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Closing time,
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

My job is basically meeting people. I honestly can’t tell you how things are going; I’ve met hundreds of people, I’ll meet hundreds more. In what is either the least or second-least religious state in the country, meeting people might not be enough. I meet them, I spends some time getting to know them. Eventually I start to talk about faith, and that’s usually when the conversation dries up. They get a phone call (oh, that’s my phone, it’s on silent, but I can feel it vibrating, I’ll have to take this call in the next area code, bye!); they find an excuse to wander away. They get stony-faced and say, I don’t believe in {God|religion|talking to people}.

I’ve met maybe four people with a genuine interest in anything having to do with religion. But four is a start. I’m not giving up, and I’m still more than just hopeful. But in my world, historically, things move at a faster pace than they’re moving here. I know I’ve been told the first year is all about meeting people, and I’ve been proclaiming that myself, but in my heart of hearts I assumed that things would go faster, because, around me, they always have.

So me meeting people isn’t working the way I’d hoped. So, change tactics, now I’m trying to get people to meet me.

One of the ways I’ve been getting out there is that I’ve started hosting a semi-regular karaoke show at a bar in town. “Karaoke Thursday night with the Rev.” Most nights it’s incredibly busy, but last Saturday night the place was dead. No one wanted to sing. I’m not a DJ, never have been, and I know nothing about dance music, but people kept insisting that I play dance music, and no one would sing. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen is a karaoke show where no one sang. Usually just having karaoke in the place is enough to get the ball rolling. It was a long, frustrating night; people were getting annoyed with me when they asked me to play songs I didn’t have (and had never heard of); I was getting annoyed with them. The bouncers kept apologizing to me for the crowd, like they were embarrassed about it; like it was their fault no one was participating.

It was strange.

By the end of the night I’d decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore. It wasn’t worth my time, or my irritation.

So I’m packing up my things, and one of the bartenders comes up to me and asks, “so why do they call you The Rev?” What followed was a long conversation about faith, spirituality, the nature of the church, the inflexibility of the faith in which he’d been raised, the fact that he believes in Jesus as his savior, but he can’t stand the hypocrisy of a church that proclaims God’s love for all, except the people abominated by Leviticus, while serving pancake and sausage breakfasts on Shrove Tuesday.3

In other words, I had exactly the conversation I was hoping to have when I started hosting karaoke in the first place.

So, ending is supposed to be our topic, right? This happened at the end of the night. Is that good enough?

No, well, it was also almost the ending of my karaoke experiment. And it’s funny, because in the practice of ministry I’ve always said you have to try something three, four, ten times before you call it a failure. Ministries are slow to launch. Sometimes they start small and grow. Sometimes they start huge and shrink (normalize). Sometimes they start small and stay small. Sometimes they start small, and die. But it’s never “once-in-a-row,” or it never should be. We have to have persistence in ministry.

And there I was, ready to toss it all in because of one bad night. So much for persistence in ministry.

All ministry is relationship, or so I believe, but at this point in particular, my ministry is more about relationship than most. I don’t have committees, I don’t have worship to prep, I don’t have most of the things that support an active church. I just have people. People I’ve met, and people to meet, and relationships to build, and the hope that some of those relationships will lead to a growth in community; that now, or in the future, they’ll bear fruit.

I think of all the times Jesus was frustrated with his followers for being slow, for not getting it. I think of how hard it must have been for him to be alone and uncertain in his own ministry. But I think, at the moment, most of all about the time he told his followers to eat him, and most of them said “I’m outta here,” and never came back. How frustrating it must have been for Jesus to build those relationships and then have them… vanish.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.4

Except, I bet he was hoping the same thing I am: they may not bear fruit now, but maybe later.

And I bet that, after the resurrection, when Peter and the Apostles had their Pentecost moment, when more than three thousand people were baptized into the faith on one day, and daily more were being added to their numbers… I bet some of those people were among those who left Jesus that day, and those relationships he worked so hard to cultivate, though they it might have seemed wasted time at the time, bore fruit after all.

There are definitely times for ministries to end. There are times to close the door. To be thankful for what God has done with something that was someone’s dream once upon a time, and to allow something new to take its place. And that’s OK, it’s good even.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

But I find myself faced with moments of frustration; with the uncertainty about what is happening here in Bennington, about how I’m going to move forward. About whether or not it’s going to work at all. What I’m doing here in Bennington is literally a new beginning that came from the end of the beginning of the old Bennington United Methodist Church, and I want to do my best to honor their persistence, and their legacy. But more than that I want to do my best to honor God.

That one moment at the end of the night, when the bartender asked me why I am called the Rev. That one moment was validation for the entire reason I was doing this karaoke thing in the first place. It felt like Nicodemus coming in the night. More than that it felt like God tapping me on the shoulder and saying, hey, Steve, this is going to take a long time. This is not going to be easy. But I’m here, in this, with you. One way or another. So chill, dude.

Here’s the funny thing: that’s the message I’m trying to spread, right? I’ve done 90% of my meeting people among the unchurched. More, the never-churched. Of course they’re not going to hear what I’m doing and leap up and say, baptize me!!! Of course they’re going to be skeptical. Of course they’re going to be negative. But someday, down the line, when there’s a gathering of people coming to worship Christ together, they’ll find that they know the pastor, that they’ve got a relationship with the pastor, and maybe they’ll come and listen. And they’ll hear the same message I’ve been trying to spread, and the same message that I evidently forgot applies to me, too:

Life takes a long time. And it’s not going to be easy. But God is here, in this, with us. One way or another. No matter what happens. Forever, without question, without exception.

So chill.

References   [ + ]

1. Well, maybe the Shrove Tuesday thing is my addition to the conversation, but most of the paraphrase is accurate.
2. John 6:60-66, NSRV
3. Well, maybe the Shrove Tuesday thing is my addition to the conversation, but most of the paraphrase is accurate.
4. John 6:60-66, NSRV