My Pastor Irritates the Crap Out of Me

Church is not always enjoyable.

Seriously, other than our jobs or school, it’s rare that we willingly choose to be in a place where we “have” to be with people and “have” to forge some sort of relationship with strangers.  People who we don’t necessarily like and probably wouldn’t choose to hang out with under different circumstances.  People who get on our nerves and are difficult to like.  The difference being the church’s mission is for us to long to do this, yet it’s equally rare that we reflect on just how hard it is to do so.  And too often the word “community” is reduced to little more than a buzzword.

I was struck by a comment that a Christian lady made to someone in her church.  She said something along the lines of how great it was that he was so willing to love those difficult to love.  What struck me was how she inadvertently revealed the truth that, as the church, this isn’t how we typically operate.  It’s easy for us to love people who act like us, speak like us, think like us; where people are like you and believe what you believe.  Of course that’s easy fellowship:  it’s an extension of loving ourselves!  It’s natural to only want to be someplace that’s comfortable, that instinct is what drives many of our race and class problems.  Most of what we call fellowship remains social and superficial and shouldn’t be confused with true unity.

With a great uniting element like being brothers and sisters in Christ, it should theoretically be easier.  But anyone who’s experienced a Thanksgiving dinner knows how trying connecting with family can be.  Because we don’t always like family.  Church family is no different.  What it’s like to be with people who you don’t always like.  Who get on your nerves.  Who are just SO different from you.

Within church and without, many of us settle for 4th grade relationships/love:  “I like you, you like me, we can chill together.”  We form little (religious) clubs that end up not being particularly welcoming because we wait to see how well the new people fit in before we’re willing to hang out with them.  The onus is on them to prove they’re easy to get along with and not too much relational work.  Because it’s hard to truly engage with people and we don’t like to work too hard at relationships.

This extends to how we work through problems within community.  It’s easier to leave people alone, to “let them think about what they’ve done” and let them “come to us when they’re ready” rather than pursue them.  We also want people to be fixed quickly (“what do you mean you’re still hurting?  I’ve put in two weeks.  Get over it already.”)  And I’ve seen people simply withdraw or (fake) “getting over it” because they don’t want to be a burden or a downer.

This is an immature form of relationships and what we call love.  Even “sinners” (the unchurched or whatever we want to label those outside of our little religious clubs) can love those who love them or who are easy to love.  Us united by Christ, no matter where we are, is how we like to say that’s the way church is supposed to be.

When you think about it, of course “being united in Christ” isn’t always enough.  We don’t all agree or even have the same idea of who Christ is and why He came.  And that’s assuming everyone in the community even believes in Christ as you don’t, or shouldn’t, have to believe before you belong.  People come to church for all sorts of reasons from being entertained by the pastor, loving the music, kids programs, their friends are there, or even cause there’s a free meal involved.

And a lot of our version of fellowship and discipleship seem focused on correcting behaviors and getting people to act a certain way—making it easier for us to like them—rather than learning what it means to love each other.

The church, since the church is people, is made up of people who irritate us, people we don’t get along with, people so different from each other.  We don’t want to struggle.  We don’t seek discomfort out and we do all that we can to avoid it.  This makes us perfectly human.  Loving relationships correct as well as affirm.  Loving relationships, loving accurately and well, mean we can say hard things and still stay in relationship with one another.  Loving relationships are marked by compassion, understanding, and love.

My pastor irritates the crap out of me.  He “demands” to be in real relationship with me.  He wants to speak into my life and wants me to speak into his.  He once randomly sent me a note telling me how much he loves me, like hearing what I think, and appreciates how much I add as a part of their church simply by being me.  So I avoided him for a week or so because I didn’t know what to do with that.  That wasn’t in my usual experience with pastors.  The same thing happened a week later when I went to visit my friend Rich Vincent at his church.  He had me stand in front of his congregation while he told them and me how much he loved, valued, and appreciated our friendship.  That simple act of love and appreciation about reduced me to a puddle of tears.  Neither of these guys—unlike me, of course—are easy to love.  They are full of quirks and eccentricities which can drive a person nuts.  But they’ve nailed what it means to love well.

