Category Archives: Vine

One Year Later

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It’s exactly a year to the day since the Vine ended, one of the most ash-grey moments of my life.

I don’t know why, but up until this point, I have felt very little about all of it. I did not experience anything but bone-weary relief when the Vine closed. I did not mourn when we sold our house, moved from the city that we had tried to call our home. I did not cry when we said goodbye to our friends, smiles on our faces like paint on cracked plaster.

I don’t know exactly why that all changed this last weekend.

Perhaps it was simply this year mark.

Perhaps it was being on a retreat with my new faith community, seeing the faces around me, and thinking about the people who are no longer in my life.

Perhaps it was having the retreat led by the pastor of a new church, one I had helped out during their opening worship gathering, in the very same weeks that the Vine was drawing to a close.

Perhaps it was the Taize music, bringing back nights and morning in a tiny house in our early years: two couples praying, over-full on hope; all those dreams painful rubble just a few years later.

But, for the first time this weekend, I wept.

And I missed it.

I missed the best moments of the church I tried so desperately to plant, of the times when I saw people come alive, when I watched friendships blossom, when I experienced those giddy times when I knew we were undiluted outpourings of God’s goodness to our world. I miss those moments when I felt like I had discovered an expression of church that didn’t require all the backdoor institutional compromises, one that felt like the purest offering of love that I could lift up with my life.

I miss my house. This is perhaps the most visceral of my losses. It was a glorious home; one that offered us the very best of what gave us life and the very best of what we hoped our lives would be. I miss our hardwood floors and big windows. I miss our double sized living room, our working fireplace, our wall to wall bookshelves. I miss the meandering curve of our second floor hallway and my office with its slate green walls, contemplative windows, and solid wood-block of a desk. I miss our quiet bedroom, our hopeful sitting room, our lead glassed windows, our small hidden cabinets. I miss the promise of our empty third floor, decorated with the prayers and hopes of our friends and family, waiting for a future spring, full of guests, children, and joy.

There is much that I don’t miss: the suspicious water spots on the ceiling, the sloping pitch of the floor, the sinking feeling, as our dreams slipped through our hands, that we really couldn’t afford a place like this and still build a life together.

Still, I know we will never live in a house that beautiful again.

And –  I miss, I miss my city, which still feels like home.

I miss the unpretentious beauty of its old houses.

I miss the downtown in all its struggle and hope.

I miss our friends: the young hipsters, the idealistic boomers, the dirty-fingernailed street people, the beautiful children, and the good hearted business owners.

I miss the trees and the lakes.

I miss the farms.

I miss the feeling of roots, of love for place that grew from stilted practice to effortless habit within me.

While its landscape is scarred with trauma and hurt, while often the very crosswalks and stop signs taste of bad memories, of deep doubt, of creeping, bitter disappointment, while I don’t know that I could ever have been more than a dancing puppet of my best self there, I still miss it.

I miss it. I miss it. I miss it.

I feel like I’m at a pause right now, catching my breath on a journey to somewhere. And, I admit, this pause is indeed a pleasant, peaceful, healing one.

But there are days I look back at the road behind me,

See the shape of that stillborn future,

And weep.

“By the rivers of Babylon—

   there we sat down and there we wept

   when we remembered Zion.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

   let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

   if I do not remember you.”

Psalm 137

Part Ten! God Has No Target Demographic

When we came to Haverhill, I wanted to build a church that connected primarily with two groups of people: those on the margins and post-Christian 20-somethings.

Connecting with these groups of people has perpetually confounded my denomination. In the moment when we realized that inviting people into a better version of the 1920’s might no longer be effective, people started proposing solutions.. Generally speaking, these solutions were proposed by parents of those 20-somethings, those on the margins often not being particularly sought after, due to their messy lives or general lack of money.

