I just had to say something, didn’t I?* A pastor responds to outside missionaries

IMG_1423.JPGI saw the placards as we rolled past Mills Lawn on Elm Street. Turning onto Short from Walnut, I saw the bearers. Two women, at least in their 60s, bedecked in the long dresses and long hair that often accompany Holiness movement communities. I sighed as we turned right on Xenia and looked for a parking space. “I think this is something to which a town pastor must respond,” I said, getting out of the car.

Mimi and I have a ritual: Monday mornings at the Sunrise. We love the people who work the shift. It is generally a very townie time to be downtown. We each invariably order the same thing. They know us so well, they once started our order while we were still waiting for a table to come open. By the time we sat down, the food was coming up.

I was hoping to gather my thoughts over breakfast when Mimi pointed out that they were on a wait. No biggy, I thought. As we walked past a group of four tourists and into the restaurant, they followed immediately. A woman asked if she could sneak past, even though she had already put their name in. I said, “The host will come around in a second. We’re not cutting.” She and another lady then moved into space right next to people eating; just, milling about and assuming that this very successful restaurant is staffed by people who don’t know that there is a small waiting area and people go outside. They’re still talking about how they don’t want to lose their spot. I said to Miriam, “I don’t like the vibe in town today. Let’s go to Tom’s. ”

We stepped out and walked toward the Little Art. I look again at the women and they were speaking to people passing by. Dammit, I thought. I told Miriam she could go ahead, and I crossed the street.

**

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” one woman returns, eyeballing me in a way with which I am most familiar. My beard, locs, tattoos, muscles; the ever-present Monday Jesus Christ Superstar t-shirt; they all add up to danger. She takes a step back.

“I’m pastor of the church right there. I just want to let you know that Jesus is very well represented here. We’ve had committed, Christ-infused people with long, deep ties to this community for nearly two hundred years. We don’t need outsiders coming in to deliver a message regarding Jesus, especially this way. We have at least half-a-dozen pastors toiling in the vineyard of Yellow Springs right now. Jesus is doing just fine.”

“Then why did God ask us to come here?” she retorts.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that, ma’am. Because your claim that God sent you here seems in direct contradiction about what I know to be true. I grew up here. I have committed the whole of my life to Jesus Christ. I have been a pastor in this village for five years, and I know the fruits that God has born from the countless seeds sown by Christ-loving people.”

“I’ve never heard of one Christian asking another Christian to leave,” she says.

“Ma’am, I’m not asking you to leave. What I am saying is that if you were really concerned about the souls of people here, why did you not contact those of us who toil in the vineyard? Why not come and talk to us? This is not doing anything to help those of us who love Jesus and who will still be here after you leave.”

“Okay, you’ve had your say.”

“Yup, God bless.”

All I hear is laughter as I walk away.

**

In a way, my approach was confrontational. I imagine that there will be those who feel that I should have gone in with a carrot rather than a stick. Establish mutual love for Christ, ask questions, be more invitational; I get it. Because I have done it in the past and it goes nowhere. I’ve spent two decades studying and living Christianity. I’ve lived in this part of Ohio for the overwhelming majority of my life. I know their techniques, their theology, their assumptions. They are treating this town as a mission field.

Missionaries only go where they feel that Christ is not represented or to places they believe are openly hostile to God. That must always be kept at the forefront. The earnestness of these Christians cannot be denied; they sincerely believe that Satan takes root in communities unless there are soldiers in God’s army actively fighting against him. They will not recognize as authentically Christian any Jesus-believer who does not share their Manichean worldview, replete with racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism wrapped up in a millennialist-based eschatology that would make the Qurman community say, “Whoa, lighten up y’all.”

Was it comfortable saying these things to my elders? No. I didn’t relish it. I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t angry. But I couldn’t just roll me eyes and walk on. I just had to say something.

**

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” It is important to remember that Paul was writing while in prison, awaiting trial before Nero that most certainly would result in a death sentence. In this epistle, which was not addressed to the people of Ephesus as it is an encyclical and meant for all members of the Body of Christ, Paul uses seventy unique Greek words that are not found in any of his other authentic epistles.

Ephesians operates as a diptych, with two panels (Eph. 1-3; 4-6) facing one another. In the first part, Paul writes about what must happen inside each person: we must hold ourselves up against the example of Christ and see that we are found wanting. Understanding that we need God in order to transform, we replace ourselves with Christ. We begin to live in Christ. Paul does not say how this must happen; he understands that each experience will be different, but if it results in you pulling up a chair at the table of Christ and saying, “I’m all in,” then that is the faith Paul is talking about.

In the second half, Paul connects this idea of Christ unifying each of us to your true selves with how the Body of Christ must function. This is something most often misunderstood by missionaries such as those who are currently downtown. When Paul writes about “one faith,” he is not arguing for a uniformity of belief. This is not a credal proposition. How could he have made such a claim? Paul was referred to as an apostle by his followers, but such as a term that was only applied to those who knew Jesus. Paul did not. Paul had an experience of the risen Christ, which no one could substantiate except Paul himself. The whole of his life was meant to evidence that even those who never knew the historical Jesus can be filled with the Spirit and can be used by God for the glory of the gospel.

From the beginning, our faith tradition has been about the transforming power of God through Jesus Christ. The kerygma, the oral proclamations, spread in numerous languages, meeting people where they were; the gospel as we have received it is by definition an experiential one. Sadly, history has shown that Christians are far, far too concerned about how a person ended up at God’s table rather than the fact that God brings us all as equals.

