No. 405  |  May 19, 2013   DC RealTalk   Catechism   Study   The Church   Cover   CHRISTIAN LIVING   The Ministry   Zion   Donate

Many of our pastors want only to emulate what they themselves had as children of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The have no ambition beyond the corner their church is perched upon. Many of these men cannot see past the horizon, past the property line where they inevitably turn their mowers around and drudge back again over the same real estate. They do not better themselves. They do not challenge themselves. They compete with other Lawnmower Men for the same shrinking handful of black Church Folk. God wants more and better from us.

Here is the sum total of what I have learned about lawn care:

(1) if I don’t take care of my lawn, it will look like hell. (2) If I spend a ton of money and work myself to death caring for my lawn, it will still look like hell. My fondest wish is to dig the whole thing up and install artificial turf. The phony stuff looks really good these days. But the quality fake grass, the kind guaranteed not to fade, is very expensive. I mean, four to five thousand dollars just to hook up my front lawn. But then I’d never have to mow it. Just hose it off occasionally. There's a man who lives near me who mows his lawn constantly. If he’s not mowing, he’s edging. If he’s not edging he’s trimming. If he’s not trimming he’s leaf-blowing or planting or seeding or watering or fertilizing. He fusses over that lawn each and every day of his life. In a land-locked state plagued by drought, he pours hundreds of gallons of water every single week, rain or shine, on that lawn. He is unconcerned about the cost or even the impact on the environment of pouring tens of thousands of gallons of water on the ground each month for the simple satisfaction he receives from looking out of his window at the expanse of green in front of his home. This is his home, his lawn. And his lawn is his entire life. I can’t help but think how sad it must be, to have spent a lifetime in the service of others, protecting, helping and defending others; a lifetime of meaning now reduced to these square feet of dirt around his house. A lifetime of purpose, now distilled to the selfish pursuit of unbroken green.

I live in a subdivision populated primarily by lawn-obsessed retirees whose view of the world has been re-shaped by the retirement experience, by decades of not having to go to work and not having to worry about how the bills will be paid. Not worrying about basic needs tends to form a different mindset, and it becomes easy to become focused and obsessed over things that, frankly, don’t matter. Lawns. The barking of dogs. Who waves to whom (and in what order). Their only concern regarding me is the condition of my grass and whether or not I am giving my neighbor grief about his dog's barking. That's it. These people are wholly indifferent to my struggle. They don't know and don't care about my health, about my finances, about my emotional state, about my family, about what's going on with me.

So far as they have demonstrated, these people could care less if I was lying dead in a pool of my own blood, just as long as the grass was being mowed regularly. I suppose this is what having too much time on your hands does to you. The source of most conflict in the world is the insane assumption most of us have that our view of life and the world around us is not only correct but is the only correct one. I fault these folks for obsessing over lawn care, but to them, that's perfectly normal and I'm the psychopath who doesn't keep his lawn up. I should not expect them to be me and they really should stop persecuting me for not being them. But this is the world. This is why the U.S. and China have nuclear missiles aimed at one another. Still, I am stuck with the reality that, if I thought, for one minute, that these people cared whether I was dead or alive, there'd be nothing I wouldn't do for them. Instead, it's all this silliness and, for me, meaningless and wasteful investment of precious lives. And their seeming indifference to me as a human being offends me and doesn't make me want to be their friend. It's not that I dislike them so much as I have, after ten years, finally accepted the fact that, no matter how hard I try and no matter what I do, these people will choose to find fault with me. At any given turn and under any set of circumstances, these people will choose to think the worst of me, accusing or suspecting me of simply terrible (and, frankly, ridiculous) things. After ten years, I've simply stopped trying [Matt 13:57-58]. We are, at the end of the day, of different tribes. They are who they are, I am who I am, and I'm no longer investing time and energy trying to please people who could care less if I were dead or alive.

This is, of course, not the case with all retirees,

many of whom struggle with daily survival needs. But, for some of our more fortunate seniors, freedom from the imperatives of housing and food supply allow them to regress to a kind of early childhood, becoming myopic and narcissistic, abandoning the discipline of adult life which teaches us to control our emotions rather than allowing our emotions to control us. These are people who can’t tell Saturday from Wednesday because every day feels the same to them, while any working man or woman crawls through their week, looking anxiously toward the day they can finally sleep in and really wishes grampa wouldn’t crank up the wood chipper at 7:45 AM Saturday morning.

