Tag Archives: failure

One Year Later

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It’s exactly a year to the day since the Vine ended, one of the most ash-grey moments of my life.

I don’t know why, but up until this point, I have felt very little about all of it. I did not experience anything but bone-weary relief when the Vine closed. I did not mourn when we sold our house, moved from the city that we had tried to call our home. I did not cry when we said goodbye to our friends, smiles on our faces like paint on cracked plaster.

I don’t know exactly why that all changed this last weekend.

Perhaps it was simply this year mark.

Perhaps it was being on a retreat with my new faith community, seeing the faces around me, and thinking about the people who are no longer in my life.

Perhaps it was having the retreat led by the pastor of a new church, one I had helped out during their opening worship gathering, in the very same weeks that the Vine was drawing to a close.

Perhaps it was the Taize music, bringing back nights and morning in a tiny house in our early years: two couples praying, over-full on hope; all those dreams painful rubble just a few years later.

But, for the first time this weekend, I wept.

And I missed it.

I missed the best moments of the church I tried so desperately to plant, of the times when I saw people come alive, when I watched friendships blossom, when I experienced those giddy times when I knew we were undiluted outpourings of God’s goodness to our world. I miss those moments when I felt like I had discovered an expression of church that didn’t require all the backdoor institutional compromises, one that felt like the purest offering of love that I could lift up with my life.

I miss my house. This is perhaps the most visceral of my losses. It was a glorious home; one that offered us the very best of what gave us life and the very best of what we hoped our lives would be. I miss our hardwood floors and big windows. I miss our double sized living room, our working fireplace, our wall to wall bookshelves. I miss the meandering curve of our second floor hallway and my office with its slate green walls, contemplative windows, and solid wood-block of a desk. I miss our quiet bedroom, our hopeful sitting room, our lead glassed windows, our small hidden cabinets. I miss the promise of our empty third floor, decorated with the prayers and hopes of our friends and family, waiting for a future spring, full of guests, children, and joy.

There is much that I don’t miss: the suspicious water spots on the ceiling, the sloping pitch of the floor, the sinking feeling, as our dreams slipped through our hands, that we really couldn’t afford a place like this and still build a life together.

Still, I know we will never live in a house that beautiful again.

And –  I miss, I miss my city, which still feels like home.

I miss the unpretentious beauty of its old houses.

I miss the downtown in all its struggle and hope.

I miss our friends: the young hipsters, the idealistic boomers, the dirty-fingernailed street people, the beautiful children, and the good hearted business owners.

I miss the trees and the lakes.

I miss the farms.

I miss the feeling of roots, of love for place that grew from stilted practice to effortless habit within me.

While its landscape is scarred with trauma and hurt, while often the very crosswalks and stop signs taste of bad memories, of deep doubt, of creeping, bitter disappointment, while I don’t know that I could ever have been more than a dancing puppet of my best self there, I still miss it.

I miss it. I miss it. I miss it.

I feel like I’m at a pause right now, catching my breath on a journey to somewhere. And, I admit, this pause is indeed a pleasant, peaceful, healing one.

But there are days I look back at the road behind me,

See the shape of that stillborn future,

And weep.

“By the rivers of Babylon—

   there we sat down and there we wept

   when we remembered Zion.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

   let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

   if I do not remember you.”

Psalm 137

Traveling Through Fear

What’s it like three month after your first great dream officially ends and you’re wondering what comes next?

There’s a lot. Much of it very good, some of it very difficult. (And I want to share the difficult parts with you as well. Why? Click here.)

I’ll tell you about one challenge I’m struggling with right now.

Fear.

It’s probably the reason why my twitter feed has dried up, my newsletter keeps getting pushed to the back burner, and why I haven’t posted very much here recently.

It’s the fear that comes from the stress of the several major transitions and the million little ones that I’m in the midst of right now.

It’s the fear that comes from having sent out several inquiries out into the wind, ones that could make a big difference for my life, and not having any control over what happens next.

It’s the fear that comes from knowing the career that I had assiduously built for the last fifteen years (that’s half my life!) is gone and that a good part of my next one will likely involve stocking grocery shelves. (I find myself saying, “Grocery stores! I’m 31! I have a Masters Degree! I’ve planted a church! I don’t stock grocery shelves! Yes, I clearly have some major issues to work through with this.)

It’s the fear of that I will not discover what I want to do next, followed by the much more intense fear that I will discover what I want to do next, but no one will care when I try.

It’s not all the time. There are days when I’m hopeful and excited for the future. However, there are also other days when so much as opening my laptop seems too much to handle.

Here’s the hard truth:

There’s no magical spiritual jujitsu, where, through the perfect combination of positive thoughts (I can do it!), the right opportunities (and then, just as I realized I could do it, that amazing job opportunity came through!), and the right affirmations, (and then, that person who always thought I was a miserable failure called me up to say how they were wrong, I am amazing, and how I had a great future in store for me!), I can wrestle my fear to the ground and beat the living crap out of it.

Maybe there are people who have such incredibly relentless resilience that, after getting knocked to the ground, they can spring back up, cheerfully dust themselves off, and leap into the next thing.

However, for mere mortals, like me, there are no easy answers.

All I’ve learned so far is this: the only way to get to the other side of my fear is to go through it, and trust there’s something good on the other side.

And that process sucks.

That’s the best I think any of us can do: travel through our fear day by day, grabbing onto every inch of progress, and trusting (or at least acting as if we trust) that something better lies at the other end.

I know that it will get easier. Decisions will get made. Doors will open (or close.) Life will get easier.

Until then, keeping going is the best that I (or any of us) can do.

 

Wisdom Wednesdays

“Years ago, someone told me that humility is central to the spiritual life. That made sense to me: I was proud to think of myself as humble! But this person did not tell me that the path to humility, for some of us at least, goes through humiliation, where we are brought low, rendered powerless, stripped of pretenses and defenses, and left feeling fraudulent, empty, and useless- a humiliation that allows us to regrow our loves from the ground up, from the humus of common ground.” – Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

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 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.