Short Story: Ten Bucks

This short story was written as a submission in a writing contest in a literature magazine.  It wasn’t selected as one of the winners, and so now I am free to use it for my own purposes.  The story is mostly true with names and some details changed.

“They saw you coming,” I said when I saw the size of the shopping back my brother was carrying.

“Yes they did,” he said slowly, still reviewing the receipt. Then, pointing back to his friend he added, “but I think they’re going to sucker him out of even more cash than they did with me.”

Ben and my brother had been best friends for years and this September shopping trip had become a kind of ritual.  Besides going back to school, the impending end of the harvest would free Ben up to pursue his new love, golf.  As my brother and I waited on the park-style bench in the mall hallway outside the store, Ben was trying to decide between a few different hats.

Is he getting a golf hat because he’s playing golf or because Tiger Woods has made golf clothes cool? I asked my brother.

He reached into his bag and said, “I think he’s only getting on because I got one.”

My brother put his new hat on and wasn’t surprised or offended when I laughed. It was the kind of hat where the fabric reaches out from the back of the head to the tip of the brim.

“You know you look like an old man, right?”

“I’d rather look like an old man than Gilligan here,” he said, pointing at the store entrance.

Ben was walking proudly toward us wearing a soft, two-coloured canvas hat. My brother laughed at him, and Ben laughed too.  They were always laughing with each other, and I rarely knew why. It could have been because neither of them had ever owned any type of hat other than a baseball cap, or it could simply have been because each of them thought that the other person had chosen a silly looking hat. I laughed too, but not in uncontrollable fits like they were doing.

Looking at the two of them in their new headgear, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast. It was almost as if they had chosen their hats to draw attention to it. Ben was a chubby guy and the soft hat draped gently over the curvature of his round face. My brother, on the other hand, was a skinny guy with a thin face, and his hat with its rigid brim jutting out from the sides.  But the longer I looked at Ben and his new hat, the more I wondered if it would look good on me. I interrupted their chuckle-fest to see if I could try his hat on.  When it didn’t fit, I went into the store to see if they had one in my size.

I was already suspicious that my brother and Ben’s purchases were motivated by something other than their sense of fashion. Once inside the store, I got to see what was probably another deciding factor.  The sales associate was as pretty as she was helpful, and thirty-five dollars later, I probably couldn’t claim immunity to her charms either.

The three of us walked together to my brother’s car and threw our new found treasures in his trunk. As I climbed diligently into the back seat of the car without being asked, I caught a familiar look in Ben’s face. I knew what he was thinking.  He couldn’t understand how I, as the older brother, could live in a world where my younger brother owned a car and I didn’t.  He also didn’t get why someone would want to go to university, so if he couldn’t grapple with the financial implications of my choice, I cut him some slack.

The next stop after the big city shopping mall was the coffee shop in our town. The regular cast of characters has assembled and while we sat inside with a few people exchanging stories, there was a big group of guys outside talking about engine modifications or stereo equipment upgrades for their cars and comparing what their vehicles could do now.  Everyone got a kick out of the way Ben and my brother looked in their new hats. I left mine in the car on purpose. The group could have shot the breeze long into the night, but more than one of us still had to be back at the farm at seven the next morning, so we all went home at a reasonable time.

We had met Ben at the coffee shop on our way to the mall, so his car was still waiting for him when we got back and my brother and I continued home without him, this time with me in the front seat. We were almost home when my brother remembered something.  The way he began, it seemed like it was going to be fairly important.

“Listen,” he said. “Dad’s going to ask you how much you paid for your hat, so do everyone a favour and knock it down a few notches.”

I was fully expecting to show off what I had bought. Long after they stopped paying for our back-to-school purchases, mom and dad still wanted to see what we bought. Growing up as immigrants, I think our parents appreciated the joy of getting new things. There was a community pride element as well, and they wouldn’t want us to embarrass them with our clothing choices either. Mom and dad were pretty good though at letting us spend our money as we wanted.

“Why would dad care what I paid?” I asked as we approached the house.

“I spent twenty dollars on a Red Wings hat last year,” he said before pushing the front door open, “trust me.”

Both of my parents were more interested in the toaster oven I bought for my apartment than they were in my hat. Inevitably though, my father did ask.

“How much you guys pay for hats like that?”

My brother was the first to answer, “I think it was a little over ten bucks.”

That certainly was down a few notches. I remembered seeing the price tag on his, and it was at least ten dollars more than mine.

“How about you?” my dad asked, looking at me. My brother gave me a simple nod.

“I paid about the same as him,” I said casually.