These folks should be our philosophers. Our teachers. Our professors and priests. Instead, they squabble over petty issues, and, lacking much better things to do, obsess over minutiae and invest time and energy in the effort to exert their will on the community by force, by proxy or political process rather than lead by example. In our African American church tradition, these are our church elders, our seniors, our deacons and trustees. Deeply wounded people, abandoned in their so-called golden years and lacking purpose in their lives,

These folks suffer a simple lack of imagination. Freed of the major driving forces of our lives—survival, child care, career advancement—they can’t imagine what to do with themselves. They’ve followed the rules and the American dream only to find themselves abandoned on the beach. Oh, the first few years and even the first decade or two of retirement is probably a blast. Fun and travel and relaxation. But I can imagine retirement eventually brings on a crippling boredom that, I assume, leads these people to become obsessed not only with their lawn but with mine.

They do not work to better themselves. Engineers, teachers, policemen, doctors, wasting the gifts God has granted them and engaging instead in the most obscenely stupid gossiping, scheming and bickering. Brilliant, gifted people whose lives are now reduced to obsessing over how green their lawns are, completely missing the point of the very freedom retirement is supposed to provide.

And I can't help but think of many of the church pastors, here, who—similarly freed from the distractions of day jobs and car payments—squander the opportunity an all-expenses-paid full-time ministry position provides. Rather than better themselves and evolve the church, rather than aspire to great things and foster unity among the diverse ministries here, these men behave much like my neighbor—a brilliant man who elects to spend his days pacing back and forth behind his John Deere.

Many of our pastors want only to emulate

what they themselves had as children of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The have no ambition beyond the corner their church is perched upon. Lawnmower men, concerned only with the military precision of even rows. Wasting their gifts, limiting the expression of God's anointing, to this patch of dirt right in front of them. Teaching their flock to likewise limit their horizons to the patch of dirt, making underachievement a kind of virtue.

Lawnmower Men waste thousands of gallons of water, a precious resource, pouring it into the dirt around their feet in an effort to grow something which will wither and fade with the first autumn frost. It is not an investment in something that lasts or even has meaning. It is all about appearance, "curb appeal," how something looks, rather than its substance, character, or extended value. Similarly, many of our pastors squander their resources, incalculable riches in lives brimming with promise, isolating themselves within tiny fiefdoms and cloaking themselves within The Imperial Pastorate. Many of these men cannot see past the horizon, past the property line where they inevitably turn their mowers around and drudge back again over the same real estate. They do not better themselves. They do not challenge themselves. They compete with other Lawnmower Men for the same shrinking handful of black Church Folk.

Put in perspective, most black churches here are not churches at all. Most are actually small group ministries—20, 30 families—struggling to be full-featured churches. Struggling with the light bill, with the rent, with the building fund on top of the rent. Paying a pastor a full-time salary plus benefits for, maybe, twenty hours a week if that. Only, he's not pastoring a church. He's had ten, twenty years to pastor a church and he hasn't done it yet. He had twenty families when he started, he has twenty families now. He is not pastoring [Matt. 25]. He's mowing the lawn. Many of these ministries would greatly benefit from combining under a single ministry, pooling their resources and losing their big ticket items: the pastor's salary and building maintenance. Pastoring a small group ministry, as a volunteer or part-time employee, relieves the church of the burden most of our pastors place upon them—the pastor's paycheck. In return, these ministries get to flourish in a larger and more feature-rich environment with greater resources, community influence and strength.

This approach would represent a thunderous paradigm shift here, one I am not certain our pastors are ready for. First and foremost, it would require a humbling of proud men, men who have been mowing their respective lawns for twenty years or better, who now no other way. It would require an admission that their churches are not growing. That they re playing games with God and with people, playing musical chairs with the shrinking pool of the faithful. It would require humility on the part of whomever ultimately leads. Absorbing a half-dozen churches as small group ministries creates immediate tension for everybody. These groups would need to be semi-autonomous, the church leader should not tell these incoming pastors what to preach, what to believe. It would require the kind of patience and forbearance the bible requires of us but that the black church rarely displays: a coordination of efforts and facilities use.

The payoff, however, could be phenomenal and unprecedented: an end to the struggle of dozens of churches trying to survive. A switching of our emphasis, as a church, fro survival to investment. A shift of mindset from one of competition to one of cooperation. One big house. Many rooms, many voices. I can scarcely imagine all we could do, all we could achieve, if we'd only stop walking in circles.

Christopher J. Priest
10 August 2005