This is part two of Sean’s story.

If you haven’t read the first part, click here first.

I wish it had lasted forever.

I wish that if you asked me “How’s Sean doing today?” that I could say, “He’s doing great. He’s back in school. He’s even dating someone.”

But when you’ve been as serially abused as Sean was and when the complications from that abuse result in a cascading set of mental and physical health problems, the story often doesn’t end the way that you wish it would.

Sean’s health declined badly over the next couple years.

I was walking by the coffee shop one morning, when his friend rushed outside.

“Something’s wrong with Sean! He can’t move and half of his face is drooping!”

We called the ambulance and I rode with him to the ER.

The doctor told him to go home and rest with a hot compress. I swear I could hear him quacking on the way out of the room.

Finally, we contacted his nurse practitioner, who prescribed him a set of medications before he went home.

It was Bell’s palsy.

Six months later, he suffered another stroke and was put into a nursing home to do rehab.

We cleaned his apartment top to bottom and threw him a welcome home party, stocking his refrigerator with two weeks worth of food, so he wouldn’t have to cook.

It cheered him up, at least for the day.

However, Sean never fully regained his ability to speak or to walk. He struggled badly with depression, triggered by his physical problems. His mood and health vacillated wildly, depending on whatever toxic set of poorly coordinated chemicals his often disengaged set of doctors and nurses had put him on next. He was in and out of the hospital a couple times, and by the time he was forty, he was walking with a walker or a cane, when he wasn’t hiding in his apartment.

We all worried about him.

One day, I got a call from a friend from the coffee shop where Sean had visited all those years.

She sounded panicked.

“Guys,” she said, “I heard that Sean is dead. Did you hear anything?”

I wasn’t particularly worried at first. This was not the first time that someone had called us, panicked because they heard someone was dead, only to call back a little later when they found the person remarkably alive and kicking, a little irritated at all the panic.

However, as we tracked down the rumors, as I visited his apartment and knocked on his door, as I talked to people at his apartment building. I started to get anxious.

Finally, we ended up in the apartment of one of Sean’s closest friends.

She had the number for Sean’s mother.

She called.

She began to cry.

And then we knew: Sean had died, of a heart attack, likely brought on by the combination of medications he was taking.

It was the first death in our community. Everyone came to our house that night. We ordered Chinese and other forms of culinary prozac. One lady, who, I think, was more there for the free food than for Sean, said, “Oh! Get sorbet! And coffee ice cream! I love coffee ice cream!” (I know that loving people means not punching them, but I still wish Jesus had made an exception for that one.)

We cried, we laughed, we shared stories, we were together, which is really all you can be when something like this happens.

When everyone had finally left, dishes and silverware scattered around the house like morbid mementos, I sat down, and I cried.

We waited to get the call to do Sean’s funeral. We were Sean’s pastors after all. Everyone knew that.

The call never came.

The funeral director had been instructed to give Sean a Catholic funeral, because he hadn’t been a part of a real church.

We found out the time of the funeral and we got there early.

The funeral director helped us carve out some time during the service for sharing about Sean’s life.

A lot of people said really positive, really hollow things about Sean’s life.

Then, Sean’s therapist got up.

I had never met his therapist before, but he had been part of Sean’s life for nearly a decade, meeting with him every week through both good and difficult times.

He spoke with passion about the truth of Sean’s life, about his real trials, about his real courage and determination.

As he finished, he said, “You saved Sean’s life everyday, his family, his friends, his social workers and – the glorious people of the Vine.”

This therapist, who had counseled Sean for a decade, who knew nothing about us except by the changes he saw in Sean, knew that we, the glorious people of the Vine, had saved his life.

There’s a lot that I mourn about my time at the Vine: relationships I screwed up, the wrong calls I made, the moments that my anxiety strangled my joy.

I’ve left a trail of mistakes behind me a mile long.

Sean is not one of them.

Sean was our brother and we saved his life. We saved it everyday.

That’s a moment I’m willing to hang my hat on.


