Finding God in All the Wrong People

It was quite a week at the Pepperdine lectures. After Jana and I spent some time with Rob Bell as a part of Luke Norsworthy's podcast we also spent time with Nadia Bolz-Weber. We especially loved getting to know Nadia's family who are just amazing, amazing people.

As a part of her presentation Nadia shared some excerpts from her upcoming (Sep. 8th) book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. No spoilers, but the most poignant stories Nadia shared had to do with the small but eternally weighty work of simply getting along with people. Later, when Jana and I were visiting with Nadia, I shared with her how these stories have been the most impactful for me. We also talked about how this is what we both appreciated in Sara Miles's work.

Specifically, a lot of people have romanticized notions of "community." We talk about "community" all the time. How we need "community" how we should be "community."

But community is, for the most part, hard, irritating and boring. As I said in one of my presentations, community often means standing around drinking bad coffee with people when you'd rather be someplace else.

And community often means, and I'm thinking of Sara's work with the food pantry at St. Gregory's and my life with Freedom Fellowship, sharing life with people who are damaged in various ways. There are so many people in the world who are hard to like, let alone love--through their own fault or no fault of their own--and community means loving these people.

But most importantly, what I love about Nadia's work, in its confessional posture, is how that damaged and unlovable person isn't really you at all. It's me. In all my vanity, pride, envy and insecurity.

Let's not romanticize the drudgery and irritation of community. Or the sin community will expose in your own dark heart. The Kingdom of God is all the wrong people working hard to love each other. And that's a difficult thing.

But it happens. Over and over it happens.

Even when you're drinking bad coffee.

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19 thoughts on “Finding God in All the Wrong People”

  1. Richard, your honesty in how difficult community can be is so refreshing. Often, the discussion of community within religious circles reeks of "too good to be true", often quite sickening.

    I have given these examples before, but for me, community is when my wife and I are walking though the farmer's market, and a person who needs a bath and an extensive teeth cleaning moves in close wishing to talk. That is when I MUST see this person as possibly being the hungriest heart for God in the place. Or, when I am standing in line to vote and the people of different race and dress are looking at this sixty something year old white man, wondering if I accept them being there exercising the right that I claim for myself. That is when I MUST see these persons as children of God who are not required to give me a warm koombiya moment, to accept my accountability toward all who have who have had to endure a lifetime of being glared at with the obvious tone, "I wish you were not here". Or, when the two people who I am asked to meet with at work, or introduced to at a party, are wondering if I accept them as a true loving couple.

    Community for me is walking out my door knowing that God will have me meeting the human parade that is putting much of this nation in shock, but are the very people that Jesus would compassionately call "my little ones"; yet, are now the mighty throng that people like myself should hear the divine trumpet blast and call to bow before.

  2. Richard,
    So many of these recent posts about church or community have been good for me to read. Painful sometimes, to be honest, but good. They are teaching me a lot and exposing me to some truths.

    For instance, I have to admit but hate to admit just how much I am one of the people described here, damaged and often unlovable; I am one of these people that requires a lot to deal with, or so it would seem. What's tricky in it, too, is that I might not appear to be that at all; I hold down a good job, have learned to be personable. On the surface, or on the outside, there might not be any reason to assume I need so much what community promises; I am often assumed to be just the kind of guy who can contribute; financially, emotionally, support-wise, etc. And these things I try to do as much as I can (or used to, in communiy).

    The problem is that the truth of my life, the dynamics I have to deal with internally, is/are somewhat "radioactive" and at times I have to do so much extra work to avoid a building meltdown.

    I work hard to be responsible; I work with professionals, I attend support groups focused on certain of the issues I deal with. I dont expect anyone in a faith community to do that work for me. I'm not looking for free therapy. And I do that work all the time. Because I need to. But sometimes it gets lonely. I think what I need half the time is just to talk. But who has that kind of time?

    In any case, I am trying to move past some of the bitterness I have from all the times community has not worked out. Presently, I avoid community altogether (after checking out a bunch of churches nearby). Too often, those meetings do me more harm than good and I am trying to salvage my faith in God. These recent posts however help me reconsider. They help me see that my complaints and gripes and hurts over community may be legitimate but the viewpoint I assemble from those pieces may still be incorrect, I will proceed cautiously, but I will proceed.

