Playground Preachers

In late 2000, I began to be blessed with opportunities to go on the road and teach about following Christ to teenagers. (I was also blessed because someone bought all the Twinkies and Spam I had left over in my Y2K bunker.) The prayer process back then of deciding where to go to preach was similar to many single young men's prayer lives: "Lord, if they want me then I want them".

I drove all over the Southeast, most of the time to remote places, ending with me trying to read tiny painted signs at night on a deserted and wooded road. This was pre-GPS and smartphone, so all I had were the old school Google directions which printed out 64 extra lines of copy and gave you a map the size of a postage stamp, and my internal compass which had I been a sailor would have caused me to be thrown overboard.

I remember one event from those early years I had been asked to speak at, a youth revival in a hidden county in Tennessee that I U-turned and christian-cursed my way to. . .

I arrived and met the gentle and unassuming youth pastor as well as the keyboardist and his wife who would be leading the singing (Back to back keyboardist blogs!). The standard protocol for these events after meeting each other and judging whether or not you have "buyer's remorse" already (Ex: "This guy looks like one of those worship leaders" "I bet this youth pastor can't even spell CHUBBY BUNNY" "This preacher doesn't look like an evangelist, heck, he looks like he could be on the chess club at the high school", etc.) is to then go over The Event  and make sure we're all on the proverbial same page. This is usually followed by 1 of 2 different kinds of meals:

1. Pizza, with side dishes of chips and soda, often times off brand soda like Mountain Moon Drops or Dr. Thunder. Often the pizza is picked up by a well-meaning Soccer Mom who in her never-ending thirst for perfect planning picked the pizzas up 85 minutes early just in case something goes wrong. Nothing will go wrong lady, you just stack them on the tables. This leads to cold and cardboard like pizzas. Also, you eat with the students, who do not want to eat with you because you are lame and old and they have no idea if you're going to be a Yell At Them and Get Me Saved (Again) Youth Preacher or a Funny Stories From College That Usually Involve Pee, DooDoo, or Puke Youth Preacher. You don't want to sit with Option A and things are unknown at this point. (Unfortunately, I was neither A or B and went for Mad Prophet Youth Preacher and ate with one hand, standing on a chair, bugging out my eyes and pointing with my other hand and mumbling the words "hidden sin" as I chewed the cold Domino's sausage cardboard.)

2. The Last Supper This is the opposite of the Pizza meal. The youth pastor and you know this is the last meal of sanity and decorum you'll have all weekend, and the last meal that doesn't involve the words Make Your Own Sub or Italian in it. This meal is usually at the YP's favorite restaurant and involves appetizers and pieces of properly cooked cow because the YP has been given the Church Credit Card for the night and he refuses to be remembered as the wicked and lazy servant. . .

Back to the narrative: the rundown on this Event, however, had a slight wrinkle. . .before Pizza or The Last Supper, the YP said we needed to meet the senior pastor because he wanted to talk to us. He said it in a sheepish way, like he was embarrassed almost to bring it up. My spidey sense began tingling. . .

The worship leaders and myself entered the Senior Pastor's office, the large dark wood desk greeting us as we entered, looking like it had taken the hymn A Mighty Fortress literally. The walls were covered with the prerequisite family photos, nature shots, and framed Seminary degree and the back wall had the standard issue book shelves full of books the pastor had read, wanted to read, had been forced to read, and ones he wanted others to think he had read.

The black leather swivel chair was turned away from us, facing the computer screen, and had a high back, like a throne, making it impossible to see the Preacher. . .

He swiveled around dramatically. . .and. . .
He was wearing the Phantom of the Opera mask.

I'm kidding. Sorry.

He swiveled around dramatically and, I'm not making this  up, had his hands steepled in front of him like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. I won't describe his looks too much but if I was brought in to a police line-up consisting of 500 males and told to pick out the Preacher, I would've picked this guy in my top 3 without seeing the other 499. . .

We were looking up at him in all of his Pastoralness because his chair was purposefully set above ours. He unsteepled his hands, placed them menacingly on the edges of the desk palms down, then said hello and immediately launched into this speech (and again, I am not making this up. . .):

"We're glad you're here. But I want to tell you something, you're here to serve. You're not here to just do your thing at night and then play golf with your buddies. We're gonna work ya. Understand? And I want you to know. . .This is my sandbox. If I feel I need to step in at any time I will. If I think I need to take the microphone away from you, I will. Do I make myself clear? This is my sandbox."

Yes. Yes you do. Perfectly clear. And I couldn't answer then because I was young and rendered speechless by your Power Play but I've got an understanding now that I'd like to share with you wherever you are. . .

That church was not your sandbox. It was a collection of God's people, God's flock, that He gave you the privilege of shepherding with gentleness, humility and faithfulness. It was not your personal playground for you to build sandcastles of statistical success in, so that you could feel worthy or accomplished or silence those feelings of insecurity you've had your whole life because of hurts received in the past from your home or school. The church is not a territory you must mark with your spiritual bigtalk or a domain you must protect and expand for your ego's sake. . .it is a small mustard seed you must nurture and care for. And I know you think you were just protecting your flock from possible "wolves", but I know you now, and I now many others like you, you are not humbly protecting your flock like a parent with a child, you are puffing your chest up and sitting on the hoard of your treasure like a conqueror with his sword out fearing that a rival may snatch what is yours if you turn your back for a moment. . .The church is not a sandbox, a stepping stone, or a trophy of validation, it is a beautiful and imperfectly green pasture you are called to nurture for God's Kingdom and Glory. . .

The church is not a sandbox, although that day it felt like it. . .as I listened to a child warningly kick sand in my eye and let me know there would be no sharing taking place as long as he was there.

And because of our time with Pastor Sandy, we didn't have time for a Last Supper. . .bottoms up Mountain Frost.

Matt O.