “getting” anything out of it, it helps us know how to talk with God, even when we’re too busy, stressed, or overwhelmed to think straight.

The best spiritual writers all speak of prayer in exactly this way. Beware, they say, of seeking the moments of consolation, where you feel the presence of God vividly and powerfully. They are not what prayer is all about. Instead, seek the moments of dryness, when praying feels like nothing more than washing dishes. Rejoice, they say, for in those moments God is working so deeply in you that you can’t even sense it.

So – if praying feels to you like washing dishes, keep at it, God’s probably doing more in you that you would expect.

 

 

Quote Thursdays

God spoke to fourteenth-century mystic Catherine of Siena, saying, “I did not intend my creatures to make themselves servants and slaves to the world’s pleasures. They owe their first love to me. Everything else they should love and possess, as I told you, not as if they owned it, but as something lent them.” (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)