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.