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?
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
If we’re good (that is, completely empty vessels for the Spirit) situations go sideways all the time, out of our control. Then we’re in the holy place of responding with love instead of trying to control. That’s no different in a Bible Study with ex-porn stars than with suburban software engineers. The trick is to plan from the start on responding in love rather than expecting things to go a certain way. After all, the folks won’t remember how things went. They’ll remember how you responded. What matters most is, it sounds like you got that right as often as not.
The grace is in the cracks. Grace is in the failures, the detours, the near misses and total flops. That’s what the cross and the empty grave are all about: the times when you die, that’s when you’re raised. When you’re buried (like a seed) is when new fruit can grow. There’s a little bit of glory when the Thing You Planned goes exactly right– but then it’s mostly your glory. But when the dog shits on the birthday cake, that’s when the only glory left to shine is God’s– but you see, then you’re dealing with real, infinite glorious glory. Grace is like that. Resurrection just goes around looking for death and raising it up. So, yeah, the beauty is in the mess is in the beauty.
Nice work, Ben. Thanks for the stories.
I think you’re right. I think that these experiences are universal. Perhaps, it’s easier for some of us to recognize that in certain contexts than others. That was one of the gifts of my work with the Vine – I worked with people for whom life went sideways all the time and where their shit was always showing. It’s helped me learn what Paul meant when he said, “Instead, I will boast in my weakness; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Ben, I have been reading your blog from Part one. At first I was confused by how blunt you were and I wondered how the people you pastored would take it. As I read each part, I can see an unfolding that is insightful, honest and provocative. I want to thank you for the years you served your people and for sticking with them until God gave you a release. I trust God has a plan for them and for you two.. I am grateful that I got to meet some of the Vine folks it really helps me hear what you are trying to communicate. What I witnessed was the group of people who gathered for the last worship service from their own testimonies,that they had discovered their belonging to God and each other. That will be fruit that will last. I will stay tuned and continue to pray for you as you continue to process the grit and the grist, the blessings and the grace of your ministry.