Monday, May 23, 2005

The Same Game...The Wanderer for Wonderwhat (16)

(Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17)

The same game, just different rules…
“So, I hear you have a little church meeting in this place.”
“Uh, yeah, we sure do. Is there something I can help you with?” The Wanderer was standing outside of the building they had rented after leaving the dress shop, working on cleaning some patio furniture to put out front. The man standing before him was tall, around fifty with hawkish features and narrow eyes. He wore a light blue polo shirt and khaki pants, the uniform of those who must be forced into donning casual attire.

“What kind of church is this?”
It wasn’t so much what he said, as it was the way he said it, which tipped the Wanderer off as to who this man was. He knew this kind of question well, and it wasn’t a pleasant inquiry but more like being slapped with a glove and invited to a duel. The Wanderer restrained himself from letting out a sigh. He wanted to turn away, get back to what he was doing, pretend the man wasn’t there. But none of those actions would ever slip past his conscience. He was trapped in the web of his own courtesy.
The Church Spy had him, and there was no escape.

“What kind of church is this?” the Wanderer repeated the question, buying himself some time. He knew what this question really meant: “What makes you think you’re allowed to do this? What makes you think that you represent a legitimate church?”

The Wanderer knew he’d better play it safe and not tip his hand. “We don’t belong to any denomination, if that’s what you mean?”

“So, you’re independent.” The Church Spy said matter-of-factly. “You the pastor?”

“Uh, well, yeah I serve here and do most of the teaching…so yeah, I’m a pastor here.” Said the Wanderer, as though trying to convince himself.

“How many members do you have?” asked the Church Spy, looking past the Wanderer’s shoulder, through the window into the Big Room, where the tables, chairs, couches and surfboards could clearly be seen.

The Wanderer smiled at this question. Members were currency in church-speak. The number of members that a leader could point to gave immediate readings about the value and status of a church, and especially it’s leader. It was almost like a gauge on a leader’s forehead, which his peers would look at and measure his worth in the kingdom of God. Every leader he had ever known abided by this unspoken rule. If a leader had a lot of members, he was important and his work was “blessed”. If he had very few, it must be a test, or there is something he must be failing to do; something about him that diminishes his worth. Every leader he had ever known always asked the question “How are things at your church?”, and every leader he had ever known always knew that that question really meant, “How many members do you have in your church.”.
The Wanderer knew that Freudian ideologists could have had a field day with this behavior, making a grand argument about the word “member”.

The Wanderer smiled, because he loved disrupting this game. It was childish, and self-gratifying, but it was a temptation he could never resist.
“You mean, how many members on our official roll?” the Wanderer egged.
“Well, sure.” Replied the Church Spy.
“None.” Said the Wanderer, unable to suppress his smile.
The Church Spy cocked his head to one side like a man trying to understand someone speaking in a foreign language.
“We don’t have an official membership. We’re just a bunch of friends hanging out and loving Jesus. People come and people go, and we assume it’s all by God’s leading.” The Wanderer’s teeth were showing, his smile was so broad. In his mind, he said “Sorry pal, we just don’t deal in the same currency.”

“Oh, I see.” Said the Church Spy, and the Wanderer read those three words like a speech. “Oh, I see- you are trying to avoid the game. You’re a rebel; you’re a flash in the pan. You and your little church won’t amount to a thing unless you engage this according to the rules. You try to speak this strange language of friends instead of members, but I’m not impressed. I’ve been around, I’ve seen your type sprout up and die just as quickly. You are the fringe, and on the fringe you’ll always be.”

“So, how many friends would you say hang out here?” asked the Church Spy, emphasizing his words to communicate the message that it all still comes down to numbers, no matter what name you give the things counted.

“I couldn’t say for sure, I’ve never counted personally.” The Wanderer was way too pleased with himself for this. He knew his attitude had taken a terrible turn during this encounter, and this discussion was fast becoming a religious pissing contest. “But, if you really are in need of a number…. lets see…. we have two hundred chairs in the Big Room, plus couches; two services on Sunday morning that are just about full each time…so my guess would be close to four hundred friends.”
He regretted it as soon as he said it.

“Four…here? I see.” Said the Church Spy, barely concealing his surprise. And in those two words, the Wanderer read a different speech. “I see – you are, in reality, a threat. You are undermining the way things are done. You have no respect for order or history; you are a communist, a radical, a terrorist. You are suspect, and will always be suspect.”

In a tone that slightly suggested a sage to a student, the Church Spy said, “That’s a lot of people. It’s a big responsibility.”

The Wanderer was suddenly so tired, and so sorry that he’d taken the conversation down this path. What did it matter, why not play by the rules. In a few hours it would all have been forgotten, and the bitterness of swallowing his pride would have worn off. His mind traced over so many of these same kinds of encounters, and all of them seemed to press on him to wear him down.
“How do you expect to be blessed if you don’t teach tithing?”
“How do you keep track of people’s membership without providing a letter?”
“How do you make church decisions if you don’t vote on them?”-“Well, we have a group of leaders who discuss issues, and after a lot of laughter and prayer, in that order, we either all agree or we don’t do anything.”
“How can you call yourself a teacher when you haven’t been to seminary?” – “I don’t know, can I call a life-line?”
“Is this a Spirit-filled church, do ya’ll have the Holy Ghost?” – “Is there such a thing as a church without the Holy Spirit? Wouldn’t that almost be a contradiction in terms?”