The solutions were:

  1. A) Do more contemporary worship! Because young people would love it if we get a really bad band together and play all the songs in the style that we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  2. B) Get more videos! Because young people like all that media that looks like those MTV music videos that we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  3. C) Get someone who has a lot of energy and great hair to lead worship! Because all those young people need a pastor who looks like a member of those hair bands we loved when we were young adults in the 1980’s!
  4. D) Throw a pizza party and play silly games! Because all those young people secretly want a church that will still treat them like they’re eight years old (which they were when we were young adults in the 1980’s!)

Who was going to unlock the secret to a church that would attract both all those mysterious young people and also those people on the margins that everyone secretly knows Jesus would be hanging out with?

Us.

I already had my first book started and I wanted stories: not the typical “I went to another church, but I didn’t like the worship/pastor/sermons/theology so I found you all, and your worship/pastor/sermons/theology just feeds me (feeds me? Really? What are we? Cattle? You know what happens to them!) and it just makes me so happy!”

I wanted amazing stories.

Stories like: “Once upon a time, I didn’t even believe in God or organized religion. I thought that all Christians were just a bunch of mean, old, ignorant white people. But then – I MET all of you! And now – I believe in God! Jesus is my best friend! And I spend all my time volunteering, worshiping, studying scripture, and telling my friends about Jesus over lattes or craft beer!”

Stories like: “Once upon a time, I was living on the street. I slept in a paper bag every night! I was addicted to seventeen different drugs! I had three major mental illnesses! And then, I MET all of you! And now- through God’s power, my hard work, and your amazing awesomeness, my life is transformed! When I’m not living in my new apartment, working at my new job, or going to my new institution of higher learning, I’m volunteering, worshiping, studying scripture, and recording compelling fundraising videos about how awesome you all are!”

“God,” I prayed. “Just send me a few of those people!”

Then, something funny happened.

Or, at least, I’m sure that God found it pretty funny.

God sent us a few of those people.

Matter of fact, God sent us a lot of those people and they didn’t fit well in my pre-written stories.

After about six months, I began to learn two very important lessons about the new people I was growing community with:

The first was this: young adults and people on the margins are great. I learned to love many of them, to appreciate their gifts, and to celebrate their wisdom. Many of them are still my friends today. However, they are really hard to build a church with.

Take, for instance, those who struggle with addiction.

(A note to all who are in recovery or work with those who are: I know that addicts, like all people, come in many different shapes and sizes. Many of them are incredibly wise, mature people. You ever want to see what honesty and authenticity look like? Go to a good AA meeting and just listen. What I’m talking about here is the huge group of people who are known in twelve step recovery as the “two-steppers”: those who get into the program, will tell others all about how wonderful it is, but never do the hard work in between.)

If you want a good boost to your ministerial ego, talk to an addict four to six weeks after they’ve engaged with your ministry. They will tell you how you walk on water, levitate about six inches off the ground, and even shit diamonds. They will convince you that you are the best human being walking on God’s green earth.

However, wait about six months. Wait until that amazing new-church smell wears off. Wait for a life change. Wait until you (or someone else in the group) says something that pisses them off. Wait for the first dry spell. Most will leave, and they will convince you that their new behavior (which is often connected with the new substances they’re now using again) is either A) your fault, or B) definitely not their fault.

At first, I just loved it when a new addict would walk into one of our groups.

“Oh Great!” I said, “Another addict!”

They’d speak honestly, they’d invite all their friends, and they’d burn with appealing enthusiastic brightness.

Inevitability, however, they’d not do their work, and if I was lucky, they’d disappear. If I wasn’t lucky, they’d exit messily, leaving a bunch of wreckage behind them.

Some people are good at tolerating the ups and downs and being patient.

I was not one of them. I struggled to stick with all those people I had asked for.

In the end, it’s just hard to build a church when people haven’t learned discipline, conflict resolution, or basic life skills and aren’t always interested in learning about them either.

I developed a set of aggressively rose-colored glasses. I would look at another wonderfully undeveloped person, squinting at them from every possible angle, trying to convince myself that they had leadership potential in the near future. I could take the smallest positive sign (Look! That person brought potato chips to the Bible study without being asked!) and construe it as a prediction of their future greatness as a leader.

