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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