I don’t fit in.
Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s just that the spaces in which I’ve felt I’ve fit in have been so rare that when I say, “I don’t fit in” it feels true. As I’ve said on this blog numerous times, I’m not good with small-talk and social situations make me feel extremely awkward. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become better at putting on a good show, for the sake of others as much as for myself, but in any crowd I’ll eventually find a corner in which to hide. Typical social convention and I are acquaintances, not friends.
Today I was pondering those rare times in which I really “fit” and I noticed something I’d never quite seen before. The times in which I’ve felt the most socially comfortable have been when I’ve spent much time with other people who frequently found themselves not fitting in. I suppose I could write that off as “misery loves company,” but these spaces were more than ragtag grouping of misfits because no one else would have them. Rather, they were spaces in which not fitting in wasn’t frowned upon. Instead, it was lovingly chuckled over.
As I’ve said, these spaces have been relatively rare in my life. I thought I’d list some.
The LMH dorm
The LMH dorm saved my life in so many ways. It was my first opportunity to knowingly take responsibility for my education, it was the place where I finally heard Jesus calling me to follow him, and it was an amazing group of misfits. Living in a dorm while in college, after all, is normal. Living in a dorm while in high school is a little weird. When you realize that just under a seventh of the total school population dormed, it’s even weirder. “Dormies” were people who never went home because we were home. We ate, studied, played, fought, and wandered the route 30 corridor together. We were people who’d wander into the school wearing socks or sporting bare feet to get help from a teacher, and pretended that Friendly’s was part of campus. We had “sneak nights,” and campus-wide pillow fights, and planned all sorts of odd escapades. While we all had other friends in school outside the dorm who were just as close, when given a chance we Dormies tended to enjoy being odd together. Only a fellow Dormie, after all, could sled down the driveway after an ice storm. The LMH dorm was perhaps the first space in which I really loved being part of a group.
Another LMH staple, Campus Chorale, became a safe space for me while at the school. If the dorm was full of crazy misfits, Campus Chorale was filled with an amazingly diverse group of people who got together only because we loved to sing. Our director, Clyde Hollinger, was simply one of the best people I’ve ever known. To him, Chorale was not a class or a performing group – it was a ministry. He pushed us to stretch our abilities, and gently nudged us together so we could function as a whole. When you looked at the overall makeup of the group it was obvious we were comprised of several different social circles. The groups weren’t adverse to one another, but the differences were wide enough that coming together as a group should have been more difficult than it was. But Mr. Hollinger took a bunch kids of who were incredibly different from one another – and made us into a group. We may have not been the most talented Campus Chorale ever – but as the group became safer and safer I’d contend we may have been one of the most heart-felt.
Eastern Biblical Studies Department
Take two years of incoming students interested in studying Biblical Studies and Theology. Add a new professor who happens to be a Patristics scholar, and a mix in a whacky assortment of professors who thought that college should be challenging. Shake them around for a while and you get the group of people I studied alongside of throughout my years at Eastern. While I loved the LMH dorm, and grew so much with Campus Chorale, it was at Eastern that I found the element for which I was created. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by people who also felt a little out of place in “normal” situations. It was at Eastern we discovered we were natural academics, realized that academic passion was not normal, and didn’t care. Yes we had all sorts of typical college experiences, but what I treasure most about my time studying Bible and Theology at Eastern were the insane conversations we’d have at the coffee shop, skipping a class because the professor from another class ordered me to sit down and keep talking over a lecture, and the competition to acquire as many books as possible (yes, Jim, you won – my ADD hyper-focus isn’t as strong as yours).
I didn’t fit in to the Academic culture of Gordon-Conwell, but that was OK because neither did any of the people I lived with down in my apartment building. We weren’t cut from the proper GCTS mold so, naturally, we hung out together – and wonderful things happened. We played Final Fantasy 7 while discussing theology. We forsook the couches in our apartments so we could lounge in the hallway. We moved dozens of people in and out of the building every summer. We said tearful farewells, and walked with one another when we were hurting. I got my MDiv from GCTS, I learned about pastoring down on the set of Sanford and Son (don’t ask). Along the way, as if to celebrate not fitting in, someone started the “Rebel Brown Royal Film Society.” We’d watch terrible movies and laugh so hard we had trouble breathing.
My only regret about living there was I graduated the spring prior to the Halloween in which they decorated the entire building as Noah’s Ark.
Central Baptist Church
When I arrived here, ten years ago this week, I could not imagine what on earth I was doing here. It was a church which continued to suffer through the “worship wars,” had a broken social structure, and an organizational structure which was in just as bad shape. What Central needed, I felt, was an organizational specialist who could navigate through the various social mine fields which had been laid throughout the congregation over the years. Instead, they called me – a man who routinely blows himself up, socially speaking, simply because he can’t pay attention long enough to see the danger. Most pastors start out a pastorate by preaching happy, uplifting stuff. My first major sermon series was 8 months in Ecclesiastes, just because I thought it was so interesting. One year in, I was convinced I was either going to kill the church through my own social ineptitude, or I’d finally step on one mine too many and find myself ejected. I’m sure there were people who would have been delighted to see me tossed, and if I had the social awareness to realize how big that group probably was I may have given up (score one for social awkwardness).
Here’s the thing, my initial assessment of what Central needed wasn’t correct. Central didn’t need a social navigator, it needed a socially awkward odd-ball who blew things up by accident and laughed at his own mistakes. Central needed someone who would help the congregation embrace it’s own oddness, and cheer. I refer to Central as “The Land of Misfit Christians,” and that’s what we are. The place makes no sense whatsoever – and yet it works. I don’t think I’d like pastoring a church which wasn’t as wonderfully odd as this one. I mean, in how many churches will you find a woman sheepishly admit to her pastor that a friend taught her parrot how to ask everyone who enters he house, “Where’s the beer?”
So, to all the misfits with whom I have journeyed I say, “Thank you, and may God bless your journey.” May you all find keep finding spaces in which your oddness can sing for joy, and Jesus can keep calling you forward.