How do you mystify people? Try loving people who are different then you. If this is the first post you are reading, feel free to start at the beginning here
While I was in seminary I really needed an adventure and outlet to stretch me out of the sanitized Christian circles which encompassed me. Somehow I started leading some fellow believers to a coffee shop every night for poetry readings. I still remember the first time we all walked in the coffee shop. We all wore black. We wanted to fit in and be considerate. We were challenged immediately.
“Don’t look at me!” These were the first words I remember as our attention was immediately solicited by the poet on stage who just put his poetry book down and switched gears upon our entrance. “Don’t look at me and my long hair and my tattoos.” The poem was no doubt for us. Subtle but honest enough. While I can’t remember the poem the theme drew our understanding and empathy. He didn’t want to be judged. He didn’t want us to look at him and make immediate assessments. Thankfully everyone in the group was mature enough that we appreciated his sentiment. We were neither detoured nor antagonized.
The small coffee shop held quite a variety of people. Most poems were free flowing journal entries littered with pain. Few rhymed. Everyone was encouraged by the host who though young knew more about leadership then many Christians I know. He was always supportive of everyone and taught us to be supportive. We all clapped after every poem no matter how strange. And many were strange. But the supportive culture he created was home for many. I remember one girl introduced her poem by saying, “this is for my sister who took her life this past week”. That is the quality of honest and transparency that support brings. It was family.
It was hard not to love the band of misfits who frequented that place. While their uniqueness peeked my interest, their brokenness drew compassion. We got to know them. The rite of passage seemed to be sharing a poem. We were on their turf and you weren’t accepted until you were exposed. So we shared and we were accepted. We were even invited a party hosted by one of the poets, which was just a bunch of people hanging out. It was cool. Complete with “special” brownies. (coincidentally, none of our group had any but when one of our Christian lawyers found out he high tailed it out of there).
So yes, there was a measure of temptation that crept in – perhaps it was simply the fact that one of the only ways they knew to respond to our expression of kindness way to respond in unhealthy ways. I was offered ecstasy over the phone referenced by the short term “x” which I declined politely not fully knowing what I was being offered but knowing it wasn’t good. There were other temptations from which the Lord graciously protected us.
I think that’s one of the risks of living out there. Temptation can be pretty overt which is why this should be an endeavor by those with spiritual maturity and several years of holy living under their belt. That is also why this should be done in community with debriefing, accountability and prayer. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I felt its pull. Being connected to a redemptive and restorative community is important.
Things had been going well for about 2 months. Then for one week the cafe switched the poetry reading to a Sunday night. I wasn’t in attendance but I later heard that one of the poets read their poem about raping a woman. Everyone was uncomfortable. Instead of allowing the host to lead the community to censor itself for what all agreed was out of bounds, a more unfortunate thing happened. That night ‘the establishment,’ which formerly had been anonymous and completely absent, came out of the closet. The coffee shop revealed that it was funded by a Christian organization and they laid down the law that poems from that point on could only be about happy things like flowers.
That single pronouncement represented everything we had set out to overcome. These kids didn’t know how to write poems about flowers. That positive experience was so far out of their reality… The place became irrelevant for them and within a couple of weeks, the poetry night fizzled out.
Had I had the confidence I do now, I would have approach the religious leaders and open a can of whop ass on them for being so stupid. However dysfunctional, it had been a place of shalom for these broken poets in a way that the church had not been. This real life illustration of the difference between mandating spirituality (to no effect) versus being incarnational, living among and being light is one of the main points of this blog series.
There were some definite highlights. One in our missional community, and one by the attendees.
I still remember the night that we read poems on the back patio. It was a nice night unusual for the typical hot Dallas climate. It was the turn for one of the girls in our group to read a poem. She dedicated it to the young man who had greeted us with his poem upon our first entrance our very first week.
“Don’t look at me… Don’t look at me with my frizzy hair….” She continued through her poem flipping rhetoric of the first poet we had heard. In the same way he had not wanted us to judge him, she requested he not judge us. While we were different from them we wanted acceptance to be part of their lives. It was brilliant (to use a UK word). It was wise. It was fitting. Her gentleness and softness made it even more powerful. It was incarnational. It was beautiful.
Another stand out moment was when the host Austin had his mother in attendance. He introduced her to me. “This is Jeff. He goes to the seminary. We don’t know why he hangs out with us. We think it’s because he likes us.”
Even as I recount this a tear comes to my eye. Because I did like them. I miss them. I loved them. The sad thing in that statement is the implication that they would wonder why a Christian would want to hang out with them. Has Jesus’ followers become that unloving? From outside the Christian sphere the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
I hope Austin remembers a Christian who liked him. It looked as though his perspective was changing. Or perhaps the institution which closed the coffee shop erased that fruit of our incarnational presence.
That wouldn’t be the last time I’d see the distance between the church and artists
Live it Out:
If you like this blog, share it with some Christian friends with whom you socialize outside of church or church programs. In what ways are you a communal presence of Christ even when you are not at church? Ask them what it might look like for you and your friends to be this presence even when simply socializing together in public.