***I decided to take down the original “Part VIII” because, frankly, I went too far. In an attempt to be transparent, I wrote things that were of a personal nature and people were hurt. This was unwise of me and for that I am sorry. This updated 2.0 installment will simply be what I believed to be true.
The city of Scranton was the recipient of much notoriety due to NBC’s runaway hit The Office. Local restaurants, radio stations, newspapers, and other businesses were regularly featured. Scranton even hosted an Office convention in 2007 that drew over 15,000 participants. I am sometimes met with wide-eyed wonder when someone realizes I live in Scranton – four years after “Dunder Mifflin” closed its doors. “You really live there?!?!” “Do you see any of the cast at Chili’s?” Um, no. Fun fact: there is no Chili’s in Scranton. But I can take you to Poor Richard’s. When was your last tetanus booster?
The “Scranton Welcomes You” sign on the Central Scranton Expressway became iconic. It had to be moved to the Steamtown Mall because too many people were jumping out of their cars in order to snap selfies.
There are a few other Scranton landmarks that can be seen in the opening credits. The very first image you see is what looks like a very old, dilapidated building. This structure is actually the home for a paper supply company. No, it is not Dunder Mifflin. The inside of the ancient edifice is a sight to behold. It is dim, damp, and a little scary. Its vast floor space serves as long-term storage. This place was probably a hub of commerce in Scranton’s glory days of coal mining and textile industry. Today it is dying.
Death. Cold. Lifelessness. To me it seemed like the only thing prospering in the city was death. The economy is not good, businesses close, the population has dropped by 50% since 1900, there is skyrocketing opioid abuse, and there are funeral homes everywhere. It felt like the horse-drawn Black Maria (pronounced muh-RYE-uh) was still delivering ubiquitous despair.
I rang the alarm bell for years. As a pastor, I charged the congregation to engage with and not flee from the darkness. We would be the lighthouse, the outpost, the city’s sanctuary. We even saw some very good success when our church opened a resource center for needy families. It was not unusual to find the deacons setting up extra chairs for Sunday’s services. It seemed like everything was going right…until Christmas 2011.
Just before the new year, we found out that our church would no longer be able to occupy our rented space in an old silk mill. We suddenly found ourselves homeless, or ‘buildingless’, with no idea of what we were going to do next. We used a motel’s banquet room for many of our services which required enormous effort to set up and tear down every week. In spite of the inconvenience, people were still coming.
After about three months of being displaced, I discovered an unoccupied space in the heart of downtown. A theater company had recently gone out of business and the building they used was available. It was the ballroom of a historic hotel. We knew there would be a lot of work to make it suitable for our use, but we could do it! Two days after looking at the space, I was handed a very large, unsolicited monetary gift from someone I met once. This would be the nest egg that would allow us to make the improvements necessary. After some discussion the new rental option was put to a vote. The vote passed with a unanimous, 100% yes. Now we could really take up the mission of the church. The space is located just two blocks from the geographic center of the city. We were on the move!
An odd phenomenon occurred on the first Sunday we held services in our new space: attendance dropped by nearly 50%. Okay, that’s weird. It must be some sort of anomaly. Nope. It was reality. We no longer needed to set up extra chairs, the usual squadrons of energetic college students had vanished, the budget was suffering, and as the lead pastor, I felt enormously responsible. I could blather on as to why this happened, but I still don’t have answers. Instead let me tell you what I did. I began to filter truth through the grid of my experiences. There were messages that I was either hearing or making up that began to mould my view of reality. I was living in the purgatorial realm about which my professors at Biola warned us. I was feeling the cold arrow heads, real or imagined, front and back. What follows is a catalogue of near disaster.
- I am a failure. I believed that I couldn’t preach nearly as well as people had always told me. I believed that I had radically failed in leading the decision to move our church downtown. I believed that I had no true ability to study the Bible, understand it, and explain it. I believed there was not one thing I was good at. This goes all the way back to high school. The only reason I participated in sports or the arts was because it was a small Christian school and they needed people. Now serving what appeared to be a dying church in a dying city just seemed like the next logical step. I was ready to just admit I was a sheep and never a wolf. Friedrich Nietzsche would have been proud.
Despite the voices of reason that attempted to speak truth to me, I listened to the siren’s song of despair.
- I have no future. I often joke with my wife that I have no marketable skills. Degrees in theology and philosophy are not exactly in high demand. Scranton began to look like my tomb with the “Scranton Welcomes You” sign as the headstone. All my hope and boundless energy had evaporated in the face of withering dissent. Like those cartoons, when characters are famished, and they begin to see their friends as food, the Scranton sign read, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
- I am a fraud. The human mind is a glorious thing. You can speak one thing and mentally deny it at the same time. Its called lying and only a being with a will can accomplish this feat. I began to believe that I was just big liar. I would drag myself up to the “pulpit” (we didn’t actually have one – just a high table), welcome the thin crowd, and begin yet another sermon with gusto. Yet, at the same time, I was asking myself a series of questions. Was any of this real? Was it worth it? Have I wasted my life? Maybe all the apologetics books I read was nothing more than mechanized deforestation and ink spilling. How long could I keep up the charade? What if I actually spoke what was in my heart?
It really seamed like all I had were weak-sauce answers for five-star questions. Our experiences are real, aren’t they? Shouldn’t we be able to trust them?
And then like a Renaissance manuscript hunter who finally lays his hands on a long-forgotten masterpiece, I rediscovered an ancient Hebrew song, an early medieval death row convict, and what was right in front of me the whole time – philosophy.