“I need to tell you something,” I said, as I leaned over to my Bible study leader one cold evening in February.
“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.
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
Yes, I regularly cuss in social occasions with “regular” people because I am so tired of them apologizing for cussing in front of the pastor. I want people to be real with me. What a great story of blessing, Ben. Well done.
Cheri – Do you find that the members of your congregation are ok with you using profanity outside of a worship setting?
Wonderful post, Ben. (I was actually thinking on the way home from work; “oh, Ben’s going to swear today!”. This is part of what I loved so much about Arlene- the greatest conduit of God’s love that I’v ever known AND the most down to earth, funny,fun irreverent person too.
You know , there might be a book in all this…
I’m glad I could provide a little anticipation to your day – I’ve always found, as a leader, that when all else fails, you have to be yourself and trust that it’s enough. (I’m glad you found that with Arlene and not surprised either!)
Now I feel better. I don’t know if I’ll swear as openly, but reading that it shouldn’t be taboo and it actually opened conversation in your experience. Thank you for sharing.
Glad it helped you out. I used to think that a mark of discipleship was tightly controlling my language (and, in many contexts, it still is), but it was so liberating for me to realize that there are times that the use of profanity is positively godly.
That was a f***ing great blog.
“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.”
I like how real this sh** is getting!
Jen – I love that A) You appreciated my blog post. B) That you ***’d out all the profanity in your response! 😉
Have you been in said Bible studies with folks who were trying to be nice church people?
I try to be nice church people…lol! I’m sure most of us are minding our P’s and Q’s…but I wonder, what is the balance? Does it make us feel good that there is one day a week to escape the R-rated lives that some of us lead? I mean, even if we are not the R-rated type, we are exposed to lots of stuff that we can’t control through media, the street, people we live with, friends, etc.
A good example of what a Christ centered “study” group might look like are the Celebrate Recovery meetings ( http://www.celebraterecovery.com/site-map ) Where people can let it all hang out as they reveal and deal with the reality of their sin, all the while getting support from leadership. I’m not 100% sure how the meetings are run, but my husband has attended some in the past and could tell you more about it. One thing I do know, is that we are all recovering from something.
Nothing is new under the sun before God. Its easy to hide behind smiles and pleasantries…its safer. I think when there is a model of transparency, of course with accountability, then the real healing takes place. But again, in my experience with churches, I find that mediating a balance is is most difficult.
I think you hit on something really important Jen. Of all places, churches should be the first where it’s okay to come, be transparent, and just be yourself – which is often pretty messy, at least in my experience. I remember that someone once told me, “I hope we don’t become a nice church.” I still think there’s something to that.
Here’s hoping you find a place where you find the right balance as well.
I think we are all complex. The me I am at church IS the real me (and I love being with people who you can say to; “I will pray for you”! And the me who walks into work and let’s lose with a string of expletives IS the real me too! It’s a great destresser and its a kind of in-the-trenches humor!
I love that thought, by the way, that we are all recovering from something.