"Ah, Grasshopper," came the ever-calm reply, "I see you as a missionary to another culture."
"No, I'm not," I thought, "I'm a Methodist Preacher!" He was right, of course. He always is. Upon further reflection, I realized that I am a missionary caught between two cultures.
For the past seven years, I have served small-town churches. Reform and Carbon Hill are each the size Birmingham-Southern was when I graduated. Before that, the smallest town I lived in was Gadsden, AL. I come from a genteel people whose lives centered around cocktail parties and the country club. Fortunately, I have attended, and earned degrees from, two of the finest educational institutions in the South (probably why I use words like "genteel" and "institution"). I know that sounds "snooty," but it has given me a very different set of values than the "hard-livin'" folks who surround me (to borrow Tex Sample's apt title). Here are a few examples:
- Not long after I arrived here, I was in the Jasper McDonalds. I over-heard two girls talking about a mutual friend. One said to the other, "You know him! Brittany whooped his ass at Maw Maw's Christmas party last year!" We need not even analyze that one to see on how many levels it is "just plain wrong!"
- One day, we were shopping at JC Penney's. One of my daughter's friends said, "I don't usually shop anywhere this nice." I didn't tell her that I once bought a tie that cost as much as her whole back-to-school wardrobe.
- Before Walker County was "The Bingo Capital of West Alabama," it was known as the place to hire an affordable hit man, or to hide the body when he was through.
In my church, and among their friends, it is a different story. As is typical, the United Methodists (and the Presbyterians and the "First Baptists") tend to be on the high end of the economic ladder. They don't attend Christmas parties that degenerate into an "ass-whoopin'." They don't play Bingo, though one of them owns a Bingo hall. They are lawyers, business men and women, professionals. I find it easy to relate to them. That's not the problem!
The problem is that I am called to relate to all these "other people" that my church would rather just ignore. Last week, a church member said to me, "Around here, it's always been 'the less you know, the better'." That not just a custom, its a survival tactic! When your neighbor might be a criminal (or know one who owes him a favor), it's safe to ignore.
About a month ago, a meth lab blew up in Carbon Hill, no big surprise for any of us who live in rural Alabama. Was is surprising and dismaying to me is its location - two blocks from the parsonage! It was just behind the home of everybody's favorite retired school teacher, a woman who is the epitome of genteel. The man who ran it, after the explosion, grabbed his step-kids and high-tailed it out of there. An amazing feat, considering he had third-degree burns over most of his body. One step-son had to cover his younger brother's face, so he wouldn't see the horror story behind the steering wheel. The other step-son called 911 on his cell phone before they got out of town, after the guy realized he couldn't drive anymore. The step-dad later died from his injuries. You can see why the good Christian people of Carbon Hill want to ignore things like this.
I think my church would like it if I ignored them, too. But, I have three people in my life who force me to deal with these things. They are my wife, my daughter, and Jesus.
First there's my 14 year-old daughter. When she was little, we had a club called "Puppy Protectors." It was small, only two members. Every time we saw a stray dog or cat, we would investigate. Over the years, we've probably helped about two dozen of them, four of which still live with us. She's still taking in strays (thank God she still feels that amount of care for others), only now it's teenagers instead of puppies or kittens.
Since March of '08, we've looked after dozens of teenagers. They eat with us, stay the night with us, and do many other things with us. "Can so-and-so stay the night?" That's how it starts. Even though I play the "Grumpy Dad" role, I never win. Before long, a night becomes a week. In one case a night turned into 6 months!
Then, there's my wife, Belinda. I suppose she is now the President of "Puppy Protectors" (I'm more like the Sargeant-at-Arms). She attracts teenagers like rappers attract gold chains, or flat-brimmed baseball caps, or whatever they're wearing these days. I walked in the other night and she was surrounded by 4 or 5 kids talking about sex. The things these kids were saying to her sounded like Seth and Evan in "Superbad" (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about - locker room stuff). The best part was that they were listening to what she had to say about it, encouraging them to think more highly of themselves, like God thought of them.
So, even if I wasn't on a first-name basis with the Savior of the World (Jesus. In case you weren't clear on that), I'd be forced to relate to this "other element" of Carbon Hill socciety. Mostly, I find myself acting more like Jesus cleansing the temple than Jesus letting the little children come to him.
- At a recent funeral at my church, after seeing a "mourner" pass some illegal prescription drugs to the widow, I took him outside and threatened to beat his ass like Brittany at a Christmas party! Illegal prescription drugs were what caused the funeral in the first place, so I was a little sensitive.
- I had to go all "Jerry Springer" on a teenager a couple of weeks ago. He tried to trap a kid on our church basketball court, to make it easier to catch him before he beat him up. He, just a week later, beat up a youth group member and stole his cell phone. I forcefully removed him from our church property. He, too, threatened to "beat my ass" (what is it with these people and asses?)
I know. That's nowhere near a Jesusy thing to do. WWJD and all that jazz! Just the week before, Belinda had confronted the same kid. She told him she prayed for him and his victims, that God loved him no matter how crappy his life was (said it just like that, too), and offered to pray for him right there on the church parking lot. She's a much better Christian than I am. But, we do work out our own sort of "Good Cop/Bad Cop" thing. Maybe "Good Jesus/ Bad Jesus"?
I wish I could ignore, like most of my church has learned to do. Life is easier with blinders on. So, O Wise Stewart, my question is, "Just who am I a Missionary to? My safety-conscious church members? or the "at-risk" teens?"
Help me Obi-Wan. You're my only hope!