    As always, the blog and so many of the comments are much appreciated.

  3. I think people do need to proceed cautiously. Everyone's experience as they interface with church is doing to be so unique. It's hard to know what to do or tell people.

    All I can do is share how my experience has been. Specifically, I've come to think that all the irritating, boring and even offensive things about a church experience are the most morally and spiritually important moments of my life. Why? Because I think church is a laboratory of love, a place where I get to work on getting along with people who may believe differently, vote differently or just be different from me. I'm sure people could find a similar sort of laboratory elsewhere, but church is, by and large, the place I go to practice loving people.

  4. Don't need a church to practice loving, extended family and work relations are enough of a laboratory to practice loving.

  5. Your response is encouraging, thanks. The "all you can do" as you share your own experience has been helpful and challenging; it does a lot. In general, the idea that "church" is not a simple matter but may, in fact, be one of the more challenging aspects of Christian living, puts much in perspective. Thanks again.

  6. I find Nadia's words about community hard to reconcile with her behaviour.
    She's publicly said that she doesn't read the comments on her blog posts, and elsewhere online.
    Doesn't that make it hard to have community? Online, at least?

  7. I don't think it's so hard to reconcile. For Nadia community means flesh and blood interaction with the local people in your home, church, workplace and neighborhood. "Online community" would be, for her, an oxymoron.

  8. That does make some sense to me.
    But what are the Internet and social media for then?
    Broadcasting messages, I guess.
    Or conversations without community?
    I come from a different sub-culture, and I'm having trouble getting my head around it.

    Why not just avoid online interaction entirely then?
    Maybe that's not just possible, particularly as a lot of marketing and promotion happens online.
    I also wonder if having blog comments is part of being on Patheos.

    It was quite weird finding out recently, after assuming she'd been reading the comments all this time.
    I guess I would have expected a disclaimer on her blog, or even a blog post about what community is and isn't. But I guess that could come across as exclusionary.

    It certainly made it difficult for her to administer her blog comments when they got out of control recently.

  9. What are the Internet and social media for?

    Goodness. All sort of things. And different forms of social media do differ sorts of things. Blogs, for the most part, are used to share ideas, opinions and analysis. That's what I do with my blog. Nadia mainly uses her's to share her sermons. Which makes her point: sharing ideas or sermons on blog is a far cry from the loving sacrifice that should characterize the community in local church context.

    That's not to say that there aren't locations online where people find community. But blogs, typically, aren't those spaces.

    You read blogs to think not to be loved.

  10. Let me add this. Blogs can reduce alienation. And the reduction of alienation can be profoundly therapeutic. We feel understood and less along when we read about something on a blog that resonates with our own experience. This blog, for me and many readers, has reduced alienation. We experience sympathetic feelings toward one another. But again, the reduction of alienation, as therapeutic as it is, isn't community as Nadia is describing it.

  11. Thanks Richard, that makes sense.
    And, in a way, it helps me understand why so many people struggle to interact well on blogs and twitter and similar, highly public spaces.
    Out of the familiar community, launched into the rough and tumble of instant debate.

  12. And if anyone is a wounded or sensitive soul the last place you need to be--mental health-wise--is on Twitter or blog comment threads.

    If you're seeking joy, peace and safety stay far, far away from those places. Take a walk or a nap. Do some random act of beauty. For sanity's sake, stay the hell away from social media.

  13. Oh yes, they can be viciously intolerant, regardless of theology or values or ideals.
    I had a friend who was viciously attacked on twitter due to their choice of language.
    What the attackers didn't know: they have autism. That's how they think and speak.
    What the community thought they were defending: progressive, accepting values.

  14. Right on. I would add that some social media just piles on the alienation. I deleted my twitter account and disconnected completely from it because it seemed like a place where people just shouted over each other and tried to out-cool or out-cute each other within the character limit.

  15. Nadia can certainly choose to make her blog a one-way conversation, but the general privileging of meatspace over online community ignores the needs of:
    *people who cannot find an accessible church (for instance, our parish is the only one in the area with sign language interpreter at the Eucharist)
    *people who do not live near a church that would fully include them (e.g. gay people in a conservative town)
    *people with social anxiety and other neurodiversity issues
    and many others.

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