“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