Think about what it means to live in relationship and community with one another.  Just like there’s no “I” in “team,” there’s no more “me”, only “we”, in community.  Everything is done together and this bumps against just how much of an idol we have made of individualism in Western/American society.  For example, it impacts how we view sin because there are no “personal sins”:  our decisions impact each other.  It’s easy to not be in relationship, that is, to hide from one another, because we’re relationally lazy.  We’re all irritating, frustrating, and difficult to love and be in relationship with.  Too often we try to mask our differences under the banner of a shallow unity through (or to) theology.  Being in constant communication, speaking into each other’s lives, requires intentionality and work.

I like to think of the church ideally being sort of like an AA group (ironic considering the origins of AA).  Where we are united by a common pain or brokenness.  Where we come together in our woundedness, with that sense of “I’m among people who ‘get this’”.  People who accept one another where they are, how they are, build them up, affirm them, and encourage them to wholeness because of what Christ has done for all of us.

If you’re only in relationship with people who agree with you, you don’t know about love yet.  Not mature love.  What it means to love the difficult, those different fromm us, or our enemies.  To love well and deeply—in a way so profound it transforms lives and brings people to wholeness—not easy.  It’s not comfortable.  But when the church becomes comfortable, it becomes irrelevant.

Burning Out

“And how blessed all those in whom you live, whose lives become roads you travel; They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks, discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!” –Psalms 84:5-6

Last week I had two very interesting experiences at the churches I attend.  (To play quick catch up, we attend two churches:  Common Ground on Sunday mornings, a place where we can just go and be “anonymous”; and The Crossing on Sunday evenings, where we call our church home.)  The week before, the assistant pastor of The Crossing gave a “sermon” which was basically a confession that neither he nor the head pastor was in a good place, people really irritated them, they had nothing to offer, and that he essentially drew the short straw to have to speak at all.  The community rallied around them to pray for them and figure out ways to better support them.  The following Sunday at Common Ground, the pastor confessed that he had “no word” for the people.  Yeah, he had studied and prepared something, but it felt like empty words and he didn’t want to have to perform for people.

It’s hard for anyone to be transparent.  To fully be who they are, faults and foibles out for public display and consumption.  Party because we don’t want to risk appearing like we don’t have our act together and partly because we know that people aren’t fully comfortable dealing with or accepting people in their rawness.  It’s especially hard for pastors, a path fraught with greater trepidation as that would mean they would have to live against people’s ideas of how pastors are supposed to be.  They are pressed into a place as performer/ear tickler, administrator, care taker, teacher, with all those gifts in  equal measurement.  I’ve known some great teachers who are lousy care takers and great care takers who are lousy administrators, none of whom are given permission to be transparent and admit that they can’t do what people expect them to.

Back to the two pastors, both were able to be who they are—free to be broken, free to be real, free to be honest—because they trusted the communities they were a part of (and helped shape).  They were able to let go of that sense of control and let go of other people’s ideas of how they should be.  As pastors, or simply as people of God, there is a tacit pressure to having to appear fixed and perfect, only admitting to “safe” sins, like pride (or maybe anger or maybe slander/gossip … anything you know that just about everyone struggles with).

Do you know that there is about a two year burnout rate on most ministry workers?  Pastors, volunteers, any full time laborer, they have the heart of wanting to pour themselves into people, but rarely take into account how much ministry drains the “soul’s battery”.  It’s a high wire act with no net, putting ministry above everything else.  I know I’ve been in that place of burnout before, emotionally drained, physically running on fumes, spiritually exhausted, because I didn’t take the time to allow myself to recharge.  Pride plays a part in this, as we think we’re the only ones who can do the work, just as we also feel guilty when we’re not “doing”.  Either way, we get so busy putting out fires that no one’s doing any fire prevention.  We get so down, so wiped out, that we have nothing left for others.  Nor did others come around, surround, support and protect (because we all know the rule that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, yet we seem pretty content to ride those servant leaders til they burnout).  So we end up pushing ourselves beyond our limits, operating out of our own woundedness, until it catches up with you.

