Saturday, October 27, 2007

Rain on the Windshield

The door of the dingy pub closed abruptly behind them, perhaps aided as much by an aversion to natural light and fresh air, as by the damp and chill breeze driven off the nearby ocean. Sealed now against outside intrusions, the effluvium of alcohol and a large number of hard-working bodies—along with the accompanying noise of laughter and conversation—was gone as if it had never existed.

Each instinctively burrowing a little deeper into their coats, the Younger and the Elder set off at a brisker pace than normal, the signs of approaching winter acknowledged without comment.

“The Rusty Parrot?” the Younger queried as he glanced back at the name on the garish sign serving as a neon lure to the Elder’s favorite watering hole. “Was the name chosen after sampling each and every drink on the menu?

The Elder tucked his chin into the collar of his coat, hands balled into fists deep in his pockets. “Well, they obviously didn’t possess your marketing expertise back in the day when this pub first opened,” he replied, favoring his young friend with a wink and a smile. “But if my math skills are still up to par, you were probably watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island in diapers at the time.

“Gilligan’s what?” the Younger dead-panned, feigning ignorance and innocence all at once.

“Was that a geography show on Discovery?”

The Elder almost certainly said something worthy in response, but whatever it was, a sudden gust of frigid air, bringing with it the beginning of a cold rain, obscured it. Quickening their pace yet again, they arrived at the roadside location of the Elder’s car, ignoring the sentinel presence of the parking meter; it was after five o’clock, and it was Friday.

As they fidgeted on either side of the car, the Elder fumbled with stiff fingers for the correct key, pretending not to hear the Younger muttering darkly about remote entry systems. With the popping sound of the lock being released, both quickly ducked into the cold, but thankfully dry, environs of the vehicle.

“Maybe I’ll regret this,” the Younger began, “but I wanted to ask you what you meant back there”—he gestured towards the Rusty Parrot—“about how ministry to the poor was another reason why a totally flat structure in leadership wouldn’t work.”

The Elder started the car, adjusting the climate controls to “heat,” assuming of course, that waiting twenty minutes for the ancient engine to warm up was acceptable.

“Well, it brings some reality to the well-intentioned idea that a totally flat leadership structure is even possible (which I doubt), where even assuming it were possible, it still might not be wise.” Although he began his answer looking straight ahead, gazing at the sizable raindrops being teased across the window by the cold wind, he turned to look his young friend in the eye at the end, as if to emphasize “wise.”

Schooling himself to not break the steady gaze of the other, the Younger replied, “Help me understand.”

“Okay,” the Elder agreed, nodding and shifting his gaze back to the sight and sound of the rain pelting the windshield. “Let’s begin by assuming you’re involved in a regular, ongoing ministry among the poor, versus the normal practice of Christian suburbanites making the occasional ‘ministry field trip’ into the less economically fortunate areas of town.”

The Younger nodded without speaking; the Elder’s thinly-disguised impatience for what he called “field trips” was familiar territory for them both. It was all part of their larger discussion on being incarnational.

“Well,” the Elder continued, “if you are expecting to have a regular, incarnational—dare I say missional—presence among the poor, it would only make sense that they would be considered part of your communities, and not just one of your projects, eh?”

Again, the Younger nodded and waited, although for a moment—but only for a very brief moment—he felt a mild annoyance at how long it was taking the Elder’s car to warm up. Cold air wafted over him from the “window and foot” setting.

The Elder spoke again. “People are poor and/or homeless for a variety of reasons, of course, but one of them is mental illness. Most of them often resist medication even when it’s available, and many remain un-diagnosed. You follow me so far?”

Again that look, before the Elder once more resumed his lecture directed at the windshield. “What would untreated—or un-diagnosed—mental illness do to a flat leadership structure? A round table where everyone’s voice is equally valid?”

The Elder paused for a moment, appearing to chew reflectively on the inside of one cheek. The Younger knew his friend had strong feelings about his involvement with the poor and disenfranchised of their city, and one of his recurrent beefs was the condescending attitudes of ‘field trippers.’ He instinctively felt the Elder’s uneasiness in giving his blunt assessment.

Finally, the Elder spoke again, a little softer. “We can learn from the poor, yes. According to St. Matthew, we meet Jesus in the poor. But anyone who sincerely believes in a flat leadership approach must include the mentally ill in all decisions. And, frankly, there will be some—if not many—places where that would be inappropriate. And so, even if a flat structure were possible—ignoring for a moment that there will always be people who seek to elevate themselves even in a so-called ‘flat’ setting, becoming quite manipulative in the process, to preserve the façade—it would not be wise, unless you plan to keep the poor out of your community.”