In Paul’s vision for Godly community, we must have respect for the myriad ways in which God can reconcile humans to God’s self. God points to a shared baptism. Again, this was not just a credal formula. It was a public testimony, even in the face of danger, about inward grace. It was not a call that everyone should be baptized in the same way or for exactly the same reasons. Rather, Paul’s call to a shared faith and baptism was meant to be a radical invitation into God’s diverse, Spirit-infused community.

**

I have to imagine that I am now, or will soon be, a story these ladies share. Based on their derisive laughter as I departed, I’m sure I will be seen as a demon, a fallen soul, a deceiver, a fill-in-the-blank. Just like with an encyclical: the community name in the greeting is left blank so that the reader/teller of the epistle can insert the name of the one being addressed. Rather, in my situation, I’ll be a mirror for all their fears and assumptions. In that way, what I did is a certain failure. My words will only strengthen their resolve and might, in the end, increase the frequency of their visits.

But I just had to say something, didn’t I?

*The title should be read in the voice of Dr. Venkman with the sarcasm tone set on 11. I’m not conducting a poll.

**This was updated to correct tense issues.

Saint Barry of the Pilates

“But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?” —Pontius Pilate, “Trial Before Pilate,” Jesus Christ Superstar

I’ve written a lot about Jesus Christ Superstar. Our village recently experienced a second coming of Jesus—see what I did there—when we were visited by Ted Neeley, aka the Jesus who is easier to love than the one presented by the Church, at least for many people. The Little Art is the smallest venue to ever have hosted Superstar screenings with cast members present. And after this past weekend, Frank, the tour manager, told us that Yellow Springs is second only to Chicago for the total number of screenings. Ted and Frank assured us that they wish to return. They marvel at the welcome and friendliness they’ve experienced in our village.

When I spoke to Ted last in preparation for a pair of articles (click here and here) I wrote for the Yellow Springs News, Barry Dennen had just died owing to a tragic series of events. An intimacy developed in our conversation, and while I am readily aware that Ted could make a lamppost swoon from the charisma, we experienced a deep, authentic connection. It was like pastoring Jesus.

I was supposed to attend the Saturday night screening, but an incident in which my actions directly related to painful and panicky experiences for two persons I love deeply, I was devastated. I engaged in repentance and self-reflection, trying to gather myself for worship the next morning. We returned our tickets so that others could use them. I received messages from Gilah Pomeranz, who then went to Fort Wayne as the head roadie for Ted and Frank, Ted’s road manager. And I also received a message from Ted himself, expressing sympathy and regrets. Little did I realize, there were plans afoot that I had just monkeyed up.

Sure enough, when I walked into the church, there was Ted, waiting for me outside my office.

**

Did you know that Pontius Pilate is a saint in the Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches? There are reliefs on sarcophagi picturing Pilate at the Last Supper or observing the crucifixion with sadness and disdain. In one example, Pilate is represented as being akin to Abraham while Jesus is paired with Isaac. Augustine called him a convert. And in Jesus Christ Superstar, as played by Barry and Ted, Jesus and Pilate loved and felt sympathy for one another.

And now you know the rest of the story.

**

Last Sunday evening, after a worship in which Miriam and I sang “The Rose,” at least after it took me a good 45 seconds to find my note (because that’s what you want, right, when you’re singing in front of Ted Neeley and are already horribly self-conscious about your singing voice), we met Ted, Gilah, Shep, and Frank at Tokyo restaurant in Fairborn. Once we were all settled in, Frank said, “Well, we should get this out of the way.” Everyone was looking at me.

What is about to happen? Am I being committed? Is this a food intervention?  The bipolar mind boggles.

Frank went on to explain that they were leaving relics of Barry in each of the places they visit in which Barry visited previously. He then told me to look at Ted, who had an impish grin and pulled out a bag.

“It’s Barry’s hat,” Frank said.

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Me mustering every single bit of energy I have to not burst into tears; my lip looked like a dog’s cushion. 

These are the Pilate hats sold on tour, and Barry wore his for the duration of the VIP and screening the Little Art hosted in 2015. While the one gifted to me is not the one he wore in YS, it is the one he wore in the documentary film just released about the screening tours.

Here’s a better shot of it.

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They were going to give it to me in front of the crowd on Saturday, and I know that Ted was a little disappointed, although he was gracious beyond measure because that is who Ted is in his DNA. And while that would have been a great moment, it also would have been too overwhelming for me, and I wouldn’t have been able to contain my emotions.

If you read the blog, then you know all the details about why this is such a powerful gift. Barry said that it is a club one enters into having played Pilate in Superstar. For me, I studied every gesture, every breath, every vocal intonation. When I played the part, I less played Pilate and more played Barry Dennen playing Pilate. The director herself once yelled at me, “Lose the accent, Aaron, you’re not Barry Dennen.”

I haven’t posted about this on Facebook. I haven’t even told my parents because the gesture has struck me so deeply. Words fail, and I’ve been told I can turn a phrase. I have been so deeply impacted that it shut me up.

I know, right? I’m a talking and writing fool.

Barry’s hat will find its home on a very special shelf next to Stephen’s ashes with his hat on top, Guinness’ ashes with her color on top. There will Barry’s hat will reside, until Ted and Frank return again. Then I will don the crown in honor of St. Barry of the Pilates.