Men in chains, and a harmonica solo

Have you ever seen a big dog tethered in a yard?  Not a mean dog, like a fight-trained pit bull or a Doberman or something, just a big one — a St. Bernard, say.  He’s sitting out there on a nice spring day when suddenly he sees something that looks like food, or a cat wanders by that he wants to chase, and he goes loping off to deal with it.  Only the chain he’s on is too short for him to reach his intended target.  So while there’s a certain amount of barking and fussing, mostly what you hear is the “clink … clink … clink”  of the dog’s chain being pulled tight, then released, then pulled tight again as the big brute tries again to reach his goal.  He can’t do it, his owner has chained him so it’s outside the radius he can reach, but he keeps trying to break free … clink … clink … clink …

I’ve heard that sound twice in the last two months, not in my ears but, as it were, in my spirit.  The more recent of the two was just last Saturday.  And what was making that noise was the men of the American church.

A friend invited me back in January to attend an all-day conference being put on by San Joaquin Valley Men’s Ministries, to be held on February 28 at a church building in Lodi (just north of Stockton).  The thought, to be frank, left me with little enthusiasm.  I’ve been to numerous men’s conferences over the years, including three Promise Keepers stadium-size get-togethers, and have mostly found them to be oversized pep rallies that do a lot to pump up emotions, but little to change lives.  I’ve enjoyed them, but the evidence — in the world and in my own life — says that I shouldn’t put much stock in them.  I checked out the website for the conference, read up on the scheduled speakers, and was still neutral.  I didn’t want to say no to my friend unless I was sure, but I also wasn’t going to say yes until I was sure either.

Finally, after much prayer, I believed God was saying that I should go, that I would see several things that I already knew, but one thing that I needed to know.  So I told my friend to nab me a ticket, reimbursed him for it, and arranged to carpool to Lodi for the “big event”.  And I waited to see the one thing God wanted to show me.

The conference, as a whole, was okay.  Like most of its ilk, most of the time was spent on sort of rah-rah stuff, cranking up the emotional intensity without really teaching anything new.  A pastors’ panel took some questions on a few subjects (family life, sexual purity) and about half the time answered the questions they were being asked.  The keynote speaker, Captain Jeff Struecker, was one of the Army Rangers involved in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (immortalized in the movie Black Hawk Down) and is now an Army Ranger chaplain; he had a good message on dealing with fear through faith in God.  The lunch provided was all right, though in the long run I liked the homemade chili much more than it liked me.  The only real downer was an unfunny magician/comedian who, in my friend’s words, was really enjoyed by “guys who don’t get out much.”  He struck me as the kind of fellow who does a lot of Christian events because a) he’s a believer and b) mediocrity plays well to the American church.  Having seen Mac King in Las Vegas barely a month before, doing essentially the same act but a whole lot better, I was left unimpressed.

Or maybe part of my non-reaction to him was that I was still mulling over what God seemed to have dropped on me not long before the alleged comedian came on stage.  The 800 or so men at the meeting had just come back from the provided tri-tip (and chili) lunch to the third session of “worship” music for the day.  Being a church, the music was mostly repetitive and way too loud — I’d forgotten my earplugs, but I was persevering and hadn’t gotten a headached yet.  Maybe a quarter of the attendees were singing along or clapping, but most were just sitting or standing with their arms folded, waiting for it to pass.  (I can’t attribute this to the heavy food we’d just ingested; they had largely been acting the same way during the music before the first two sections, too.)  I was sitting, praying, wondering what God had for me and my friend, and for the group as a whole.

Then one of the guitarists on stage set his axe aside … and started playing the harmonica.  Blues style.  And the place exploded.

I am not exaggerating when I say that the percentage of guys standing up, making noise or otherwise getting involved with the music went from 25% to about 80% in less than ten seconds.  Suddenly, dudes were into it!  Jumping, singing along, cheering, the occasional Rebel yell (the San Joaquin Valley has a large population of “Okies” and other transplanted Southerners) — all of a sudden people were excited about being there.  And it lasted until the music ended, roughly ten minutes later.  After which came some announcements, and then the “comedian”, and things returned to how they’d been before.

What happened?  It wasn’t the song itself or its message — that was so unmemorable that I couldn’t tell you what its name was.  I think I know what it was — for the one time in a conference that lasted seven-and-a-half hours, several hundred men heard something that wasn’t what they hear at every Sunday church meeting, at every other conference they’ve attended, on every Christian radio broadcast.  For once, someone broke out of the usual “church stuff” and did something different, something that people in the American church don’t hear every day — and they flocked to it like moths to a flame, like dogs to a cat.