Given my brother’s warning, I wasn’t sure what to expect next.  My decisions had stirred my father’s anger more than once, but this wasn’t one of those times. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t disappointed and he wasn’t even perplexed. He was amused, very amused.

When he was done laughing, he said, “Goodness sakes, the day I would spend that kind of money for a hat.” He shook his head and flicked his tongue in disbelief.

My brother and I smiled at each other as our father listed off the various hats in his collection and how little he had paid for each of them.  For some he had paid a dollar, or even two, and many had been given to him. Neither of us dared to say it, but my brother and I wouldn’t be caught dead  wearing any of those hats in public. A few years later that style of hat would be fashionable, people would call them trucker hats, not farmer hats like we called them. Even with popular culture on their side, we refused to wear them.

“That blue one I have in the garage on top of the table saw is a little thicker, so I can wear it when it’s a little colder, and I think I paid three dollars for that one,” he conceded.

“See, if you want a decent hat, you have to pay a little more for it,” I said, trying to build some common ground.

“But ten bucks! Golly!”

Our father had taught us the value of a day’s work, he had drilled into us the importance of finishing what we started, and he had even made it clear to us over and over again that often when we were fighting, the fact that we were fighting was a greater sin than whatever it was we were fighting about.  That night we let him have a few laughs at our expense, but I think we were all wondering what he had taught us about money.

I didn’t notice at all

So, there I was, in a room full of church people more evangelical and traditional than me, at least I’m sure all of them saw it that way.  A video had been presented to us as a potential education and outreach resource for high school aged youth.  My concern was that the material provided no affirming messages to young women and perhaps some unintended non-affirming messages.  I must lean pretty far left to have such an opinion, but as a pastor to teen girls and father of future teen girls, I felt it was a legitimate concern.

In the few video trailers and making-of vignettes, all of the speakers, the ones with answers, were white men.  All of the production crew were white men.  There were only two times I saw women, one clip showed a group of women laughing at the antics of one of the speakers and another clip showed a group of females who were all going to play one of the speakers’ girlfriends.  This may have been an anomaly, but if that was a sign of what to expect for the rest of the series, I wasn’t interested in using the material.

The workshop leaders explained that the script was run by people of different ages, genders, races and denominations and their insights and concerns were taken seriously.  They pointed out that their national director is non-white and non-male and they could have included her in the video, but that would have gone against her skill set and would have made the project seem insincere.  I agreed.  I had met their national director, and I admired the work she was doing.  Not only that, the workshop leaders validated my perspective and responded genuinely and I appreciated that.  Also, I later watched the video where the “girlfriends” appeared, and it was a montage where the speaker explained all of the ways he tried to find meaning in his life, one of which was dating.  That scene wasn’t degrading at all. In fact it discouraged objectifying your romantic partners to false conceptions about success in life.

After their answer, a young woman interjected to say that as a young woman, she had watched the same clips and didn’t notice that all the speakers were men and that it wasn’t a big deal to people like her.  Unlike the key speakers, she spoke with a tone that seemed intent on undermining the legitimacy of my question.

I could have been annoyed, but my first response was to sort of laugh.  Evangelical teenage girls were rejecting my questions long before this young lady was even born.  It’s already annoying when someone speaks as though their personal opinion is informed solely by a biblical worldview.  It’s even worse when that logic is used to explain why someone won’t go out with you.

Mostly though, I felt sorry for her.  Not because I thought she was oppressed or limiting herself.  I truly believe she felt valued and empowered by her family and society.  She almost certainly feels that way because her mother graciously serves her children and husband as an  act of faith. Her father must treat her as though her opinion is valuable. Her church must welcome and encourage the contributions of women of all ages or else she wouldn’t have been able to attend this meeting as their representative.  I wasn’t worried about her emotional or physical well-being, I was worried about her ability to lead discussions about faith.

This whole workshop was designed to equip people to organize and lead conversations about faith.  The video was supposed to be a resource to kick-start those conversations, but no matter how insightful the teaching is, no matter how clever and funny the speakers are, if the people facilitating the discussion act as though questions about spirituality are not worth asking, the conversation won’t go anywhere.

Afterwards I went to the speakers to assure them that I hadn’t meant to antagonize them.  They said they didn’t feel that way and they recognized the sincerity of my heart in the way I asked the question.  I left there feeling more convinced of the quality of the video and the organization under whose umbrella it was compiled, but I felt less and less convinced about the vessels through which their message would be communicated.

 

Is missional thinking based in Christendom?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of missional thinking.