Coming Saturday! Why I Talk About My Failures

Coming Tuesday! Part Seven: Quick Everyone! Act Normal!

The phone it rings,

Again I say,

Please hang up!

Please go away!

No, I’m afraid

I’m not at home

Just leave a message

At the tone!

Don’t call back

And simply trust

That I’ll respond

When I must.

There are others,

You should see

That need me more

Than you need more.

Not a war?

Not an attack?

Can’t it just wait

‘Til I get back?

My phone rings once,

Two, three, four, five

Are you scared

I’m not alive?

So just wait,

My dear goodwife,

Please hang up,

And get a life!

I asked people on facebook to finish the following statement:

“Church is as simple as….”

Here are the responses I received.

  • …Offering a meal, hospitality and good discussion.
  • …Modeling Jesus
  • …Building for Christian worship or whole body of Christians.
  • …Kindness. Service. Hospitality. Empathy for others.
  • …A dinner for strangers.
  • …Love
  • …..Loving God and your neighbor.
  • …Joy
  • …Loving your neighbor
  • …Following Jesus together
  • …Being together in the presence of God
  • …Conspicuous love
  • …A thing you do, not a place you go
  • …Dignity
  • …Being present
  • …Fellowship
  • …Believe
  • …A walk through the woods
  • …Love, but what a devil love can be!
  • ….Family
  • …Worshiping on a regular basis because of what he’s done for us
  • ….Being with Christ at the center
  • ….Fellowship
  • ….Agape
  • ….Breathing. Learning about, sharing and praising God and Jesus is life.
  • ….Ubuntu
  • ….Breaking bread together on our knees
  • …Jesus, the people and I, changing and growing and becoming
  • …Accepting God’s love
  • …The believers coming together and living like Christ

I was struck by the simplicity of everyone’s answers. Virtually none of them had anything to do with buildings, professional clergy, worship services, charters, committees, polity, theology, or any of the other  markers that we typically use to identify our faith communities.

It’s easy to make church too complicated.

I certainly did.

Even without a building or weekly worship, complexity is an easy trap to fall into. It may not have seemed this way publicly, but for me there was always a set of overlapping, sometimes contradictory set of missional models, grant-oriented benchmarks, theological convictions, and structural concerns that overlaid how I interacted with almost everyone. It was hard to keep track of all the important complexities that I added to my work.

If I was to do it over again, I would have closed most of my books, burnt my organizational flowcharts, and sprinted towards simplicity.

If church is complicated because…

You can’t find consensus on the right worship style or hymns,

You can’t figure out whether your vision fits into your denomination’s rules,

You can’t agree on a set of doctrinal or political statements that define who you are,

You can’t figure out how to successfully inhabit a committee structure,

You can’t decide on the best ways to keep your building open and your pastor paid,

That is the wrong type of complicated.

It’s the type of complicated that leaves everyone so busy, worried, and paralyzed that they forget to follow Jesus.

It’s the type of complicated that turns molehills into mountains. (Do you think anyone really cares whether you sing or don’t sing a praise song from 1996 or that you decided to rename all your committees?)

It’s the type of complicated that prevents the church from being the church.

As a couple people also pointed out to me, church is not always simple.

There’s a right type of complicated as well.

If church is complicated because…

You are struggling with how to forgive the person who wronged you,

You are still learning what it means to see those who are different than you as your brother and sister,

You are still discovering what it means to serve people before you expect them to serve you,

You are seeking to move from religious obligation to spiritual transformation,

That’s the right type of complicated.

It’s the type of complicated that makes you consider all your personal growing edges before you judge someone else’s.

It’s the type of complicated that draws you further into living a life that looks more like Jesus.

It’s the type of complicated that makes the church more the church.

It’s also the type of complicated that requires a lot of simplicity in order to embrace.

Here’s hoping that your faith community is simple (and complicated) in all right ways.

What Do You Think?

1) Complete this sentence! Church is as simple as….

2) Where should simplicity be embraced in faith communities? Where should complexity be embraced?