Church is supposed to be a safe place, an unusual community of people—In their glory and their ugliness—an expression of the authentic movement of God and love.  When it stops being a safe place, people leave.  So my question becomes how do you love someone through burnout (and in turn, how does someone allow themselves to be loved through burnout)?  I have no answer, because it’s a delicate, interconnected dance.

Being transparent. Back to my two pastors, their authenticity allowed their respective communities to do their job.  After all, we’re called to submit to one another despite our (American) top-down business model we apply to church leadership.  The community ministers to one another:  community to pastor as well as pastor to community, aching for one another during times of hurt.

Being in authentic relationship. It’s easy to do the Christian thing or, for that matter, the pastor thing.  It’s easy to go through the motions and put on the right airs and behaviors and not allow anyone to push in on your life.  It’s easy to fall into the lie/trap that you have to go through this alone.  That we’re meant to be these lone wolf super heroes, individuals who are defined by their ability to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  Yet the reality is that we are relational creatures and sometimes we need the power of relationship to carry us through dark times.   Sometimes this means surrounding yourself with people who can speak into your life and love you enough to push back on you when you are living out of balance.  And we can’t just wait for the invitation to walk alongside someone, but rather be emboldened to “enter into their cave.”  Some relationships are not only worth staying with but become forged by folks walking alongside one another even when you don’t know where you’re going.

Being a good listener. Sometimes we just need to vent.  Sometimes we just need to feel heard.  Sometimes we don’t need people trying to fix us.  Not pulling the “God” thing (aka, throw a verse or a platitude at us).  We just need a good listening ears, people to just sit in silence with us.  Not giving us unasked for advice.  At the same time, we need to have ears that hear, because sometimes our friends DO have words for us and can speak into our lives in special ways because they do both know and love us.

Being people of thanksgiving. Because we are naturally people of short memories and notoriously unappreciative, we tend to dwell in the weeds of life rather than rejoice in the good.  What I’m talking about isn’t simply a matter of painting a happy face on things, but rather living out our gratefulness in a real way.  Creating our own “stones of remembrance” from where we are able to recount the goodness of God and how He has carried us through in the past.

We may often find ourselves in a spiritual desert. It’s a trap we fall into as we try to do things on our own strength and efforts.  We don’t often enough leave room to draw our strength and energy from Him, to take refuge in His presence and minister from that place.  While we long for the days of refreshment, we need to also be continuing to recharge our “soul batteries”.  We live in hope.

“God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!”  –Psalm 84:7

This is Not a Soup Kitchen

So we’ve been attending The Crossing for nearly half a year now.  I’m a people watcher by nature, so it’s always fascinating watching the dance of getting to know one another.   As church should be, there’s an interesting confluence of race and class each week.  Each Sunday night gather ends with Communion and then sharing a meal together.  And each week there are lessons learned in the partaking of Communion and the community meals together.

If the sacrament of Baptism is like entering  into family—entering into community and pledging to be a part of it—the Communion meal is part act of living up to the pledge.  Reflecting on what it means to be a part of that community, how easy it is to damage that community, what it means to reconcile with one another and with God.  I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s words in I Corinthians 11:20-26:

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Again, it’s funny how you can read something and yet see it in an entirely new light when you see it play out in front of you.   In Paul’s day, too many people saw the ritual of the Lord’s Supper strictly as dinner time.  For a few weeks in a row, we had a number of attendants see our community meal that way.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re perfectly cognizant that some of the homeless in our congregation are there just for the free meal, and for many, it might be the only good meal they get that week.  So nothing is begrudged there.  The problem was in the selfishness of piling up one’s plate with no regard to other’s who hadn’t eaten yet.  Which caused our pastor to exclaim that “This is not a soup kitchen”  and we were reminded that this meal is no different than a family dinner.  And while everyone is welcome, each person should be aware that they aren’t the only person in the family or in need.

Now, I’ve done my time in soup kitchens.  I used to get together with friends, go down to Wheeler Missions and serve food to the homeless men there.  It was a great time of fellowship for us workers.  We’d prepare the food, serve the food, and clean up afterwards.  Now that I think back on the time, us volunteers largely spent out time in the kitchen, rarely interacting with the men, while the men waited about like patient children.  In that scenario, I think the experience was more about “us” as workers, learning to be servants, than it was about reaching out to the men and building relationships with them.

