Category Archives: Vine

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)

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

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.

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.