I love the challenge to ask how the church can join God’s ongoing mission rather than asking how we can get God to bless our church programming.  I love the emphasis on developing a sense of belonging before the rigid requirements of belief.

But there is something that seems off to me about the way that the missional movement is being played out.

For example, as I type this, my computer is telling me that the word missional is spelled wrong (ironically, the suggested correct spelling is “nationalism”). So, if a movement or an organization is going to be centered around one word, they better have a clear and helpful definition of that word.  Instead, those at the center of the movement celebrate their inability to define the word.  I am a firm believer that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand very well yourself. Certainly there are other words that even like-minded church leaders couldn’t agree on a definition for, like salvation, wisdom, love, etc.  For myself though, if I was asked to support an organization whose motto was, “resourcing salvation minded churches,” I would think they were unjustly setting themselves apart as having a new and better understanding of salvation or that they offer nothing at all to anyone.

The best definition I’ve been given is “renewed theological vision.”  It seems to embrace the ambiguity of the movement, but if you’re only differentiating yourself by being new, you’re not saying the important things, and pretty soon you won’t be new anymore anyway.

Another thing that I like about the missional movement is their reminder that we are living in a post-Christendom time period.  It is no longer accurate or even appropriate to make assumptions about someone’s religious affiliations based on where they live.  We can no longer trust the state to uphold Christian principles in their decision making and we can no longer presume that most people will be motivated by Christian principles or that they will even feel guilty when we point out that they have fallen short of them.  I’m not sure that we ever could do any of those things, to be honest, but at the core of the missional movement is a sense that society (and their view of the church) has changed, and so the church must change to communicate the gospel more effectively.  This is true, of course, but for the wrong reasons.  We need to be continually changing and reforming ourselves, partly so that we don’t confuse our way of doing things with a divinely ordained culture.

In a way, the missional movement is saying, “Since we can longer influence the state, we should adjust to the state to be more effective.”  Or another way of restating things is, “It was wrong of us to try to coerce people using state authority before, so we will be more convincing if we are first coerced by society.”  Those are over-exaggerations, but by using societal change as a motivator for ecclesial change, we are missing the point.  Throughout Christendom, the church never told the state what to do.  It was always the other way around and if we are guiding our decisions based on what the state is doing, then we are still stuck in a Christendom model.

The New Testament has the Great Commission (Matt. 28).  The missional movement is much more comfortable with the Old Testament version, the Great DeCommissioning (Jeremiah 29).  I’m not the most fervent evangelist either, but Jesus says far more about not being changed by societal trends, than the reverse.

Maundy Thursday labyrinth

Every year our church hosts a Maundy Thursday service.  I have been given the grace from my congregation that I can try new things, as long as I stick within the holy week theme.  One year we had a kind of foot-washing service   Last year we had informal stations of the cross where I used the various senses to recreate in people’s minds, Jesus’ last days (ie. jingling coins to simulate the 30 pieces of silver, pita and olive oil to call to memory the last supper, etc.).  This year, as part of our (re)discovering spiritual practices, I decided to use a prayer labyrinth.

Our sanctuary is a multi-use auditorium, so I thought I might move the chairs out of the way and temporarily draw, paint, or tape a traditional labyrinth pattern on the floor.  Then it struck me that it might be easier to construct the labyrinth out of our movable chairs.  I played with a few designs.  It seemed to me that it would lose a sense of purpose without a visual symbol, so I put a cross at the middle, and built it from there.  There wasn’t room to do much else, so it was a fairly simple design.

labyrinth1

Generally we have 2 sections of 9 rows of chairs for a total of 162 chairs.  This design calls for 178 chairs, so we had to bring out of storage.  The chairs that made up the cross were covered with banners and tablecloths (otherwise most people would miss the imagery), but other devices (ie. other coloured chairs) could accomplish that separation just as well.

I didn’t ancitipate any more than 30 people would attend, so turned the chairs in the last/bottom row toward the back and then added another row of 15 chairs so there was a place for everyone to sit without disturbing the maze setup.

Ideally, in a prayer labyrinth, people can go their own speed and reflect on whatever God puts on their heart, but in a worship service with a group of people, many of whom would prefer to get home before the sun completely sets, I felt I needed to add a little structure.  I composed a series of writings for each of eight stations within the maze.  The PDF is available here.  I simply used a scriputre passage from the Luke account of the Holy week narrative and asked people to reflect on their own journeys.

This meant that people walked through quite slowly which meant a lot of reflecting/waiting patiently and a lot of background music for the pianist.  This was a new experience for everyone, and all the comments I heard were positive.

If anyone has questions about the details, I would be happy to respond in the comment section.