If the meals were to be more about the men, we would have had them help plan or prepare meals, asking their opinions, and working and talking alongside one another*.  It’s  the difference of having dinner with them as opposed to giving dinner to them.  It’s not until you’re around people who are real all the time that you realize our  comfort level with fakeness.  Eating alongside one another means that one has to put to death any germ-o-phobe notions:  during communion, we pull bread from a common loaf.  Anyone afraid of homeless hands obviously assumes they know where my hands have been.

I also wonder about how much we take the idea of family for granted.  I wonder what it must be like to have never been in a home with meal shared with family.  Or not having learned how to have conversations.  To have no relational connection to people, or being so focused on self and simple survival for the niceties of what we call politeness.  So without lowering the standard for what it means, I try to increase my understanding and perspective.   Just like others will have to learn to be patient with me for being … me.

People like the idea of community, but people don’t want community. People like thinking of church as a family reunion or get-together, then they remember how much their family sometimes annoys them. People like the idea of eating a meal together, but are too busy to sit down with folks. We like the idea of community, we hate the effort it takes to build and maintain it (“I want community but I don’t want to have to get out of my comfort zone”).  We just need to remember that we’re all created in God’s image, we’re all broken, and we’re all capable of experiencing Christ’s reconciliation.

*It’s funny that even while writing this blog, I defaulted to an “us” and “them” language which I had to go back and edit.

Our Church Stinks

So we’ve been consigned to the basement. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The Crossing meets in the basement of Redeemer Presbyterian (a church we were familiar with since it hosts many First Friday events as it shares space with the Harrison Center for the Arts) on Sunday nights. Each week, round tables, lit with candles, are set up around the periphery of rows of chairs. Nothing glamorous, no power points, barely a sound system, it’s small enough that it’s difficult to hide from one another. The pastor has a conversational style with plenty of interaction between him and the congregation.

I love the reaction folks have when we tell them that we’re going to The Crossing. It’s typically something along the lines of “oh, you’d fit in well there.” I can’t tell if it’s because I’m an artist or if it’s because it’s become known as the church for people with issues.

There’s almost an anti-growth program with its “we’re a screwed up place, you sure you want to be here?” vibe. I remember the Sunday evening gathering which sold me on the place. The couple next to us was high and/or drunk. If we couldn’t tell from the smell the alcohol was wafting off them, their attempt to keep beat to the music would have clued us in. Then during the meal afterward, me and a homeless gentlemen was discussing my unemployment:

“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“You can do that anytime.” At which point, he pulled out his cell phone and gave me numbers to call for job leads.

Oh yeah, did I mention that about a third of the congregation is homeless? For those not used to it, there’s a smell to homelessness. Unwashed bodies, unwashed clothes. One of those things that sounds good in theory. I know that Sally is being stretched as she told me early on that “I’ve always believed church should be a place where people should come as they are: high, drunk, homeless, dirty. I’m just not sure I’m ready to at that church. Or sitting next to them.”

Which is completely honest, though most folks wouldn’t admit to such sentiments. Let’s face it, we talk a pretty good game about social justice, reaching out to the poor, and dealing with homelessness, but we tend to think of that as one of those “over there” ministries. Something that’s done away from the comfort of our suburban castles. It’s also made me realize how much we’ve come to value smooth running services. There is an element of show or production to our church services that we’ve come to expect. A trains running on time veneer of professionalism done in the name of running on/respecting people’s time. And there’s nothing wrong with that, unless we’ve made an idol of that; our need for control superseding the role of the Holy Spirit in a service or the needs of the group. The meal time afterwards is always an adventure.

We tend to want to be with people who are like us, either by race or by class. People who are different will interrupt. People who are quirky aren’t as concerned about appearances. And people aren’t easy to know, assuming they let you get to know them. It’s difficult to embrace the awkwardness of relationships and encounters with people not like us, to allow them to stretch us out of our comfort zones.

