Note: I’m doing this in the framework Steve Garnaas-Holmes has given us for reflection, because that’s what the BOM has “blessed.”
I’m still relationship-building. That finds me in my community in various places at various times. In this case my experience involves two pubs… taverns… Hell, call ‘em what they are: bars. Bennington has a few brew pubs and restaurants, but only two actual bars. Donovan’s and JC’s. The first part of this took place at Donavan’s.
I was there the other night. There’s no smoking in the bar, and no smoking area outside, so many people smoke on the sidewalk. I stepped out of the bar and got a breath of “fresh” air, and got involved in a conversation with a young man, maybe mid-20s. He is, it turns out, a self-professed Christian, and our conversation quickly turned to faith. He was conversant in scripture, and spoke lovingly of Christ and God. We talked about the unfortunate state of faith in the country, and most particularly in Bennington, and it was an interesting conversation. He spoke passionately of mission and service, and Christ’s call to love the last and the least. He spoke of a passion to seek the lost.
And then he said that there wasn’t any way we could make headway in the community until someone killed all the ni***rs. And that the government was going to do that. Soon.
He knew the “catchphrases” and he professed faith. He spoke with passion and dedication. And, it turns out, hate.
Two nights later I was in the other bar, JC’s. I had just had a conversation with two women, one young the other middle-aged, about sports. We were talking about the Mets, and the middle-aged woman said she was glad Tim Tebow was doing well in the Mets system.
“But he needs to stop all that praying bullshit.”
She’s glad he’s doing well, but finds his profession of faith ridiculous.
I explored a little further, saying that I think faith is commendable5, and that the ones I find distasteful are the athletes who point to God after they hit a home run, but are feigning faith. Her response was that all faith is bullshit. No matter what. And that those athletes are the honest ones because they know they’re “praying” to a lie.
About a half hour later, another man said to me that he likes going to JC’s when there’s a band playing country because the ni***rs don’t come, and no one is pushing coke.
Then the young man from Donovan’s happened to come in, recognized me, told everyone there that I am a Christian, and, literally, people I was talking to turned away from me. I wasn’t evangelizing, I wasn’t preaching. But they found Christianity so detestable that they wouldn’t even talk to me after hearing just that I’m a Christian, not even that I am a pastor.
Well, I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was thrown. I’m living in a town that is so in need of any Good News, and here I am, willing not only to share it, but to help them understand that they are loved by the source of all love, and they won’t even talk to me because someone else proclaimed my believe in Christ.
I probably should have engaged further, but in that moment I was crushed.
I’ve been in contact with a lot of pastors here in Bennington, and when I first meet them one of the questions I ask is always “what is the hardest part about being a pastor in Bennington” and the answer is that no one is willing to entertain a chance of belief in God. Most of these churches are established, and so they work with and cater to the people who have been in their pews for decades. One or two are deeply evangelical churches, and are growing, but they have the conservative theology that attracts people who have grown up “knowing” that the are going to Hell unless they go to church. Any church with progressive theology is elderly. And the people I am called to seek and serve seem to have not just no interest, but a deep, deep aversion.
OK, so this is nothing new, and it shouldn’t be surprising. They are called “the lost” for a reason. I’m reminded of all the stories of people so thirsty for living water that they followed a young rabbi from a backwater town who the religious elite railed against, and eventually murdered.
But they were seeking. They followed Christ because they were seeking a faith that the existing religious establishment failed to provide. These people, they aren’t seeking. They’re running away from faith as hard as they can. They were seeking a Messiah.
I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. I knew it was going to be a long, slow process. But only recently I’ve started to wonder whether it might be possible at all.
My Big Question
Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious: how do I build a faith community in a place that is so instantly distrustful of Christians? No, not even that. How do I reach the very people Christ calls us to reach in a place and at a time that they are angry when people try to reach them?
I know, welcome to post-Christianity. There was time when, as someone is purported to say,
I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.
That ain’t now. Now it seems like people won’t even bring buckets of water to put the fire out.
Actually, none of those are my real big question. It seems like this place is extraordinarily resistant to faith,6 and I’ve already had two major course corrections in my approach and my design… And who knows, maybe I’ll need another, or more than one more… and some of the things I’ve tried that I know have worked in other contexts have simply not worked… so here’s my real big question:
Why am I so convinced this will be a successful plant?
Because I am. I am convinced that this will work out. Specifically because there is a lack of faith, and there is need, and there are people who need the Good News.
When Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he waited two days. He waited to make sure Laz’d be dead beyond a doubt before he left. A lot of sermons have been preached on why he waited two days,7 and what it meant that he was willing to allow the three of them to suffer in pain and grief, and whether it was just to make a point… But I’m not going on about that right now.
Right now I am more concerned with the journey to Lazarus’ side.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”8
Jesus knew what might await him in Judea, and he didn’t care. He knew how dangerous it was. I’m guessing he knew that raising Lazarus was the last straw, the event that would finally get the priests and the Pharisees and all their kindred to declare his doom. And that just a week or so later he’d ride into Jerusalem, and to the cross.
But at that moment, even knowing all this was to come, he chose to risk life and limb, suffering and death, to be present with a message of hope and resurrection for those whom he loved.
Hope is a tenacious thing. In my case it’s tenacity is pretty easy to explain. I’ve seen it fulfilled, in my life, in some of the churches I’ve seen… and of course on the Cross. Hope is tenacious when the source of hope has been proven faithful over and over again.
I am here in a town of skeptics and aggressively non-religious people, at least, among the people I feel specifically called to reach… and yet I don’t have any fear for the success of the church in this place, because I believe that Christ desires to be present with and for all those whom he loves… and, simply put, there is no one he doesn’t love.
Of course, as his disciple I know it’s not going to be easy, and I have to be willing to do crazy things and take wild risks for the sake of that Good News. But of course, as it turns out Christ will be present here for me in this work, because he loves me, too.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||At this point she did not know I am a pastor.|
|2.||↑||Naturally, I haven’t met everyone yet, so I don’t want to generalize too much…|
|3.||↑||I personally have preached several of them!|
|4.||↑||John 11:7–11 (NRSV)|
|5.||↑||At this point she did not know I am a pastor.|
|6.||↑||Naturally, I haven’t met everyone yet, so I don’t want to generalize too much…|
|7.||↑||I personally have preached several of them!|
|8.||↑||John 11:7–11 (NRSV)|