“Sort of like creating a missional court of the Gentiles, eh?” the Younger suggested carefully. He was intrigued by his friend’s uncharacteristic quietness, especially on the subject of the poor. “I think I see what you’re getting at. Basically, you’re saying that a ‘round table’ or flat leadership structure only works if everyone is exactly the same. So, again, help me understand—why are people so set on having a group without leaders, if it’s not really possible? Or wise?”

The Elder started suddenly, as if jarred out of distracting thoughts elsewhere. The Younger suddenly realized that the heater was finally working, and that they had fogged up all the windows. Putting the car into gear, the Elder smiled and quipped, “This is how rumors get started,” before easing into traffic.

“Fear,” he said suddenly, as they navigated the turning lane.

“And distrust,” he added a moment later, before the Younger could comment. “Fear of being controlled, and distrust of others, for the same reason. And neither is a good motivational emotion for choosing—or rejecting—a leadership structure.”

And as the rain continued to pelt their windshield, bravely held at bay by the squeaking wipers, they continued on in silence, each deep in his own thoughts.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Wormwood’s Apprentices

It was a scorchingly hot day: stifling, energy-draining, punishing—you might even say it was sulphurous. Yet Wormwood barely noticed, as he gazed slowly and malevolently around the circle of eager apprentices, none of whom seemed—in Wormwood’s opinion—to be sufficiently cowed by his presence.

“All right,” he hissed. “Let’s review a bit, shall we, my young apprentices?”

“I have gone to great lengths to serve Our Father Below by attacking the Enemy’s plan of  . . .” he paused momentarily, as if undecided whether or not to voice the terrible curse word. “Evangelism.”
The three young apprentices immediately and passionately joined Wormwood in the traditional response to the “E-word,” which every demon, young and old, knows is to ritually spit to the left. It sounds like “hyuck, spit,” and woe to the foolish apprentice who mistakenly spits right when everyone else spits left.
Wiping his leathery lips, Wormwood continued: “I have persuaded many of the Enemy’s deluded followers into adopting the same methodology as those they call ‘cults’—they go door-to-door and annoy people who just want some peace and quiet, hand out unwanted literature in malls and on the streets, and generally make themselves as unappealing as chicken-ripple ice cream.”

He indulged himself in a moment of gloating triumph. “These puny mortals don’t seem capable of recognizing that when they use the same methods as the cults, people just think they’re another cult!” The four of them cackled and snorted with great glee.

Wormwood’s smile disappeared as if it had never existed. “Now, my young apprentices, what have YOU come up with to put a stop to evangelism?” He drew the word out like a bandage being peeled slowly off an open wound.

Hyuck, spit,” responded the three apprentices. Then the boldest, Rotgut, went first.

“Under my tutelage,” he began airily, not noticing Wormwood roll his bloodshot eyes at the arrogance of the young. “The puny mortals have ‘decided’ that they need to make their loathsome little gatherings focused on the needs of those who aren’t with them.”

The other apprentices gave him looks ranging from incredulity to derision. Before the obvious question could be asked, Rotgut quickly continued. “But since none of the little idiots actually knows anybody outside of their churches, they waste all their time, energy and money on planning their meetings. Additionally,”—(Wormwood hated it when Rotgut would repeatedly use the word ‘additionally.’ Wormwood had never suffered fools gladly.)—“Additionally, the rank-and-file actually believe that their main job is to try and invite people to big meetings, where the ‘professionals’ can do what they don’t realize that they should be doing . . . evangelism.”

Hyuck, spit,” replied the gathering around the table. Wormwood said nothing—let the little imp stew for awhile, wondering whether he’d gained Wormwood's approval or not. He kept his baleful glare fixed on Rotgut for an additional moment, and then eyed the next apprentice. When he finally spoke, it was a sharp and heated bark that caused all three apprentices to visibly quiver. “WELL?

“Mine’s even better!” Snivelski crowed, attempting to stifle his quiver. “My puny, insignificant slugs never even think to go out the door to talk to anyone, even to invite them to church!”

In other scenarios, such an announcement would have brought curiosity and envy, but in the slash-and-burn circles of demonica, Snivelski’s triumphant arrogance only earned him looks of malevolent suspicion.