And in that moment, I believe I heard God speaking:

The congregations of Stockton — and elsewhere — are crying out for something, ANYTHING, that’s not the same damned pablum we’re being fed every Sunday at every “service.”  We’re ready to light up at the first note of something different.  Whether we know it or not, we want meat — and if we can’t find it where we are, we’ll look elsewhere.

But will anyone serve it?  Or will we have to hunt and kill it ourselves?

That’s what I wrote to my friend, exactly as I wrote it.  And I wasn’t cussing when I said “damned,” either — I believe the too-basic stuff most of us are given in our congregations every Sunday is literally cursed, because it does little or nothing to build up to maturity most of the people on whom it is inflicted.

And that part about meat?  Check out Hebrews 5:12-14, where Paul (or someone) is talking to the Jewish believers:

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

I don’t argue that there are many in the American church who still need the “milk” of the “elementary truths of God’s word”.  But there are also many who are “acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” and “have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil”.  Yet in my twenty-plus years of belonging to Christ, I have seen few ministers who are working to help and supply those people.  Almost every sermon I’ve ever heard has been on the basics, on milk for the immature.  Meanwhile, people have been sitting in Sunday meetings for years, for decades, without ever being offered a piece of solid food — and how can they be expected to develop a taste for what they’ve never had?

I have two kids, ages 7 and 5, and I can attest that they enjoy their food.  You think you’ve seen a buzzsaw?  Hand my son a chicken drumstick and watch the blur.  They like solid food; they like meat.  And they’re strong, healthy, active and growing like weeds.  Do you think they’d be growing if my wife (aka the Supermodel) and I had never given them anything more involved than infant formula?  Not only would they not be healthy, Child Protective Services would probably be wanting to talk to us about it.  No, we started offering them occasional bites of bread and cereal as soon as they had hard enough gums to mash them with.  When they started getting teeth, we started experimenting with more complex foods.  Now, we can serve them spaghetti with fake-Alfredo sauce, roasted chicken and sauteed onions and they don’t even blink.  They’ve learned to appreciate a variety of foods.  And that’s because we’ve provided them that variety.

Meanwhile, the Supermodel comes home from the Sunday “services” she attends and tells me “it was sermon #14” or something similar.  Not that she actually has all the different subjects of sermons (there’s supposedly only about 25, but I have yet to find a comprehensive list) numbered — that’s just her way of saying, “it was another message about (fill in the blank), pretty much the same one I’ve heard dozens of times before.”  In short, the same old milk, nothing new, nothing advanced.  Nothing for a believer of 16 years (like the Supermodel) to grow on.  I’ve seen the same thing — really, the same old thing — in my Congregational Journey over the last few months.

She’s frustrated.  I’m frustrated.  A LOT of people in the American church are frustrated.  Every Sunday it’s the same style of music — often the same songs — the same messages, the same liturgy.  We’re bored, by and large.  We’re longing for anything that isn’t just the same thing we’ve heard and seen a hundred times.  We’re like Hawkeye Pierce in that episode of M*A*S*H when the cook offers him a choice of liver or fish for the umpteenth time and he totally loses it.  And if things don’t change, you can expect that some of us will too, doing the evangelical equivalent of Hawkeye climbing up on the table in the mess hall and starting a chant of “WE WANT SOMETHING ELSE!  WE WANT SOMETHING ELSE!”

In fact, do you remember what happens in that episode after Hawkeye’s little stunt?  The officers of the 4077th end up breaking several Army regulations (and a couple of the Ten Commandments) to get just one dinner’s worth of steak with sauteed mushrooms for the whole unit.  And if nothing changes, I think that’s what we’ll see in the church — a lot of people breaking the rules in order to experience something that isn’t the same old thing.  Maybe we’re already seeing part of it, only instead of steak and ‘shrooms, it’s called the Emergent movement, complete with its fuzzy grip on theology.  That’s what happens when our churches don’t supply variety for growing boys and girls — they’ll go someplace that is supplying it, and if they’re not careful, they’ll end up with nothing but junk food.

We want meat — we want the fullness and challenge of maturity in Christ, just like that dog wants to chase that cat.  That dog was made by God to be a  hunter, and we were made by God to grow.  But we’re chained by a church system that may not necessarily care if we grow into the fullness of God’s will, so long as we keep adding our names to the rolls, our money to the offering bag, and we don’t “cause trouble.”  Ironic for a movement that within its first generation was accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

So let this serve as a warning, to pastors and denominational leaders who are content to keep offering the same music, the same sermons, the same simplifications, the same lack of opportunity to contribute that they did last week, and last month, and last decade.  Some of us are tired of being chained up.  We want meat, and if we have to pull up the stake that’s holding us in place and go get it ourselves, dragging that heavy chain behind us down the street and making you look foolish to your neighbors, that’s what we’ll do.  Because the old ways aren’t what we need anymore — we want more than that.  We want all that God has for us to be, and to do.