However, no matter how hard I squinted, changed my angle, or looked at them cross-eyed, all my frantically hopeful dreams eventually had to make contact with reality.

That’s when I learned my second lesson about those two populations groups that I had idealized.

People are people, not amazing stories just waiting to happen. They are on their own growth curves. When those growth curves are steep, because of addiction, mental illness, arrested development, utter inexperience, or anything else, you do violence to them when you push them up that curve before they’re ready. For one person, the decision to get up, tie their shoes, and step out of their apartment doors is a daily victory that we need to celebrate. For another, the decision not to give into addiction, or talk to someone who upset them, or to bring a casserole to dinner is so remarkable that it deserves a parade.

However, if a community is going to have any staying power, then it needs people from those other non-sexy population groups who will show up, follow up on commitments without being harassed, and will stick with it when it gets tough or boring.

I learned to thank God for every prosaic, boringly competent fifty-something baby boomer who joined our community because, in the end, it was those people who provided us with enough gravity to let everyone grow on their own terms. I also learned that they were just as interesting and just as important as those young adults and people on the margins who I had idolized so much beforehand.

I understand my denomination’s focus on underserved people. When we notice that a group of people are no longer at our table, it’s important that we ask why.

However, it’s also important to remember that God loves the life-long baby boomer church person just as much as God loves the young hipster or the person just off the street.

Creating a truly inclusive community means having a seat at the table for everyone, where people’s gifts are celebrated, where their experiences are valued, and where everyone is challenged to grow in a way that is meaningful for them.

So – bring on the young adult post-Christians and the people on the margins. But let’s bring on the ex-church people, the baby boomers, and the grey haired elders as well.

After all, God has no target demographic.

 

Part Nine! We Are Not A Nice Church

“I hope we never become a nice church.” One of our people told me during a class one Wednesday evening.

“Why do you say that?” I responded.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t like nice churches.”

“Oh really?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“Nice seems so superficial. Nice people ask ‘How are you doing?’, but don’t want to know the answer. Nice people will say, ‘I hope you feel better,’ but won’t offer to help. You can’t swear in nice churches. You can’t cry in nice churches. You can’t be screwed up in nice churches. I don’t want us to be a nice church.”

“Yeah”, I said, jokingly, “We should put that up on a billboard. The Vine: We Are Not a Nice Church!”

“Yeah!” he said, with unselfconscious enthusiasm, “We should!”

(We didn’t put up that billboard. Maybe we should have.)

It became one of our unoffical slogans for the next couple years.

The Vine: We Are Not A Nice Church.

We’ve made a cult out of nice in the church.

We’ve come to believe that following Jesus means being a nice person.

The problem is that Jesus was not a nice person.

Seriously. Read the Gospels. The guy could come across as a real asshole.

He turned over tables in the temple when he didn’t like what the merchants were selling.

He called the good church people of his days a bunch of whitewashed tombs.

He said that his generation was a group of spoiled children who just wanted a nice religious song and dance.

He realized that the world did not need another nice person.

Our world doesn’t need more nice churches.

Often, behind the often kitschy, sometimes cute, proper niceness of our communities lies nothing that is particularly interesting or life changing.

What the world does need is more loving churches.

Churches that will speak up against injustice, especially the injustice that they practice in their own lives, before they point fingers at anyone else.

Churches that will accept horribly messed up, broken people, just as they are, and then treat them like brothers and sisters.

Churches that will speak honestly about the doubt, disappointment, and messiness that is life.

Churches that will stop worrying more about their carpets than the people who walk on them.

Churches that will care more about feeding the hungry than what hymns they sing.

Churches that will be more concerned with loving people first than fixing their theology first.

Say, for instance, a formerly homeless man walks into a typical church one Sunday. He talks about how much he loves Jesus. He talks a lot about how much he loves Jesus. Not like a little ‘a lot’, but a lot ‘a lot’, flooding the whole group with Jesus-themed, conversational sewage that leaves everyone else gasping for space like a bunch of flopping fish.