“You see,” he hastened to add, speaking as if his listeners were slow of mind and wit. “The trick is to keep them inside their loathsome little buildings, where they’re safely isolated. So, in my grand experiment, I have them convinced that they must spend exponential amounts of time attending meetings to ‘prepare for the harvest,’ where they wail, they flail, they sing, and they have created an entire subculture for themselves that is so absorbed in conferences, chasing ‘anointed’ people, meetings, videos, and minutiae that they are self-imprisoned!”

“In a word,” he concluded without even attempting to hide his obvious superiority, “containment.”

Wormwood nodded grudgingly, impressed, and instantly wished he hadn’t. It was always best to keep these impudent young tempters under one’s thumb, and acknowledging even the beginnings of a good idea didn’t help.

His gaze shifted to the third apprentice, Slyster. He’d always liked Slyster; although he was big and strong, he was much more subtle and cunning than his peers—the kind of deviousness that separated the truly effective tempters from the trolls and wanna-be’s.

Sensing that all eyes were on him, Slyster began to speak in his whispery, conspiratorial manner. “Whether inside their churches or outside, I have devised a way to fool the Enemy’s scrawny peons into voluntarily becoming completely passive non-combatants.”

Glancing around the table with narrowed eyes and a devious look on his otherwise benign face, he clearly saw that they were intrigued and showed it, in spite of themselves.

“My peons can go anywhere, and still be no threat to us or Our Father Below. You see, I’ve convinced them that it’s offensive to speak of the eternal destiny of others, and that it’s even more of a faux pas to act or speak as if they know the only way to our Enemy Above. They may perform a few do-gooder duties here and there, but that's all.”

Slyster could clearly see that he was winning the grudging favour of his fellow apprentices, and even Wormwood looked menacingly deep in thought. “You see, Master Wormwood, it’s one thing to attempt to contain them, or to make them too absorbed in their own ridiculous little subcultures, but imagine—just imagine—what it would be like if we convinced our Enemy’s followers that there is nothing so arrogant, so elitist and so offensive as . . .” he paused to look around the resentful but impressed circle, and hissed: “Evangelism?”

Hyuck, spit,” everyone agreed, each carefully remembering to aim left.

Wormwood favored each of them with a glowering look, stroking his chin. At last, he simply grunted, “Huh. A four-pronged attack. Each of these strategies compliments the rest. Our Father Below will be pleased.” He allowed them just a brief second to savor the moment, before crashing his fist into the table and thundering, “Now, get back to work!”

Wormwood watched them scamper off in fear, smugly satisfied that they remained appropriately deferential to him. Still, he mused as he got up to leave, they were showing themselves to be clever and innovative. Wormwood would take all the credit when he reported to his Father Below, of course, but deep down, he had to admit: he was impressed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


What is “conversational prayer,” anyway?

That was the initial thought in my mind—as a 16-year-old dishwasher at a summer camp—when one of the guys in our cabin group suggested it as a way to end our Bible study time one sweltering afternoon. As it turns out, it was just an effort to involve the whole group by having everyone contribute a couple of sentences to the closing prayer instead of having just one person do it.

Hardly what you’d call “living on the edge,” but it did break the routine at this theologically very conservative camp. However, what happened during this somewhat-stiff-but-still-participatory prayer time was outside of any of our mental or spiritual grids.

We had gone about halfway around the circle of prayer, and suddenly, all of us were acutely aware of something dramatic happening. None of us had asked for it, or prayed about it, but suddenly, the presence of the Holy Spirit filled that little cabin.

I remember lying on the top bunk, looking up at the worn rafters—autographed roughly by a succession of campers over the years—and not knowing if I wanted to laugh or cry, but definitely feeling a surge of Life flowing through me.

A few moments later—or was it much longer? —that acute sense of the Spirit left as quietly as He had arrived, and after a short, hushed silence, the prayer time resumed. But as the final “amen” was spoken, the whispers and comments began to immediately buzz around the room.

My co-worker on the bottom bunk—with the unlikely but self-chosen nickname of Ferd—stood up and peered at me over the edge of my upper bunk, eyes wide. “Did you feel that?” was all he could say, voice hushed with awe. I could only laugh and nod.

Sitting up and looking around our cabin, it was immediately obvious that every person present had been affected by this visitation of the Spirit—even the two guys who claimed to not be interested in Jesus (that changed dramatically over the next two days).

There had been no visions, prophecies, or speaking tongues (this was a decidedly non-charismatic denominational camp which discounted such things anyways), but there wasn’t a person in that room who hadn’t had a very real sense of the Spirit’s presence and touch on our lives—whether we had the theological grid to understand or the vocabulary to put the experience into adequate words or not.