We want to go in and fix, that’s our modern American way. But what does it mean to truly love others. What does it mean to be in relationship with them? We don’t give others a chance to let people in or let them in to love us. It’s risky to let people in on our struggles, our shame. We risked being misunderstood, rejected, or not liked. So it’s easier to cling to our addictions and self-protection. The work of building community is hard. It’s one thing to talk about it, another to live it out. To not only walk beside people, but be willing to go after them. To be willing to walk into another person’s pain, their hard reality, even entering into their suffering. That’s how community is forged.

Yes our church stinks. Stripped of the façade, it smells of brokenness and sweat. It’s the smell of community.

Just when we thought we were out …

aka, Looks like we found a church home(s)

The thought about diving into church at all, much less church shopping, hasn’t been something we looked forward to. There is a high amount of church burnout among me and my friends. A reluctance to invest again, be it being burned by previous experiences or just being disappointed. And this is with the full realization that there is no perfect church out there. I was reading on Scot McKnight’s blog about what he’d look for in a church home to see how well his list lined up with me and my wife’s lists. He said he’d consider at least the following items:

1. The significance of fellowship and community to the people already there.
2. Respect for the Great Tradition in the church, made manifest in how much attention to such elements in the church services.
3. Eucharist — how often? I prefer this weekly.
4. Worship.
5. Teaching ministries: what’s important to the teaching?
6. Missional presence.
7. Sermons.
8. Public reading of Scripture.
9. Growing church — via evangelism and catechesis.
10. How many 20somethings and 30somethings are present?

I’d add an interesting addition to all of our lists: how are you greeted. We’ve had the oddest experience and it’s one that’s been repeated by our other friends as they’ve been church shopping. A lot of the communities we’ve visited haven’t been especially warm in greeting us even though in most situations (showing up as an interracial couple in our racially polarized church world), it was fairly obvious we were new. In fact, of the churches we’d visited, only three welcomed us. Which did help them make the short list.

I once wrote about my church life as dating. These days it feels like getting back into the dating scene after a divorce, so we haven’t been real excited about it. Friends have been inviting us to their churches (to extend the dating metaphor, it’s been sort of like double dating) and there have been some churches that I’d always wanted to visit (essentially blind dates). We actually still owe a few places a visit (Saturday evenings are tough to swing. Unless your social calendar revolves around your church group, it’s hard to carve out that time), but our children recently informed us that we had found our church.

Sally and I had our list narrowing down to two churches. On Sunday mornings at Common Ground, we can go and be invisible (Relatively anonymous. Turns out, Sally is well known by a lot of folks she knew from “back in the day”. I get to be “Sally’s husband” there), a place to just rest and continue healing. We have friends who go there, Sally and the pastor went to youth group together (ironically, it was the youth group she went to after she left the youth group where she and I met). Though I still struggled with finding a place to serve. We were walking with some friends through the building where the church we had checked out on Sunday evenings (The Crossing) meets, when the boys announced this was their church. On the list of churches we thought they might like, this was the least intuitive fit, after all, there was no kids program or kids their age and, not to put too fine a point on it, one third of the congregation is made up of homeless people. We asked them about why they liked it. Turned out they liked playing with the son of the co-pastor, the adults treat them like people, and they get to serve. They helped put the music equipment away and cleaned tables after the community meal. We don’t want to in anyway squelch their wanting to be helpful or serving others. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the place immediately. Instead of a “you won’t find anything better”/“we’re the best thing God’s got going” vibe which we often encountered (folks get really proud of their teachers), there is more of a “we’re a screwed up place. You sure you want to be here?” vibe.

This journey has been amazing and enlightening. Community is a tricky thing. You build community to have during times of stress. You can’t build community during times of upheaval (because there are times when you just can’t think straight and feel like you’re losing your mind), but community can be forged during them. You find out who can weather storms with you.

Friends that can know you at your worst and love you to new life are priceless treasures, a taste of God’s love. We appreciate those friends who supported Sally during all of this and continue to pray for her and be a part of her life. And while we miss the friendships that were lost, we are also grateful for the new friendships made.

I’ve been blessed to walk with a band of brothers, true men of God, who held me and my faith together when I wanted to chuck it all. I’d especially like to thank Jim Falk, Larry Mitchell, and Brad Grammer who continue to push and challenge me, remind me that the church is more than one particular expression/community, and that God’s not through with me yet.