The patio of a downtown coffee shop. They’ve partitioned off half of it to keep the heat in during the winter. The small, makeshift room is practically overflowing with people of all colors and kinds. The regulars, the passersby, the newbies, and the skeptics. They congregate, sipping coffee or beer or wine, sitting in chairs or on wooden risers, attention aimed a tiny stage in the corner with a solitary microphone.
I’ve been here before, several times, but I’m not a regular. I don’t know the names or the inside jokes, and the abrasive language sometimes still jolts me. Before it begins, I’m thinking more about locating an acceptable escape route, knowing that even though my friends are here, I’m eventually going to get overwhelmed by all the people and the sitting still in a hot, cramped space.
They ascend to the stage, one at a time. Some speak briefly, others for several minutes. There are words about love, identity, society, sex, expectations. You hear in their voices condemnation and indifference, rebellion and reaching for something better, human struggle and human sarcasm, stories both personal and fictional.
It rolls from their phones and notebooks and memories, off their tongues in patterns that impress me, make me nod my head in admiration. I get it. What words are to the people who put them together. I definitely get it. I’m just not brave enough to stand up, open my mouth, and bring my words to life. I let them stay on the page. There they don’t shake with my nerves, aren’t destined to be mixed up by my fumbling lips. No, these people are the brave writers. They bare their souls and don’t just set them out politely as if in a museum, but wave them around for all to see. No, I’m not brave enough for that.
I am amazed by these people.
But there’s something greater than bravery that fuels their words. Like kerosene, the room practically reeks with it. Soaking every spoken syllable and every hand gesture, it eclipses the art, threatening to set the room on fire.
It’s there—unmistakable. It comes in different forms and combinations for everyone who takes the stage and sits in the audience. Rejection, hurt, grief, abuse, depression, frustration, neglect. It’s real, raw, pulsing with every heartbeat. It’s the human experience. And in places like this room, where people pull up their sleeves and show their scars to whoever is looking, it brings us together. Brokenness, strange as it sounds, is a unifier.
It’s so much so that one of the regulars says at the end of her bit, “Unconditional love. That’s what we have here at [this coffee shop].”
But still there’s more. Even in the brave, broken darkness of a quirky coffee shop open mic night, there is light.
I sit there, taking in the brokenness, my own heart breaking in the process. Identifying in so many ways, but praying against all hope that there was a way to show these beautiful, broken people how they can be made whole. Because that’s my story. Only me and God know the depth of my brokenness and the brilliance of His restoration. But how? How could I ever find a way to tell them?
A young man takes the stage. I’ve seen him around before a few times. He’s a regular. They love him, accept him as one of their own. He leads the cheers and the chants throughout the night, makes loud inside jokes. When he steps up to the mic and talks about his new album, I’m expecting the furthest thing from what comes out of his mouth next.
“I believe in Jesus because I am not tall enough to believe in myself.”
My interest is definitely piqued, but still I brace myself for what’s next. I’ve heard plenty of God-bashing here. Maybe he’s setting us up.
The poem’s a story about losing a girl and dealing with a broken heart. But it goes on, and he ends up spilling beautiful, descriptive, real words about his relationship with Christ.
“He singed me with his smile… crushed me in his arms, and wept with me as he wrenched me new.”
My jaw is on the floor. This is one of the best sermon’s I’ve ever heard, I’m thinking. It probably has a lot to do with the context, but I’m also a sucker for any story-art-truth connection. And redemption in general. And the words.
When he ends his poem to uproarious cheers and applause, my friends and I exchange glances. That was awesome.
At the same time, other thoughts begin to stir in my mind.
What an amazing thing this guy is doing! He brings the truth of Christ into this group as one of them and isn’t afraid to be real about his faith. He’s a missionary. He’s doing exactly the kind of thing I—all of us—should be doing. His living it out, meeting people where they are. And he’s not selling out his art in the process—it’s just as real and raw as anything else on that stage.
Who am I? Why do I have such a complex about this place, these people? Yes, I like to go in and observe, listen, try to be kind and strike up conversations when I can. But when have I really tried, what have I really done to be one of them? My whole life, I’ve been an outsider trying to hang onto the fringes of the insiders. But man, I relate to these people in deep, intangible ways. Maybe I have crippling stage fright, but what’s that to keep me from just being there, from being one of them, from sharing my own scars and pointing to the One who heals them? I don’t just have this problem here. I have it most places I go. It’s not that there are no opportunities. It’s that I have too many excuses.
As one of my friends said after I told him this story, “Any place people are being real and open, that is a great place to be. So many opportunities for the gospel.”
Praise God the gospel isn’t limited by me. I thank Him for Jesus-loving poets. I ask Him for the courage and the passion to put down the excuses, roll up my sleeves, expose my scars, and point to Him.