“You know…it’s really not that big of a deal. We’re just broken people who have found a way to meet together that seems to fit our needs. It’s not the way, or anything like that…it’s just our way, and Jesus seems to heal us through it. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do things the same way.” The Wanderer said, hoping to find a gate in the fence between them.

“Yes, well, there are a lot of different views out there, that’s true.” The Church Spy held out his hand to shake the Wanderer’s. The Wanderer took his hand without hesitation, wishing his desire for peace could be somehow transmitted through his arm.

“Thanks for your time, maybe we’ll drop by sometime and visit with you.” Said the Church Spy as he loosely shook the Wanderers hand.
“That’d be great.” Said the Wanderer, knowing he would probably never see him again.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Great Wide Open- The Wanderer for Wonderwhat (15)

(Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17)
The Great Wide Open
The Wanderer looked at the men and women who had gathered with him, who shared the leadership of the church with him. They were good people, and he trusted them without boundaries. Now they sat around him, looking at him earnestly and waiting for his response. But all the Wanderer could do was look at these friends of his and admire them. There was the Cop, stocky in build and personality. His honesty and practicality were immeasurably important to the Wanderer. There was the Electrician; whose large frame contained one of the most confident people the Wanderer had ever met. For the Wanderer, that confidence was something he would lean into when searching for his own strength. He looked at all the people gathered around him; the Salesman, the Wanderer’s brother, the Intellectual. They shared his vision, they had given their hearts and minds and strength to the cause of finding a different way to do church. He loved them all. “What wonderful people to have as friends.” He thought.

“Seriously, we need to decide what to do here.” The Cop said. The Wanderer drifted back to his present reality, leaving the thoughts of admiration for another time.
“We are out of room, and this doesn’t seem to be a problem that will go away.”
“Do you realize that the kids are having to sit on the floor pretty regularly now?”
“It’s really time to get serious about finding a new place to meet.”

The Wanderer looked around the room, taking everything in. There were decorations hanging from the ceiling, surfboards hanging on the walls and propped up in various spaces. There were posters and photographs and poems affixed randomly on walls. The faint smell of coffee permeated everything. This was their hangout. This was the community’s home.
“How would we ever duplicate this?” The Wanderer said, more to himself than those with him.
“Well, we wouldn’t duplicate it, we’d just make it ours as we go.” His wife said.

At her words, the Wanderer sat up straight in his chair. This was serious. This wasn’t one of the friendly, joking banters about how to become a mega-church and buy him a jet. This was a full-fledged “intervention”, and he was the target of their concern. They were trying to seriously convince him that it was time to leave. Leave this place where they had seen this community thing work. This wasn’t like going from the living room to the dress shop. The dress shop was just an oversized living room anyway. They were talking about a lot of room.
“Do you really think more than a hundred people would actually get involved in this thing?” he laughed, hoping they’d see the ludicrousness of that notion.

To his horror, the Wanderer actually saw them roll their eyes at him.
The Electrician’s wife, so soft-spoken and meek, finally spoke up. “You’ve been saying that all along. You always think we won’t get any larger as a fellowship, and this thing just never stops growing. If this is really about people, and God is really in charge of it, then you’ve got to quit trying to manage it and control it and stunt it’s growth. This is natural; it’s really a good thing if you’d just look at it right. We haven’t been marketing or manipulating people to get involved in this, this is just happening. God must be doing it, and it must be meeting people’s needs. You’ve got to let go of this, and let God do what He wants!”

The Wanderer blinked. He knew how good her heart was. Worst of all, he knew she was right.

Cake and ice cream. You ate it first.

“I don’t know guys. Can we even afford moving to a bigger place?” The Wanderer pleaded.

You were allowed to eat your cake and ice cream first.

The disapproving looks from his friends told him his answer.
“Couldn’t we just figure out a way to keep from becoming such a big community?” He was scrambling.

But now it’s time to eat the peas.

“I mean…maybe we should start taking up offerings? Or I could teach on tithing for six months straight?” Everyone laughed, but no one agreed.

And you’re not leaving this table until you eat them all.
You may not like it, but it’s good for you all the same.

Heaving an exaggerated sigh, the Wanderer picked up his fork, and took his first bite full.
“Well, do we have any prospects to investigate? And who’s going to be in charge of negotiating a lease when we find a place?”

The energy of the conversation grew, and his friends spoke with great, animated gestures as they described how a new meeting place could be designed to fit their current needs. He knew they were right, and he loved them with all his heart.

The Wanderer watched with melancholy affection, as the last drip of melted ice cream spread under his abandoned spoon.