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?" queried the Younger, as he glanced back at the name on the garish sign serving as a neon lure to the Elder's favourite 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, obviously they didn't have your marketing expertise back in the day when this pub first opened," he replied, favouring 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?" dead-panned the Younger, 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," began the Younger, "but I wanted to ask you what you meant back there", as 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 20 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 had begun 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," agreed the Elder, nodding and shifting his gaze back to the sight and sound of the rain pelting the windshield. "Let's start by assuming that 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," continued the Elder, "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 communitas, 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 undiagnosed. You follow me so far?"

Again that look, before the Elder once more resumed his lecture directed at the windshield. "What would untreated -- or undiagnosed -- 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 that his friend had strong feelings about his involvement with the poor and disenfranchised of their city, and that one of his recurrent "beefs" was the condescending attitudes of "field trippers"; the Younger 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 of being a round table -- 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?", suggested the Younger, 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 -- then 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 rumours 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.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Doctor Bob

ex·hor·ta·tion [eg-zawr-tey-shuhn,] noun;
  1. the act or process of exhorting.
  2. an utterance, discourse, or address conveying urgent advice or recommendations.

It's been well over a decade since I began to re-surface out of my own season of detoxing. During this time – especially since posting the original Detoxing from Church article online – I have had the privilege to connect with people from literally around the world. And as we have all shared our stories, discoveries, struggles, and questions (hindsight is always 20/20), I remembered a significant day when someone I had never met before shared an exhortation with me, which I have never forgotten.

As the definition above suggests, exhortation is beyond simply offering a take-it-or-leave-it suggestion. It's more profound than off-the-cuff friendly advice. There's a sense of urgency, as if failing to heed the exhortation may result in disastrous effects. It may even be an admonition that challenges your current thoughts and attitudes.

And yet, when it is truly a word of exhortation, you recognize the spiritual wisdom it holds, and you are grateful that somebody cared enough about you to say it. The story of how this word of exhortation came to me goes something like this:

More years ago than I'd normally like to admit, I had the dubious distinction of experiencing first-hand what it feels like to be fired from a church. Well, technically, I 'resigned', because the leaders wanted to tell the congregation that they didn't fire me. However, it was an increasingly difficult environment, in which the proverbial heat was being turned up with one goal in mind: to encourage me to accept the inevitable, and 'resign'.

As stubborn and thick-headed as I can be at times, I finally realized that we'd reached a complete impasse, and my continued presence was only going to wear everybody out: the staff, the leaders, and the congregation. It was definitely taking its toll on Wendy and I. So I resigned, although it sure felt like getting fired. I think the technical word is 'duress'.
"Well, of course he resigned of his own free will! Look, here's his signature, at the bottom of this blood-stained document!"
But I digress...

In the midst of the pain, feelings of betrayal and disillusionment, as I watched my dream of full-time pastoral ministry morphing into something less than what I had hoped for, I felt very isolated, without anyone to turn to for wise counsel.

What had once been a vibrant team of youth leaders had become a difficult place for everyone. These were our closest friends and co-workers, but all of us were suddenly caught in a maelstrom of church politics, which none of us had a grid for processing. Wendy and I couldn't think of any way to share our side of the story without being accused of sowing division, and the numbing silence that grew between all of us resulted inevitably (for Wendy and I) in further isolation.

My last official pastoral duty was locking up the church after the midnight Christmas Eve service, before sealing my keys into a letter-sized envelope, and 'delivering' them back into the church through the mail slot in the front door.

We lost our church family, our house (the parsonage), the youth ministry we had pioneered, our only source of income, and a lot of friends, who felt they had no option but to choose between friendship with us, and their church home.

It was a very dark time.

During this hard season, just a few weeks before that final Christmas Eve service, the phone rang in my office, and I heard an unfamiliar female voice asking if she could schedule me for a lunch appointment with Dr. Bob.

I had heard of Dr. Bob by reputation only, having never met him nor heard him speak, although I was aware that he was a pastor in a local church. Curious, I agreed to a time and a restaurant, and the church secretary informed me that Dr. Bob would meet me there.