What do nice churches do? They listen to him. Generally impatiently. They let him hijack conversations with his bazooka made of words, they let him destroy their well made small groups, kidnap prayer time (your joys and concerns will only be returned to you if you’re willing to listen to my story about this person I met on the street this last week and also applaud my newly composed rap about Jesus, which is so new I’m only now making it up on the spot!), and hijack sermons with long-form answers to unasked questions. Finally, under a veneer of tremendous niceness, they will no longer be available to give him a ride to church, will stop going to the Bible Study that he has happily commandeered, and steer as far away from his conversational miasma as possible during coffee hour.

This is what I did for the first four months after John joined our community.

I tried every polite, demi-passive aggressive trick for moderating him. I would ask him small yes or no questions. I would ask people to raise their hands if they wanted to chime in and would not call on John unless I was scraping the bottom of the conversational barrel. I would wait, like a tiger in the grass, to spring upon the first pause in his conversation, so I could cut him off and call on someone else. (Much to my frustration, it always seemed like he could talk for minutes without taking a single breath.)

I used all my small group leader magic on the other members of the group. I talked about how good it was that we accepted pople like John. I talked about how good we were at welcoming everyone, no matter how screwed up they were, (or how much they screwed up our discussion). But, sometime after our conversation about loving-not-nice, I realized that not only was letting John run his mouth bad for the group, it was bad for him as well.

We were treating him like a nuisance rather than as a brother.

One January night, one of our members finally cut him off during one of his long responses, saying, “John, it’s my turn to talk now.”

Much to my surprise, he stopped talking.

And thus began a long (and still incomplete) process of transformation.

The group served as John’s personal moderator. They would tell him to be quiet when he talked too long. They would ask him follow up questions when it seemed like he was onto something important. They would pray for him when he was struggling. They would wake him up when he fell asleep in his chair after dinner (at least sometimes, at other points, the group decided that a little twenty minute John vacation would be best for everyone).

He became more real. Little bits of real talk – real questions – real experiences occasionally unearthed themselves in the midst of his conversation. And, if he still was not a model of group process, if he would occasionally burst out in a stream of language that sounded parroted from a particularly obnoxious religious pamphlet, if he would regularly very inappropriately invite people to the Vine when it was clear they were not interested, he was growing in a way that was meaningful for him.

He didn’t stick around forever. But I rather think that someone telling him to be quiet was, if not the nicest, then perhaps the most loving thing anyone had done for him in a long time

What Do You Think?

Where do you need to work on being loving-not-nice?

Next Week: Part Ten! Stumbling Into Success

Part Eight: Quick Everyone! Act Normal! (2/2)

This is part two of my post. If you’re looking for part one, click here!

“What are you?” was the question I never entirely answered.

I wanted an answer, preferably one that came with colleagues and well-developed resources.

What people often perceived as us doing ministry “outside the box” was simply us jumping from box to box.

This wasn’t about wanting a bunch of ministerial shortcuts.

It was about loneliness.

When I was out on my own, with nothing but a few people, a little money, and a couple dreams standing between myself and ministerial oblivion, I felt like Atlas, holding up the world with nothing but the force of my will and the sweat of my body.

It’s even more lonely when planting in a denomination that often doesn’t believe in church planting. (I can’t count the number of colleagues who have said, “Plant a church? Why don’t we just spent that money on the churches we already have?)

It’s even more isolating when planting with a model that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been recognized by many experts as legitimate. (When we started, many church planting experts believed that unless you had a large core team, a space, a worship launch plan, and about 150,000 dollars, you were dead on arrival.)

It’s even more frustrating when you’re starting a ministry that not everyone believes is church. (There were a lot of people who, when they heard we didn’t have a building or weekly worship, would nod enthusiastically and say, “So you’re not a church! You’re a community ministry!)

It’s even more difficult when you can’t find anyone else who’s doing the same thing you are.

The “Are you crazy?” question was not just asked by the many well-intentioned people around us, it was asked by us as well.