Brother Maynard has suggested that September should be a month of post-charismatics giving voice to what apostolic leadership could/should look like. I’d like to propose a synchro-blog to get the ball rolling. Namely, as I’ve just shared my earliest “charismatic” experience (after becoming a Christian, that is), let’s tell each other our stories of how we first became acquainted with, and eager for, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dingy & Musty

The door slammed behind them, driven by the wind perhaps, or else the seedy wharf-side tavern itself had a strong disaffection to natural light entering its questionable environs.

“Dingy and musty, a haven for the nefarious,” the Younger opined, as he took in the sights and smells of the establishment.

“Not so loud,” the Elder cautioned. “The local clientele may not appreciate your literary wit as much as I do.”

They exchanged conspiratorial smiles and threaded their way through the crowded tavern to order their drinks, the Younger momentarily stymied by the unfamiliar assortment of ales proffered. As per their earlier agreement, of course, the Younger paid.

Once they had found a place to sit, in a shadowy booth near the back of the establishment, they continued their conversation from the street.

“You still haven’t convinced me,” the Younger began, ever the skeptic, “that a flat leadership structure is such a good idea.”

“Excuse medid I really say flat, or was it flattened?” the Elder countered.

The Younger made a sour face, either in response to the Elder’s question or possibly the unexpected taste of the unfamiliar ale. “You’re not going to start playing semantics with me, are you?”

A small group of rowdies, obviously enjoying some comrade-time after a long day of work, stumbled past their table, at once merry and bawdy. The Elder seemed barely to notice their passage as he responded.

“It’s an important distinction.” A pause for another sip of ale. “There’s really no such thing as a totally ‘flat’—or leader-less—group. Every group has a leader. It’s more a matter of how many unnecessary or redundant layers of leadership there are, that get in the way of the rest of the gathering actually participating. So, I’m all for flattened leadership, but I don’t believe in flat leadership.”

The Younger frowned and studied the dark liquid before him before answering. "But I’ve heard quite a few people talking about their gatherings as being completely ‘round table’, following the leading of the Spirit alone. Are you saying they’re lying, or possibly delusional?”

“I wouldn’t put it in those exact terms,” the Elder laughed, raising his hands in mock surrender. “They’re probably quite sincere in their desire for such a group, but it simply doesn’t exist.”

“Well, then, I guess it’s my turn to play ‘devil’s advocate’. The Younger grinned, tossing his napkin down on the table with as much force as the thin paper product would allow. “Consider this the ‘gauntlet of challenge’, my friend. Surely there's some way of having a leaderless group that has a truly flat, repeat flat, leadership.”

The Elder gazed at the scoured wall above the back of the booth’s bench for a moment, not really seeing the faded and stained painting of a ship in high seas masquerading as art. “Yes, I suppose such a group is possible, as long as it (A) is made up of people who already have a long-standing shared history, (B) is small in number, and (C) intentionally does not allow new members to be added to the group.”

“The previously-established relationships would be more likely to safeguard the ethos of the group, and the small numbers would put relationships on a high enough premium that a certain—oh, how shall I say it?—status quo could be preserved. And by preventing the addition of outsiders, the group would be protected from people who don’t have the same shared history and concern for maintaining the relational balance, and who might introduce new ideas or direction.”

The Younger came perilously close to spewing his mouthful of ale across the booth, so shocked was his reaction. “Wow, that’s got to be the most unexpected thing I’ve heard come out of your mouth in... well, I don’t know, maybe ever,” he sputtered. “Why would you assume that new people would bring new ideas that would threaten the group? If somebody came in and tried to change the group, they would just have to be corrected. With ‘gentleness and respect,’ as St. Peter said, of course.”

The Elder leaned across the table, his eyes locked with the Younger’s. “And who would do that correcting? The whole group? That would seem like over-kill, I’d think, and the newcomers would probably run for the hills.”

The Younger toyed with the rim of his glass for a moment. “Okay, point made. Somebody would have to take the responsibility to deal with it, BUT . . .” he also leaned across the table. “The existing group would have already agreed on the direction of the group, so he or she would be speaking on behalf of the group, not just on their own authority.” And he settled triumphantly into the creaky bench seat once again.

The Elder raised his eyebrows. “So, would we then have to assume that the original ‘vision,’ if you will, of the first members of the group is binding on all who come later, and that none of the newcomers could possibly have something meaningful to contribute?”

The Younger opened his mouth to reply, thought better of it, and glanced around the booth, the nearby well-imbibed patrons, and the dimly-lit bar. Finally, with a rueful grin, he said, “I hate it when you do this.”