Sometimes it’s not about me.

A couple years ago, I went to a writing group at the library.

It was the end of a very long day.

I needed it, not in the way that you need those 50% off sales at Kohl’s for those clothes you wear once and then use for closet decoration.

I needed it.

I was exhausted.

I was sick at people looking at me as if I could give them something.

I was sick of people looking at me, period.

I needed just an hour where I could just be another writer working on another writing project.

I opened the door and winced. Sitting in one the library’s demi-indestructible chairs, with suspiciously perfect sight lines to the front door, was Marcia.

Marcia was one of those people who I try very hard to love, generally with little success.

Life had clearly beaten on Marcia a few too many times. She was so fat she just looked like a bunch of cylinders and spheres stacked on top of each other. She had a mouth with teeth that would make a dentist cry. She radiated stench like her own personal fog.

I had met her at a community event and made the mistake of giving her our number.

She had called, almost daily ever since, leaving long, rambling, only slightly coherent voicemails about her troubles.

She waved at me.

I said hi, trying to sound like I was pleased to see her.

I walked by by as quickly as I possibly could.

I was positive that there was no way, at the end of a day like this one, that Jesus would ever expect me to have a conversation with her.

She followed.

She talked at me about her problems.

I disengaged myself with as much trained politeness as I could muster and headed to the library’s front desk.

She followed me to the front desk and talked at me about her problems.

I gave her a good thirty seconds of listening and told her I had to go.

She followed me to the writing group and talked at me about her problems.

The other people in the group started to look up.

I was getting pissed: a little at Marcia, but mostly at God, for not getting rid of this woman who I clearly did not have the energy to deal with.

She continued talking.

Her significant other/boyfriend/fiance/enemy, depending on the day, was back in jail.

She was on the street and she couldn’t sleep, the cops kept finding her spots and waking her up at night.

She told me that her stomach hurt, because she hadn’t eaten for three days.

That’s when, in the middle of swimming through the aimless torrent of woe escaping from her mouth, I realized that God wanted her to eat more than God wanted me to have my hour of peace and quiet.

It’s a good thing I’m well trained.

I took her aside and asked her if I could get her a sandwich.

Yes, she said, a sandwich with ham, cheese, lettuce; and also oil, mayonnaise, and mustard.

This did not sound like a wise dietary choice to me, but it wasn’t my stomach, so I headed over to a nearby shop to get her a sandwich.

The guy at the counter looked at me oddly when I ordered. I explained, multiple times, that it wasn’t for me.

I gave Marcia her sandwich, which looked like a yellowish soup held between two piece of bread, asking her to please eat it outside.

I went back to my writing group, which was nearly over.

She returned a little later, told me that she found someone who would take her in for the night, and shared with me, a little reproachfully, that her stomach hurt.

I was not sympathetic.

This is generally the point in a story like this when I’m supposed to say that I suddenly felt a deep sense of peace and joy at being the hands and feet of Jesus to someone else, when I was glad that Marcia had walked into my life, disrupted my plans, and reminded me how important it is to serve others. This is the point where I should tell you that I smiled, was grateful for this opportunity, and went home refreshed.

That was not what happened.

I packed up my laptop and left, telling her that she could always call and leave me a message, which is pastor-speak for “I’m too nice to say it, but leave me the hell alone.”

I received no emotional satisfaction from the experience.

I was even more tired, more strung out, and more anxious leaving than I had been going in.

But in the end, it’s not all about me.

Sometimes hungry people have to get fed and I have to be the one to do it.

We get this idea sometimes that following Jesus is a road map to joy, happiness, and success.

In the long term, I think that’s probably true.

But often times, it means setting aside our own egos, our own needs, and doing something that just plain hurts, because it’s not about us.

It’s about serving the people that God loves.

I haven’t seen Marcia many times since then.

I can’t say I regret that.

But, wherever she is, I hope God’s finding people to buy her a sandwich, no matter how it inconvenient it might be.

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