And so, in the interest of trying to figure out what the hell we were doing, I went to a lot of exceptionally well-done conferences to listen to experts in my field.

The experts would came up on stage, stripped down to their ministerial underwear, do a nice song and dance, and then ask for our twenties.

In retrospect, the experience was more voyeuristic than I (or anyone else) would care to admit.

Many of us like looking at the undergarments of the various successful ministry-du-jour that we feel we should imitating. How do they run worship? How do they manage staff? What’s the exciting “I’m calling you out on the carpet” righteous anger story? What’s their own personal lifetime movie moment, complete with pain, angst, lost, and a beautifully staged ending? What are the sure-fire methods that will, without a doubt, allow us to replicate exactly what they’re doing?

The speakers were always more enthusiastic, more humorous, and more articulate than I was.

I listened to their systems for ministry that were clearly better thought out than mine.

I’d think, “We should do that.”

However, as I didn’t discover until much later, there was a very significant problem with accepting whatever latest ministerial strip-tease came my way.

Take Mike Breen (or, Hugh Halter or Alan Hirsch or Diana Butler Bass, or whoever else works for you).

(Incidentally, I currently think that the whole neo-monastic micro-missional community thing could be the Next Big Thing! I’m warning you Elaine Heath – you now have potential groupies!)

Mike Breen is a great guy. He knows how to plant churches without buildings. He believes in the centrality of following Jesus as a 24/7 way of life. He knows the importance of people simply sharing life together. He has discipleship processes that work for people without a college education. I’ve learned a lot from him.

However, imagine wearing Mike Breen’s underwear.

I’m sure he wears very great, very British, very godly underwear. But do you really want to wear anyone else’s ministerial underpants especially after they’ve worn them for a few decades?

The fit is never going to be right, and you’re going to start stinking in a way that isn’t entirely you.

Each time we picked up a new model, it gave us cover. “Look!” we could say, “Of course it’s legitimate! There are books about it. There are even famous people speaking about it!”  We could go to a conference, meet some of the people, and perhaps finally have some brothers and sisters who not only supported us, but got us – got what drove us, got the challenges we faced, got our desires for the future.

However, when you mix a perfect ministry system with messy people, you always end up with a less than perfect fit.

I’d look at our Friday morning Bible study and say: “Wait? What purpose does that solve? Could that ever really become a missional community? Does it become a huddle? Could we get rid of it? Could we change it?”

I’d look at our volunteer time at the local soup kitchen and say, “Wait? That doesn’t fit as any of these essential ministry priorities I’m supposed to have now. Could it be taking energy away from more important work?”

I’d look at our leaders, who I developed through a nice home-baked curriculum, and go, “Shit, now I have to redevelop you all, using this much better curriculum than that mess I came up with last year.”

I’d look at your community priorities and say, “You’ve been doing this, you like this, and now I have to convince you to do that. How the hell do I does that happen?”

I learned that if you don’t know, down to the tips of your toes, you’ll get in trouble.

I learned that unless your vision can stand comfortably alongside other forms of ministry developed by people who are at least as smart as you (and probably more successful and respected than you), then you’re just building your house on the sand. Every time the tide changes, the whole thing will come crashing down – again and again and again.

I wish that I had given up trying to find a good box to fit in.

I wish that I had stopped trying to find a group of people where I’d be normal and just grown comfortable being weird.

I wish that when people had asked, “What are you?” I had replied, “I don’t know. But whatever it is, I’m pretty sure God likes it.”

What Do You Think?

1) Who’s underpants have you been wearing recently? (Metaphorically speaking, of course, we are not that type of blog.)

2) What does it mean to create an identity that is simply yours?

Coming Next Week! Part Nine: We Are Not a Nice Church

Part Seven: Quick Everyone! Act Normal (1/2)

Nearly everyone asked us, “So what are you?” during the first few years of our ministry.

This one topped the list of several important questions which popped up like lice in the kindergarten classroom that was the first few years of our ministry.

“Are you a church?” was a popular one.