At the appointed time and place, Dr. Bob showed up and treated me to lemon pie and coffee. During our one hour together, he delicately probed the situation I was experiencing, and allowed me to sort through some of my thoughts and feelings through his wise combination of insightful inquiries, and lots of reflective listening.

As the close of our far-too-brief hour arrived, Dr. Bob gave me the only piece of pastoral advice that he was to offer that day. His exhortation.

Stirring his coffee, seemingly fascinated with the concentric swirls he was creating in the cup, he asked, "Tell me, Robby, how old are you?"

"I'm thirty," I replied, and waited.

Dr. Bob took his time, stirring his coffee slowly and deliberately. Still gazing thoughtfully into his cup, he softly remarked, "You're still quite young. You have many, many years of fruitful ministry ahead of you."

Then he stopped stirring, carefully placed his spoon on the napkin beside his empty pie plate, and finally locked eyes with me.

"Unless you grow bitter."

His gaze held mine for what seemed an eternity, as he watched the lesson sink deep into my soul, before he spoke once more.

"Guard your heart, young man. Guard your heart."

And with that, he paid our bill, bade me farewell, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

But what a gift he had given me that day...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bull Whips & Morpheus the Worship Leader

I was sixteen years old the first time I led worship. Typical: it was at a summer camp, and I was the only teenaged staff member who could play guitar, so I became the default worship leader. Didn't matter that I had never sung in public (my elementary school teachers told my parents I was tone deaf, and my high school music teacher said I had absolutely zero musical talent), or that I had only been playing guitar for about eight months and had a special abhorrence for the aptly-named "F-chord".

It's another example to me of God's infinitely creative and ironic sense of humour, in that I would later be a worship/youth pastor in a denomination known for its worship (Vineyard Canada). And although there are in all likelihood still some who think I'm tone-deaf and have no talent, worship leading has been a significant part of my life ever since.

During the past decades of worship leading and/or being a backup musician to folks like Graham Ord, Norm Strauss, Andrew Smith, and David Ruis, I have observed a number of styles of leading worship, and I'd like to contrast two of them.

The first I call the "whips and flames" approach. This is the kind of worship leader (NOTE: none of the guys I mentioned by name ever did this!) that forces people through all kinds of performance hoops. Perhaps you've suffered under met a few of this type.

For example, there's that old song "Undignified" which includes the weighty lyric:
I will dance, I will sing
To be mad for my King
Nothing, Lord, is hindering the passion in my soul

And I'll become even more undignified that this (repeat last line until eyes glass over)
I don't want to pick on Matt Redman (and I'll admit to having played this song about ten or twelve years ago, myself), but where this gets into "whips and flames" is where the worship leader starts the song, notices that people aren't "performing" quite the way the leader had envisioned would happen when s/he was making up the worship set list, and stops the band to cry passionately:
"Don't you guys love Jesus? Look at the words!! Undignified! Dance! C'mon, let's get with it, people!"
...and then restarts the song and cracks the whip so that the congregation feels like it has no option but to jump through the hoop of performance fire.

There are many variations on this theme, including the dreaded Worship Leading With Cattle Prod, but what they all have in common is the musical equivalent of threatening/beating people with pointed sticks until they perform as the worship leader thinks they should be, usually presented as if Jesus Himself feels the same way.
The other approach, which I think more accurately reflects the true heart and job description of a worship leader, would best be exemplified by the postmodern prophet Morpheus, of The Matrix.

"I can only show you the door, Neo. You're the one that has to walk through it."
That's what worship leaders are supposed to be doing.

Worship leaders function as the maitre de, or the doorman, who invites, beckons, and shows people the door, but allows them the freedom to walk through it, each in his or her own way, and to worship in freedom, not in a prescribed, pre-programmed, lock-step agenda.

"Freedom" will rarely, if ever, look like everyone doing the same thing, at the same time. If it's orchestrated from the front, it can never be called "freedom". But if worship leaders emulate Morpheus, then we'll begin to see real worship, real freedom, and real hunger for more of Jesus.