Part Seven: Quick Everyone! Act Normal (1/2)

Nearly everyone asked us, “So what are you?” during the first few years of our ministry.

This one topped the list of several important questions which popped up like lice in the kindergarten classroom that was the first few years of our ministry.

“Are you a church?” was a popular one.

“Where is your building”, was another one, followed every time by “When do you plan to get one?”

“How do you get paid?” was another top hit, followed by head shakes of speechless admiration that we’d do all this work for nothing

“Do you have group sex?” was a question asked us by several less discreet Christians who believed that any group of non-biologically related people living together, praying together, and helping their neighbors together, must, in fact, be doing it so they can live in their own Jesus-themed pornography.

Over time, I came up with a set of stock answers.

No, we’re not a church, we just worship, study scripture, pick up trash, and love people like Jesus did.

No, we don’t have a building and we don’t plan to get one, hence the reason why I described us as church without walls.

No, we don’t get paid, except with the deep satisfaction that comes from following Jesus (and with lattes, lots of lattes. We literally spent over half of our first-year budget at one local coffee shop.)

Fuck no. Literally. No group sex.

However, it was that first question which managed to crawl into my brain and bother the hell out of me.

“What are you?”

The answer to that question changed, depending on the time of day, the people I was talking to, or what mood I was in.

Here were a few common ones I used:

A) We are a group of neo-monastic church planters, embodying an Acts 2 community while planting small, deeply relational groups throughout the city.

B) We are a church without walls, building spiritual community based on nothing but friendship.

C) We are a church using the multipling cell-group model (or the Missio model of discipleship or the 3dm missional community model – we tried a lot of strategies.)

D) I don’t know, but if you figure it out, will you please let me know?

All of these answers and their million other variations were all true at one point or another over the course of my ministry..

To a certain extent, this was just simple, healthy experimentation. When no one (or at least, not many people) have done what you’re doing, there is no playbook, no accumulated wisdom, and no long-hallowed (and long-fossilized) set of best practices. You find out what works and what doesn’t by throwing a lot of crap at the wall. Sometimes it sticks there. Sometimes it just ends up sticking on you.

I remember talking with the pastor of one of our partner churches during dinner at a conference. He was trying to describe us to another person at the table. He opened by saying, “Every time I talk to them, they’re doing something different. They change more in six months than my church does in six years.”

For him, that was a genuine compliment.

For me, it contained a note of uncomfortable truth.

What Do You Think?

1)When have you had to interact with people who didn’t understand the life choices that you made? How did you respond to their questions?

2) What are the challenges of living in a way that looks different than the rest of the culture?

Coming Friday! Part Eight: Quick Everyone! Act Normal! (2/2)

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Why I Talk About My Failures

Since I started sharing the story of the Vine, I’ve been blessed by a lot of wonderful feedback and encouragement.Of you’ve been one of the person’s who has reached out to me via facebook, e-mail, or this site, thank you so much. You’re helping me make sense of this joruney.

There are several themes that have emerged pretty consistently since I started hearing from you all, and I’d like to talk about a few of them.

1) For all of you who are wondering, I’m doing okay, really. I think that we are so unused to any degree of personal vulnerability in our culture, (especially from church people and especially from pastors) that many people must assume that if I’m saying this much publicly, I must be a real hot mess privately.

I’m not. That’s not to say that I’m not grieving, that I don’t have good days and bad days, (like all people); I’m simply trying to tell my story as honestly as I can. Sometimes that honesty is just a little messy.

2) I’m not trying to burn any bridges. I don’t have any interest in making anyone look bad (except perhaps myself at times.) I use pseudonyms for all my characters, the stories I share are generally years old, and I test out my level of disclosure with a small circle of readers whose opinions I trust (sometimes those readers tell me to disclose more, sometimes they tell me to disclose less. I listen to them.)

3) I’m glad to see that this story is striking a chord for so many of you. I hope that when you read, you find moments when you laugh, moments that you nod because something similar has happened to you, moments that you feel a little challenged by something I shared.

As a writer, I send words out into a vacuum, hit send, and then see if they touch down anywhere. You let me know that my confessions have meaning that goes beyond myself, so please, continue to share with me.

Thank you all for being a part of this process.

(And my next story touches down on Tuesday.)

Part Six: And the Glorious People of the Vine (2/2)

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!

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 Five: And the Glorious People of the Vine (1/2)

Sean

I remember when I first met Sean.

It was at our community game night, an event we hosted a couple times every month at a local coffee shop. Free snacks, no beer, and enough Apples to Apples to make you want to puke: a perfect fit for a downtown with the better part of eight bars in two blocks.

Sean was the sort of person nearly everyone overlooks: short, rotund, baby-faced, with a perpetual “please-don’t-hurt-me!” expression that begs to be pitied or ignored.

We learned quickly that Sean’s greatest daily accomplishment was managing to traverse the three blocks from his apartment to that same local coffee shop every morning, where he would order a latte while his face turned red, and then sit in the corner to drink it, before returning home to his cat.