“Where is your building”, was another one, followed every time by “When do you plan to get one?”

“How do you get paid?” was another top hit, followed by head shakes of speechless admiration that we’d do all this work for nothing

“Do you have group sex?” was a question asked us by several less discreet Christians who believed that any group of non-biologically related people living together, praying together, and helping their neighbors together, must, in fact, be doing it so they can live in their own Jesus-themed pornography.

Over time, I came up with a set of stock answers.

No, we’re not a church, we just worship, study scripture, pick up trash, and love people like Jesus did.

No, we don’t have a building and we don’t plan to get one, hence the reason why I described us as church without walls.

No, we don’t get paid, except with the deep satisfaction that comes from following Jesus (and with lattes, lots of lattes. We literally spent over half of our first-year budget at one local coffee shop.)

Fuck no. Literally. No group sex.

However, it was that first question which managed to crawl into my brain and bother the hell out of me.

“What are you?”

The answer to that question changed, depending on the time of day, the people I was talking to, or what mood I was in.

Here were a few common ones I used:

A) We are a group of neo-monastic church planters, embodying an Acts 2 community while planting small, deeply relational groups throughout the city.

B) We are a church without walls, building spiritual community based on nothing but friendship.

C) We are a church using the multipling cell-group model (or the Missio model of discipleship or the 3dm missional community model – we tried a lot of strategies.)

D) I don’t know, but if you figure it out, will you please let me know?

All of these answers and their million other variations were all true at one point or another over the course of my ministry..

To a certain extent, this was just simple, healthy experimentation. When no one (or at least, not many people) have done what you’re doing, there is no playbook, no accumulated wisdom, and no long-hallowed (and long-fossilized) set of best practices. You find out what works and what doesn’t by throwing a lot of crap at the wall. Sometimes it sticks there. Sometimes it just ends up sticking on you.

I remember talking with the pastor of one of our partner churches during dinner at a conference. He was trying to describe us to another person at the table. He opened by saying, “Every time I talk to them, they’re doing something different. They change more in six months than my church does in six years.”

For him, that was a genuine compliment.

For me, it contained a note of uncomfortable truth.

What Do You Think?

1)When have you had to interact with people who didn’t understand the life choices that you made? How did you respond to their questions?

2) What are the challenges of living in a way that looks different than the rest of the culture?

Coming Friday! Part Eight: Quick Everyone! Act Normal! (2/2)

Why I Talk About My Failures

Since I started sharing the story of the Vine, I’ve been blessed by a lot of wonderful feedback and encouragement.Of you’ve been one of the person’s who has reached out to me via facebook, e-mail, or this site, thank you so much. You’re helping me make sense of this joruney.

There are several themes that have emerged pretty consistently since I started hearing from you all, and I’d like to talk about a few of them.

1) For all of you who are wondering, I’m doing okay, really. I think that we are so unused to any degree of personal vulnerability in our culture, (especially from church people and especially from pastors) that many people must assume that if I’m saying this much publicly, I must be a real hot mess privately.

I’m not. That’s not to say that I’m not grieving, that I don’t have good days and bad days, (like all people); I’m simply trying to tell my story as honestly as I can. Sometimes that honesty is just a little messy.

2) I’m not trying to burn any bridges. I don’t have any interest in making anyone look bad (except perhaps myself at times.) I use pseudonyms for all my characters, the stories I share are generally years old, and I test out my level of disclosure with a small circle of readers whose opinions I trust (sometimes those readers tell me to disclose more, sometimes they tell me to disclose less. I listen to them.)

3) I’m glad to see that this story is striking a chord for so many of you. I hope that when you read, you find moments when you laugh, moments that you nod because something similar has happened to you, moments that you feel a little challenged by something I shared.

As a writer, I send words out into a vacuum, hit send, and then see if they touch down anywhere. You let me know that my confessions have meaning that goes beyond myself, so please, continue to share with me.

Thank you all for being a part of this process.

(And my next story touches down on Tuesday.)

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!

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)

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)