Like any serious tea drinker, Arthur refused to re-heat a pot of tea which had grown cold. My request for a second cup, then, prompted him to dispose of what remained in the white ceramic pot, fill it with hot water from the tap, and set it aside to warm. Then he poured fresh cold water into the electric kettle and, while he waited for it to boil, he unwrapped two fresh tea bags and placed them in the teapot which he had just emptied.
Making tea was something of a ritual for Arthur, and he carried it out with the same concern for detail which he exercised when he prepared the communion table for Holy Eucharist. I had only been present on one occasion when Arthur celebrated Eucharist during the eighteen months he actively served as an Anglican priest. That was enough for me to observe his competent and confident manner at the altar.
He had spent most of his life and ministry career in the Free Church tradition, and when I heard that he had taken Anglican Holy Orders, I wondered if the transition to the liturgical tradition would be difficult. As I sat in the congregation that Sunday morning, I watched carefully to see if I could detect any nervousness or other signs of unfamiliarity or discomfort with his new situation. I saw none. He performed his priestly duties with such proficiency that a casual observer would have assumed that Arthur had grown up in the Anglican communion.
It was still a mystery to me why he had requested release from his Orders after only a year and a half as a priest. My curiosity in that regard was piqued even further when, upon entering his office for the first time an hour ago, I noticed his Certificate of Ordination, with the signature of his diocesan bishop in large script along the bottom, prominently displayed in a black frame, hanging on the wall alongside Arthur’s desk. I had so many questions, but I sensed that now was not the time to raise them. All in good time, I thought. All in good time.
By this time the fresh pot of tea was ready, and Arthur poured us both a steaming mug of the fragrant brew. We added milk and sugar according to our individual tastes then returned to our chairs and set our cups on the table in front of us.
Arthur looked tired. Not tired like he had worked hard at some physical labor all day. Nor even tired as he might appear after a day-long hike. He used to be an avid hiker, and I had seen him once or twice after he had spent most of a day exploring a forest trail or climbing over sand dunes on the Lake Michigan shore. On those occasions, his body was exhausted and his feet hurt, but his eyes twinkled with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
There was not much twinkle in those eyes on this January afternoon. Rather, they reflected a weariness without physical source, not so much exhaustion as disenchantment. Not so much worn out as worn down.
I had mentioned that to him when we first re-connected a few weeks ago. Then I immediately apologized, lest he construe my comment as a criticism.
“No, no, it’s all right,” he had assured me. “My wife tells me I look even more pessimistic these days than I usually do.”
We both smiled. “Well, truth be told, Arthur, I don’t really think of you as a devil-may-care optimist,” I said.
“Oh, I’m not,” he replied. “But I am hopeful.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “optimism believes that things will change for the better; that circumstances will improve. Hope, on the other hand, believes that there is value and meaning and purpose in pursuing truth and standing for virtue and justice and the right, whether circumstances change or not. I am hopeful.”
“I see what you mean,” I said. “It’s a subtle distinction, but a valid one, I think.”
“So, where were we?” Arthur asked, rousing me from my reverie. “Oh yes, I remember. I was about to wax eloquent on the subject of church leadership.”
“I’m not sure we have time for eloquence today,” I said. “Perhaps you could settle for something a little less grand. Maybe a couple of thoughts that I could take away to mull over until we meet next week.”
“Okay,” he said. “How about if I tell you what I think are the two most important characteristics for Christian leaders to exhibit—which also happen to be the two traits in shortest supply today—and the single document which will reveal immediately how well a church understands its role as an agent of the Kingdom of God. Then you can spend a week pondering what I’ve said so that you can come back here next week and tell me where I’m wrong.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “I’m all ears. What are the two most important characteristics for Christian leaders?”
“Courage and humility,” he replied. “Courage and humility.”
“Can you say a little more?” I asked. “We’re not that short on time.”
“Sure,” he said. “By courage I mean the willingness to take positions and make decisions that may not be popular. The guts to follow a course of action that will not earn any plaudits or a pay raise, but that needs an advocate because it is the right thing to do.
“When I read the teachings of Jesus, I see an agenda for Kingdom living that is deeply counter-cultural, especially in contrast to contemporary American culture and the mindset of Suburbia, where most evangelical churches happen to be located. But I don’t see many evangelical leaders who are willing to risk their comfortable circumstances by challenging the church to take Jesus seriously, to assume that He may actually have meant what He said.
“A couple of notable exceptions would be Greg Boyd and David Platt. These guys are both pastors of large churches, but they have been willing to take some risks by challenging the prevailing evangelical status quo when it comes to taking seriously the radical teachings of Jesus.
“In fact, David Platt wrote a book with that very word—radical—as its title. I have a copy of it here somewhere.”
Arthur got up from the table and walked over to a set of bookshelves that practically covered the entire wall behind us. He scanned the hundreds of books, found what he was looking for, then leaned forward and pulled the chosen volume from the shelf and handed it to me.
I read the title from the book’s orange cover—Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream. It sounded like something I wanted to read.
“It’s not the best thing I have read on the subject,” Arthur said. “Far from it, in fact. But it is noteworthy because it comes from the pen of a young pastor who was living that American dream until the Spirit of God brought about a radical transformation in his thinking and in his ministry.
“Take it along, if you want. And here’s another one you might be interested in as well.”
With that he handed me a book called The Myth of A Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. The author is Gregory A. Boyd, a well-known pastor from Minnesota.
“I certainly don’t agree with everything Boyd believes theologically, but he is a brother whom I respect for his willingness to swim against the current in calling the church to take its Kingdom mandate seriously.
“These guys have courage,” Arthur said.
“Okay. And what about humility?” I asked.
“Oh yes, humility,” Arthur repeated. “Well, what’s the first thing you should think about when you see a turtle on a fence post?”
“You tell me,” I said.
“The first thing you should think about is the fact that the turtle did not get there by himself. Somebody put him there.
“Any leader is a turtle on a fencepost. Whatever the position, whatever the scope of the leader’s influence, he or she is in that position because of the grace of God and the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church leaders—pastors, authors, agency and institutional heads—seem to have forgotten that truth. They’re like a smug little turtle who looks at his elevated position and convinces himself that he deserves admiration for his singular accomplishment.
“A restoration of courage and humility to the ranks of today’s church leaders would go a long way toward cultivating an environment in which the Spirit of God could bring about a genuine spiritual awakening in our nation… and in the world at large.”
“That’s a lot to think about, Arthur,” I said, “and it’s time for me to be going. But before I leave, can you tell me what document you have in mind that will immediately signal a church’s awareness of its role as an agent of the Kingdom?”
“Certainly,” he answered. “It’s the annual budget.”
“Hmmmm,” I said. “I’ll have to give that some thought.”
“You do that,” Arthur said. “Let’s pick it up there next week, okay?”
I stood up, gathered my hat and coat from the chair where I had laid them, and as I put them on I said to Arthur, “You always make me think, dear brother.”
He smiled, we shook hands, and I took my leave, closing the office door behind me. As I walked toward my car I couldn’t help but think, You know, Arthur is right. It is almost impossible to find a good cup of tea in this country.