You Can’t Get There From Here

ConversationIn the early days of my relationship with John Wimber, before I went to work for him as his ghost writer for the first years of the Vineyard movement, he used to say to me “Winn, you can’t get there from here.”

In any journey, there are different roads that one travels. Stepping out of the system of the ChurchWorld is part of my own personal journey that ended at a crossroad and started me on another road.

My own personal history of the ChurchWorld 1 has a seven decade span. I have said for years that I’ve been in the ChurchWorld since nine months before I was born. Even one of my names comes from my parents’ pastor at the time of my birth. The weekly routine of my early years was settled a long time before I was born. It included going to church a minimum of three times a week: Sunday morning and evening, and a Wednesday evening refresh. It is fair to say that I was pretty thoroughly indoctrinated with the form and thought of that small Southern Pentecostal church.

At eighteen years old before I left to join the Air Force, my then pastor, took me for a stroll around the block where the church building and parsonage were and instructed me with something like this: “When you leave here, you should remain faithful to the Church of God.” This was the church of my youth, which was part of the Church of God denomination with Cleveland, TN, as its headquarters. I remember thinking that his instructive word to me seemed strange: faithful to the church rather than faithful to Jesus? It seemed for him that the church and Jesus were synonymous.

ConversationI admit, my provocateurism began early in life. Several events that I remember happened in those formative years. My dad, who was generally quiet, would push back in lots of different ways against what he perceived was just not right. Here are three examples:

First, he questioned more than once the form in which the adult Sunday School class operated. He wanted to know why the lesson each Sunday was just someone reading the Teacher’s guide to the class about whatever passage of Scripture was the text for the day. He wanted to know why there wasn’t some discussion of the “Sunday text,” instead of just being offered the standard “Church of God” take on the text. As I remember, these conversations, which would happen on Sunday morning during the Sunday School class, were a source of embarrassment for my mother, who usually had a strong opinion about almost anything. My dad wanted to know why he and everyone else in the class should believe what was being read to them. Intuitively, he seemed to feel that something was missing. Little did he know that what he was feeling was much closer to what Paul may have meant by church/ekklesia than what he was experiencing on every Sunday morning of his life.

On another occasion, a prominent individual in the church was “turned out” of the church. That was a favorite phrase for “telling folks they were no longer welcome in that specific congregation.” In short, it was a form of excommunication from the church. In this particular case, it was a charge around divorce and remarriage and a questioning of the authority of the pastor of the church and the power couple couple who pulled the pastor’s strings. My dad was incensed by the treatment of his friend and left the church as well. He was “done” in the ‘50s of the last century. So connected was church attendance with salvation and going to heaven when you die, that years later my mom was in fear that my dad would not go to heaven because he had left the church. I distinctly remember that she asked me when I had returned home after my military service to ask dad if he was still “saved.” The roots of abusive behavior have long tentacles of results in people’s lives.

Finally, I grew up in the segregated South. I remember the separate drinking fountains in Sears in Orlando, Florida, clearly marked “white” and “colored.” I remember that before my enlistment in the Air Force in 1961 that during my teen age years when the family made a trip to Orlando from our little town twelve miles away that one of the highlights of my day was to drink from the “colored” fountain in Sears. It was my way very early of pushing back on something that just seemed so dimwitted to me. But, I digress. In the mid ‘60s of last century, when the Civil Rights act was passed, the following story happened with my dad. He was a barber in the small town I grew up in. Early, there were two barbers, one in what was called “white town” and one in what was called “colored town.” In this particular town, the two were separated by a set of railroad tracts.

One day when dad was cutting hair, a colored man entered his small shop and all the white men in the shop got up and left, even the man in the chair that my dad was working on. One of them said to my dad, “if you are going to cut a black man’s hair, I am never going to have you cut my hair again.”

The word the man used was not “black man.” When everyone had left, my dad followed his routine, he said, “next.” The black man got up and moved to my dad’s barber chair.

My dad said to him. “I will be happy to cut your hair, but you will need to help me, I have never cut a black man’s hair before and with the different consistency of the hair, I want to make sure that you get a good haircut. So, will you help me?”

The black man paused and looked at my dad and said to him. “That’s okay, Mr. Griffin, you don’t need to cut my hair. I was told by others in my community that you were a good man and I wanted to find out if you were a law abiding man.”

Then he politely got up and left. Later that day, my dad was in in a grocery store about a block away from his barber shop and standing in line was the man who had used the reprehensible language in his barber shop. In front of him in line was a black lady, and behind him was a black man.

So, my dad said to him, “I’m a little confused: why are you standing in line here when you left my barber shop because I was willing to sell my services to a black man? What’s different?”

The man did not respond but continued standing in line to purchase his food. But, my dad had made his point. By the way, weeks later when it was way past time for the man to get his monthly haircut, he returned to my dad’s shop for a haircut and my dad did not resist from jabbing his customer. He said, “I thought you were not going to ever get your haircut from me again.” To which the man answered, “you are the only barber in town, but I am not sorry for what I did or said.”

From an early age through my eighteenth birthday, I began to see things in the local church that just didn’t make sense to me.

Here are a few:

  • There seemed to be a power struggle between pastors and power couples in the church vying for control of the church.
  • There were folks that from time to time pushed back on the power in the church. The results: they were shown an exit sign.
  • There were at least six pastors that I can remember in just a few years period of time. The longest one lasting about four years, the shortest stay was three months. All of them leaving because someone else, other than them, wanted to be in charge

My sense of “something’s not right” grew over the next years of my life. Stay tuned! More to come.

I think I come by being a provocateur somewhat naturally. So, Wimber was right, “you can’t get there from here.” You have to choose a different road. So, I have left “here,” headed for “there.”

Notes:

  1. When I use the word ChurchWorld I am thinking of the institution or system of the church as it has grown to be over the years.
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