Because I serve as the chaplain of a college, I travel a lot to preach in a variety of churches. When I stand in the pulpit and look out over these congregations, I see a lot of people looking at me like this:
My college students have this look perfected. I can be preaching brilliance…preaching right at them….hanging over the pulpit…..practically touching them….and this is what they look like:
It makes me want to cry. Where’s the excitement? Where’s the curiosity? Where’s the sense of spiritual adventure? Is it me? Am I this dull? Or is the problem bigger than me? Where’s the life in the church today?
I can’t point fingers, though. I get bored too. Which is why for the past two years, I’ve started wandering off to Iowa City. In Iowa City people gather to get drunk on poetry, buy tote bags full of books at the local, independently-run, book store, form groups in tiny coffee shops to discuss the novels and memoirs they are working on, and they congregate on porches in the evening to drink gin and tonics out of paper cups. For the past few summers, I’ve booked a room in the Sheraton and thrown myself into a full week of the Iowa Writers Festival.
The first summer, I was scared to death. I thought writing instruction would be helpful to me as a preacher, but this “writer festival thing” was totally new. I’ve gone to lots of church conferences in my time, but in Iowa City, there wasn’t another MDiv to be found. This is the land of the MFA’s, people who have gotten whole degrees so they can write well, create, and be steeped in literature to which I was never exposed in seminary. Reading what I had written out loud to my class made my heart race with fear. Opening myself up to the critique and feedback of others made me feel utterly vulnerable. But even as I struggled with these new challenges, the acceptance and patience shown me by this new community of writers–who all knew what it felt like to fail–inspired me.
As the week progressed I came to know my fellow classmates in deeply personal ways. I wept with a man who wrote about the profound pain he felt over his divorce. I marveled at another man’s stark confession in an essay that he no longer loved his wife. My stomach churned as I listened to the graphic stories of a woman from China whose mother tried to abort her after learning she was a girl.
This kind of honesty felt like church. Or the way church ought to be…because I was challenged, and stretched, and encouraged to take risks. I grew and learned and was nurtured into a better version of myself. I was welcomed into a community built upon a willingness to share our selves and our stories with each other.
Iowa City has become my new Jerusalem. It is my pilgrimage. At a writers gathering in the heart of the heartland, I get a deep dose of what I need to be faithful to myself, my God, and my calling as a pastor and a preacher.
This past Sunday I preached in a new congregation of about one hundred people, a good mix of young and old and middle-aged. I worked hard on my sermon, incorporating what I learned in Iowa City: Use specific, concrete details. Edit the unnecessary. Avoid the cliché. Be unexpected. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth.
From the pulpit I was encouraged to see interest and curiosity on the faces of many. The high school youth were with me off and on. But then there was a gentleman in the back, who sat with his arms crossed, his eyes staring seriously over wire-rimmed glasses, his mouth shaped into an angry frown. He wasn’t having any of it, even as I intentionally sought to soften him with my direct gaze.
Excuse me, sir. What’s with the face? Is it that I used the word “ass” in my prose poem? Was it my reference to a good gin and tonic? Or is it simply that I am someone new? You look like my son when I wake him early from a long, deep nap. I see I have your full attention. I’m not boring you! You’re welcome. And thank you.