Sean came to game night, tentatively playing Scrabble and sweating bullets for the better part of two hours.

It did not look like he was having a good time.

At the end of the night, he walked up to me and announced, “I think I’d like to come to your house for that life group you’ve been talking about!” He said it with the same air of frantic determination you might hear from someone announcing that they wanted to take a walking tour of Antarctica.

Sure enough, next week he came to our house, sitting in the corner, smiling a little bit, and sweating bullets.

It did not look like he was having a good time.

I gave him a ride home. (When you work with people who don’t have cars, you end up one quarter pastor, three quarters taxi cab driver.)

He said, “I’m glad I came. I’ll see you at game night next week.”

And so it continued from there. Life groups. Worship gatherings. Picking up trash on the streets. Once Sean learned that we were safe people, he simply couldn’t get enough of us.

We began to learn about his past. We learned that he’d had a difficult childhood. We learned that he suffered from depression and social anxiety. We learned that he had dreams to become a travel agent one day.

We also learned about his experiences with other churches.

From what I learned as I read between the lines, they had all treated him in one of two ways. Some churches had ignored him: letting him sit in the back, occasionally giving him a ride, and politely ignoring everything he said. (I expect that socially anxious five foot five men who turn red and stammer whenever they’re around people were not their target demographic.) The other set treated him with perfectly tuned condescending acceptance. They’d tell them how glad that they were that he came to their church, (in tones normally reserved for puppies or small children.) Sean was their mascot and they’d happily trot him out on occasion, no doubt very proud of what an accepting bunch of people they were.

Many churches have people like Sean.

If you are a part of one of them, listen to me.

People like Sean are not your fucking mascots.

They don’t need to be coddled.

They don’t need you to praise everything they do, like you might a three year old who just made a sculpture out of her own poop.

Their ideas and opinions don’t need to be ignored for their own safety.

They don’t need to be trotted out like a bunch of trained monkeys every time you need to prove how wonderfully inclusive your church is.

They need to be loved.

Just like you love everyone else.

Here’s the difference between the way we treated him and the way every other church treated him.

To many, he was their mascot.

To us, he was our brother.

We got to know him.

We laughed at his jokes (when they were funny and sometimes when they were not.)

We rolled our eyes every time he started talking about how much he hated Barack Obama. We even reminded him that everyone might not share his distaste for him.

We listened to his stories like they meant something.

We laughed (or winced) at his Jeff Dunham videos.

We let him tour us around Boston.

We brought him over to our house to watch sports and eat food.

We got pissed at him when he used his disease as a crutch to lean on, rather doing the hard work of healing.

We harassed the hell out of him when he became depressed and started isolating.

In other words, we loved him like he was an actual human being.

One year, we learned that his birthday was coming up.

He was not looking forward to it.

We said to him, “Sean, why are you not looking forward to your birthday?”

He shrugged, “I just don’t like birthdays.”

We asked more questions. We learned that he was worried that his birthday might trigger his depression. Birthdays often did for him.

We said, “Sean, come hang out with us. We’ll throw you a party!”

He had shrugged. “No one celebrates my birthday.”

We got about a dozen people together. We had silly hats. We had balloons. We bought him a cake. We had cards. We even had presents.

We brought him to our house, sang him “Happy Birthday!” and did all the other assorted silliness that comes with birthday parties.

After cake and presents, all of us shared, in turn, what we loved and appreciated about Sean.

I didn’t think it was a big deal.

A cake. A few people. A few presents. A little love.

But, when we finished sharing, Sean spoke. He had a huge grin on his face.

He said a lot of things, but there were only three I remembered.

“This is the best birthday party I’ve ever had.” (Forty years on this earth and this was the best anyone has ever done for you? I’m so sorry, Sean.)

“I, well, I love you guys.” (We love you too Sean.)

“The Vine has saved my life.” (And, I knew, he didn’t mean that metaphorically.)

It was another beautiful moment.

I wish it had lasted forever.

What Do You Think?

1) What does it mean to treat people like they’re people, and not just scapegoats, monsters, or mascots?

2) What are the challenges of accepting people like Sean into your community?

Coming Thursday! Part Six: And the Glorious People of the Vine (2/2)

Poetry Mondays – I Cannot Offer You My Wisdom

I cannot offer you my wisdom:

Bullets shooting

To turn ignorance into red dust.

 

I cannot offer you my success:

Bands marching

To the beat of my drummer.

 

I cannot offer you my wit:

Night club singer crooning

To make you laugh and blush.

 

I cannot offer you my strength:

Adonis in a mirror

To catch your hurried glance.

 

I can offer you my foolishness:

Drunkard stumbling

Too early in the day.

 

I can offer you my failure:

Left feet tripping

Too clumsy to stand.

 

I can offer you my stuttering:

Gears grinding

Too jagged to glide.

 

I can offer you my weakness:

Broken and straining

Too small to be Atlas.

 

Will you accept?

Poetry Mondays – The Ringing Phone

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!