We want something else.

Clink … clink … clink …

(More on this to come …)


6 Responses to Men in chains, and a harmonica solo

  1. […] Last week, I posted an entry on my visit to a men’s conference in Lodi (if you missed it, you can catch up here), where I expressed my frustration with the seeming inability (unwillingness?) of the leadership in […]

  2. Ed Han says:

    Hey Bro. Ray –
    I can’t wait to come to the men’s conference you are going to put on … because I want to be at the altar & prayer room to see the lives that God touches and changes for his glory. I was there too (in Lodi), and I kid you not, grown men were broken – weeping – yielding their lives to the Christ of the cross! It was truly a LIFE CHANGING event. Surely we don’t measure success in the kingdom of God by the quality of the entertainment, but by how we get out of the way and let God move. You seem cynical and unaware of the work in the trenches and labor of love that went into the preparation for this event. God showed up on 2/28 in Lodi, CA & lives were changed! REMEMBER:
    When a believer is talking about “the church” they are talking about themselves. Warriors dawn the field of battle, while spectators criticize without blood, sweat or tears.

  3. Ed
    What are the long-term results of this kind of a conference? The reason I ask is because I once saw the mountain-top emotions of a Promise Keeper’s gathering destroyed within one week. And I’ve never seen any lasting impact, in spite of having attended both of the PK gatherings that were held at UOP a few years ago.
    And what of the much ballyhooed “Church of Modesto” group several years ago, that went to a PK gathering as a city-wide church? Ten years later the church in Modesto is as badly fragmented as ever, and their poster-child, the church they held up as representing unity in Modesto, has essentially moved to Oakdale.
    And as Ray noted, he has been to 3 such gatherings himself. And in spite of the emotional highs neither of us have seen any lasting impact from a total of 5 such gatherings between us.
    So you saw raw emotions in Lodi 2 weeks ago? Great! Show me the lasting fruit 6 months from now and maybe I’ll buy into it.

  4. Chuck V says:

    I am a member of this ministry and the FRUIT of it. I was changed because a speaker at this conference 5 years ago taught me that my sin with Pornography had been forgiven and I could change my life. And because of these men at SJVMM and men like them that I surround myself with, I have learned to trust in God and have begun to teach others the same. I have a personal deep relationship with Jesus Christ that Grows everyday and it literally started 5 years ago at FBC at the first conference. It is Sad to think that we are even having this discussion, because some men’s lives like mine have been saved and changed because of this conference and because of the FRUIT of it. Ray, This conference was not for you, it was for Men like me 5 years ago. You want some meat, I got some for you. I have been following 4 Men since that conference like the men who followed me. That is what this is really about — LEAVING NO MAN BEHIND. Sure it may not have been perfect but lives were changed. There is not one answer to all of this (except for HIM) but I WILL NOT STOP TRYING! Instead of complaining about the shortcomings of it all, Do Something about it!!!!


  5. Don Vigil says:

    Bros. Ray & James,

    While i agree with some of your insights/comments on what the American Church is not addressing, some of the words used can seem offensive. I also attended the conference and had the opportunity to pray with a few men and i believe GOD started a new work in them. There are people who gave their time, talent, and personal resourses and sacrificed to make the event happen.

    The Bro. who Bar-B-Qued the tri-tip planned for weeks to make sure there was enough food for everyone. Thats a ton of responsability in itself. Not to mention he and his CREW of VOLUNTEERS setting up Friday before the event, and then getting up early SAT. morning to prepare the food, and then the clean-up. It is wrong to overlook, or worse, disregard their efforts and their servants heart. I know the man responseable for feeding the 800+ men is a true servant.

    That aside, A change in the American Church is past due. People, especially Men need to be empowered to step out and exercise the gift GOD has ordained for them to live out their purpose..

    You have some great insights, and it appears GOD has given you the gift of writing. Maybe you could give some considerations for next years event that could be discussed. No one knows, but you will get more bees with honey than vinagar.

    Email is so impersonal and makes it very easy to focus on the messenger and not the message.I believe i feel your heart, and it is GOOD. You havs MUCH to offer. Don’t let the enemy rob you of your gift.

  6. […] of God, and that people in those congregations are getting restless.  (You can read those posts here and here.)  A friend of mine — the same friend that invited me to both the events described […]

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