My wife and I have ordered soft drinks, we enjoy free chips and salsa, as I admire the sconce hanging on the wall. I attempt to photograph it with my iPhone, while not appearing to simultaneously photograph the occupants seated at the table below. There’s a fine line to not appearing as a deadly stalker, although I’m right on the edge of too-many-photos-to-be-normal. I’m fascinated by the patterns of light and shadow—occupational hazard of an artisan, my wife rolls her eyes at me. The first thing that pops into my head is a phoenix and a most suitable metaphor for things that are happening in my life, as well as a random song lyrics…

Well a son’s gonna rise in a mile / In a mile / You’ll be feeling fine / In a mile you will see / After me / You’ll be out of the dark, yeah / You’ll get your shot ~ Son’s Gonna Rise by Citizen Cope

I check my phone again as my friend sends me a text that he and his wife are still fifteen minutes from the restaurant. I ask the waiter to wait, and he’s more than willing to cooperate. It’s date night again, and my wife and I relish our parent-only outings each month. While months in the planning, we will be spending time tonight with friends, chatting over who knows what. But the conversation is not the point, but rather quiet time without kids. He and she finally arrive, apologize for their tardiness (which is completely irrelevant and a non-issue for us), and our waiter returns. He’s been watching, with one eye, for their arrival.

Everyone orders, anticipating each Mexican dish smothered in gooey cheese and sauce. More drinks, more chips, more salsa, table-side fresh guacamole.

We discuss things of importance (faith, family, and occupation), and some things of zero importance (Netflix and video games). Conversation is eventually steered toward the tumultuous status of our local church, of which we all attend, of which I’ve attended for twenty-five years now.

I guess all churches have their own special drama. For us, some years more than others, but the last few years have been something really special—not in the best sense of the word.

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes ~ Charles Halloway in Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

I’ve seen it all, over the years, or so I thought:

  • Years when the sanctuary was full of people on any given Sunday, perhaps too full;
  • Weeks where extremely low attendance barely warranted the cost of expended electricity for the service;
  • Countless Sunday School classes and programs, which seemed to feature as many teachers, swapping in and out like a professional wrestling tag-team match;
  • New families have arrived, been offended, and left. New families arrive to fill the same warm pew;
  • Flocks of congregants have migrated to the Mega Church down the road, or simply walked away from a life of faith entirely;
  • Leaders who were morally tackled with personal demons, pinned to the ground by unsurmountable sin and poor decision making;
  • Parents losing custody of their own children;
  • Drug overdosing lovers of Jesus;
  • Marriages divided by the swift swing of the I’ve-been-sharpening-it-for-years divorce axe;
  • Controversy swept under the foyer rug when no one was paying attention because we were all arguing over donuts and coffee;
  • Same-sex couples seamlessly integrated;
  • Husbands leave wives in search of the next Sweet Young Thang;
  • Teenage antics run rampant;
  • Verbal fistfights over generational differences;
  • People jockeying for position, recognition, undue authority over others;
  • Congregants who live their real life six days a week, but present the polished and perfected version of themselves only on Sunday;
  • And while I’d love to say that was ALL OF IT, I’ve barely scratched the surface of IT ALL—what a steaming hot mess of drama.

The secular world is secretly sneaking inside while we are blissfully distracted by what makes us comfortable and secure, permitting us to put a weekly checkmark beside the All Is Right In My World checklist.

And much like the setting for Ray Bradbury’s literary masterpiece, there is a definitive funk in the Autumn air. Inevitable change is featured in the end-of-year line-up as our lead pastor seeks retirement, and the church seeks his suitable replacement. In conjunction, additional changes have been put in motion that have ruffled a large portion of the congregation’s feathers, so to speak. Each person has their own opinion and perspective to how it affects them individually, including myself. But my specific viewpoint is not the focus of this story. There is an over-arching story that will be penned, retold, over the next two months. No one can predict the collateral damage which our small, tiny, insignificant church will suffer and subsequently endure. As a congregant of twenty-five years, not even I can predict what will happen; although, I have a fairly good idea of the outcome.

The problem is that we, as a body, are sick. Yet, no one wants to admit that fact, and without calling It for what it is, there will be minimal, meaningful healing. I liken the situation, and I’ve shared this with close friends, to the presence of a live grenade that is being kicked around on the floor, where no one knows the exact moment of explosion, but it still gets kicked around and around and around, on any given Sunday.

Someday…boom, metaphorically speaking of course.

These are the types of topics that we four discuss at dinner, each with a vested interest in the welfare of our faith-based microcosm. Three and a half hours pass by, fueled by too-many-to-count Pepsi products and seemingly bottomless tortilla chips. The patrons at the adjacent table have left long ago, the wall sconce faithfully renders a hypnotic pattern of light and shadow on the far wall, and I am reminded of the mythical phoenix.

You know Americans are obsessed with life and death and rebirth, that’s the American Cycle. You know, awakening, tragic, horrible death and then Phoenix rising from the ashes. That’s the American story, again and again ~ Billy Corgan

If ever there were a suitable metaphor for the current state of life and death in my church, it would follow the model of the phoenix. The phoenix is cyclically regenerated— birth, life, death, rinse and repeat. If you have ever attended a church for a respectable amount of time, you can see the correlation that I’m drawing. Everything is cyclical, including you, including me.

While the fiery display of a phoenix is beautiful—you are aware that it symbolizes rebirth and renewal, right?—it is easy to forget that the creature only becomes as such from a violent display of flames and combustion. That’s the part that everyone forgets, or chooses to forget.

I honestly wish that I felt comfortable inviting new people to church, but there is a palatable aire of funk in my church; surely a visitor could feel—nay, sense—the same. Or maybe my Funk Radar has been finely tuned over the years, as I witnessed the rise and fall of faith and families?

As I wait for the grenade to detonate, I cross #69 Go on a married couple double date from my yearly bucket list.

Phoenix gonna rise, on any given Sunday.