The Elder sighed and slumped his shoulders ever so slightly. “I’m sorry, that was more harsh than I intended. I’ve had some good friends really burnt in this area, and sometimes, like now, that affects how I say things. Forgive me?”

“Of course,” the Younger immediately replied. “I guess when it affects real, live people, it’s different than when we’re just discussing theoretical possibilities, eh?”

The Elder nodded. “We need to probably look at the impact of ministry among the poor, and how it affects the dynamics of flattened leadership as well, but let’s leave that one for later.” He smiled knowingly. “I have a feeling that might be a ‘live round of ammo’ kind of discussion as well. I’ll buy next time, of course,” he finished with a wink.

“Sounds fair,” the Younger agreed, glancing once more around the loud environs. “By the way, what are we doing here? This place is nothing like our usual spot.”

The Elder took an appreciative glance around the somewhat-less-than-trendy drinking hole. “Oh, several thousand millenia ago, when I was a college student, I used to come here after a long day at a summer job with my co-workers. This place is a good yardstick for me, whenever I start taking my ideas and myself perhaps a little too seriously.”

“How’s that? A yardstick? Are you going pre-Metric System on me again?” the Younger asked, feigning a puzzled look as he shrugged into his jacket.

The Elder favored him with a withering look before leaning across the table once more, his eyes now taking in the scene around them.

“Look at the people who would call this their ‘regular third place’. Do you suppose any one of them gives a rat’s patookus about modernity, postmodernity, or even calling a tavern their ‘third place’? That’s what I mean. This place reminds me not to create yet another layer of Christendom between myself and Joe Average or Jane Anybody.”

The Younger took another look at the regular patrons of the tavern, with a new sense of appreciation. “Well, at least we’re being ‘incarnational’, by being here, eh?” he quipped, as they got up to leave.

The Elder chuckled as their threaded their way back to the outside street, under the quickly-descending light of dusk. “Yes, I guess we’re more ‘authentic’ this way, but as long as our conversation in this place is on another plane of existence from the rest of the patrons, I’m not sure we're really all that much closer. But we’re getting there. Bit by bit, I really do believe we’re getting there.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Faded Jeans Blues

Have you ever loved a pair of blue jeans? Whether they be Levis or some designer label, stone-washed or acid-washed, boot-cut or bell-bottom? You know, just an incredibly comfortable, worn-forever pair of blue jeans?

I just had to part ways with a pair that Ive worn literally into rags. It was hard to do. They were just so danged comfortable, so familiar, so dependable.

It takes a while to get jeans broken in so that they fit like they were created from whole cloth just for you. These jeans qualified. They were comfortable, well-broken-in, and pulling them out of the dryer while folding laundry felt like opening the door and seeing a long-lost friend.

Whenever I would look in the bottom drawer of my dresser for pants, if they were thereeven on the bottom of the pileI would dig them out without a second thought.

They were getting pretty thread-bare, by now. Holes in the knees had been followed by holes in the thighs. These holes eventually began to not only get larger, but conspired together to grow towards each other. The cuffs were hopelessly frayed from countless times of scuffling along the ground. The pocketsonce trust-worthy repositories for coins, guitar picks, and a flash drivebegan to betray my faith in them by developing escape routes for valuables.

The belt loop where I always clipped my car keys with a biner (pronounced beener) was now only attached at one end, and had become merely an impotent reminder of its former useful self.

Clearly, it was time to send these once-functional, well-loved friends to the Great Denim Warehouse in the Sky. Yet, it proved more difficult than I first anticipated. Familiarity, and a sense of shared history, when combined with many good memories of times past, can make it difficult to do what should be obvious.

Sure, these faded, worn-and-torn, ripped up blue jeans were hardly even functional by this point, but they were comfortable, familiar, and getting rid of them would mean starting all over with a new, unbroken-in, unfamiliar pair. It was surprising how tenacious the desire to just keep wearing them was.

Finally came the day when I pulled them from the dryer, glanced at the inside, and saw (A) that the back pocket had obviously had a falling out with the rest of the leg, meaning my butt would be unceremoniously exposed, and (B) the crotch was about to go at any second, and Im just not young & hip enough to wear some crazy boxers underneath these rips as if it were actually stylish.

So, facing the inevitable, yet not without a twinge of remorse and nostalgia, I wadded my denim companion into as tight a ball as possible, and slam-dunked the faded and tattered remains into the garbage can that resides benignly under our kitchen sink. Farewell, good and faithful steed.

Well, what do you think?

Is this story a metaphor for something else, or am I really just writing about an old pair of jeans?