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.


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