It was at the beginning of December, the beginning of the Christmas season when we’re supposed to get extra nice. Especially if we’re pastors.
It was a Friday morning and I was in my office at church in Westwood, a swanky area of West Los Angeles. The phone rang and it was a nervous-sounding woman who I didn’t know from Adam (or Eve). She needed help from the pastor.
I hadn’t been ordained long but I already knew exactly what she probably wanted: $40 for a bus ticket. This seemed to be the standard request strangers made to pastors. Who knew what that $40 would really be spent on.
However, since it was the beginning of the Christmas season when pastors are supposed to get extra nice, I decided before I even heard the request that I would grant it; not only that, I’d go to the place where this woman was staying to meet her and see if there was something else I could do .
I met her in the lobby of her medium-okay hotel in Santa Monica. Sure enough, she told me of a myriad of problems she was having that she believed would be best solved with… you guessed it…a $40 bus ticket. Without giving it a second thought, filled as I was with Christmas cheer, I said “sure.”
I went to the ATM down the street to draw forty dollars from my own account because the Samaritan Fund at church was by this time of year depleted. Once the two twenties dispensed I looked at the transaction receipt and …what??? It showed my balance now was ZERO! I was now without money and it was at least a week until my next paycheck.
At first I panicked. Should I really be this nice and give away my very last $40, especially right now? Then I turned this into a rich opportunity to yell at myself for being a bad money manager. “You make plenty of money to live on, you don’t have to pay for anyone else, you don’t keep good enough records, you’re just a big screw up!”
When I got back to the hotel lobby I instantly flipped on my smiling, gracious pastor face – this poor woman didn’t need to know what a loser I was – and we had a nice little prayer and blessing for her journey, which I still really hoped somehow involved a bus.
Then I went to my car to drive back to the church, and I really let it rip. “How could you begin to think of yourself as a pastor if you can’t manage money? What else can’t you manage? Wait til the congregation finds out…they’ll be so disappointed, furious, they’ll never want to serve on your committees!"
All of a sudden, my cell phone rang. This was 2001, when you hardly ever got called on your cell phone except for an emergency. Who in the world could this be?
“Hello?” I said. “Yes hello,” they said, This is blabidy-blah calling from 'The Weakest Link' and we’re having a special all-clergy episode and we were wondering if you’d like to be a contestant?”
The Weakest Link was that Survivor-type tv game show where contestants work as a team answering all sorts of trivia questions and then at the end of each round vote the most expendable player off the show giving really snarky reasons why they are most expendable. The outcast then has to make the “walk of shame” to the exit as the host who is an imposing-looking British woman in glasses brusquely says, “So-and-so, you are the Weakest Link. Good-bye!”
Why in the world would they be featuring clergy on in The Weakest Link????
Before I could ask the question the voice on the other line said, “We need more female clergy contestants for the show and since United Methodists ordain women we called the LA Bishop’s office and the Bishop said, ‘Oh boy, do I have a female clergy contestant for you!' ”
Not to let the Bishop down, I suddenly found myself taking a "general knowledge test" as I drove down the I-10 back to my office. “Okay you pass!” they said,
The next thing I knew it was Tuesday and I was at NBC Studios competing with/against a male UCC pastor from Chicago, a male Army Chaplain from North Carolina, an orthodox rabbi from Virginia (of course male), a female new age spiritual leader from Hollywood, and a female Southern Baptist education minister (who clearly didn’t teach grown men….)
And why try to describe what's next? Here's a tape of The Weakest Link All-Clergy Episode! Part 1! Fast-forward through the commercials, just like you did in the good ol' days!!
Despite the fact that I played really poorly (at one point I answered the question “Who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain just before World War II?" with "Richard Chamberlain!” Oh boy did the snarky host have a field day with that one! I had to sheepishly explain how he moved from politics to starring on the Thorn Birds….)
You can catch all the infamy for yourself, here in Pt. 2:
And when all was said and done (I know not how!), in spite of everything, I squeaked by the rabbi and won the show! $6500! I couldn’t believe it!!
Here's the crazy finale in Pt. 3:
I couldn’t believe that I’d gone from no money to $6500 in what seemed like the blink of an eye. And in the weirdest way. And it wasn’t just money I received.
In addition to winning the game, I also now had a great tape to share with family and friends and congregations and conferences and YouTube aficionados! (This was also true, I am sure, for all the clergy who competed on the show!)
And I received so much joy deciding which causes I’d donate a big chunk of that money to (in addition to the church, natch)!
I also acquired a terrific entree into conversation with Richard Chamberlain when I finally got to meet him. (“Oh darling,” he said, “I’m usually mixed up with Wilt Chamberlain!”)
And I received incredible peace of mind because we were told before the show we didn’t have to be mean to our fellow colleagues of God when we voted them off. We just needed to be clever. And extra-careful we didn’t vote ourselves off the show because we were the weakest and needed to confess as much!
Best of all, I got to experience first hand, in the wildest, wackiest way, what Jesus was talking about when he shares this parable:
"Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls in the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." John 12:24
One's initial reaction to this parable is perhaps one of sadness and loss. A seed must die in order for something good to come. And who wants to die? (Or give up their last $40 for that matter?)
If one stays with the text beyond initial reaction, perhaps the next reaction is one of happiness and relief, for much fruit comes from the seed's death. That we know from observing horticulture. It helps us remember how nice it is that sacrifices we make are destined to lead to nice, predictable yields, like the wheat plant.
What we of the 21st century are invited to let our imaginations then consider, if we dare, is just how many gadjillion things wheat makes possible in present-day culture. It blows the mind! Bread, noodles, Wheat Thins, Fruit Loops, Twinkies, Spaghettios, salad dressing, soy sauce, salami, tooth paste.... To name but a few. Holy moly!!
Whether or not Jesus had modern food processing technology on his mind when he started talking about wheat, the fact is, when we let ourselves die - or completely relinquish something dear in our lives and feel as if we're being reduced to nothing - what we avail ourselves to (even as we continue to painfully groan in fear and grief) is an experience of abundance and new life that is nothing less than surreal in content and capacity.
Being completely empty allows the Spirit of God that the Bible tells us created the universe in but a few breaths free and full reign to do all sorts of mind-bending endlessly innovative things in us and through us, unearthing possibilities and connections that take us places we could never begin to predict. It's not just joyful, it's hilariously joyful! We discover God's goodness seeks to be just as ridiculousy over-the-top - even more! - than the anger the Bible tells us He never endingly seeks to contain.....
What would it be to put on our Comic Lenses as Holy Week approaches and look at Jesus' death and resurrection from this wildly funny angle? Like giving away your last penny then winning $6500 and then some on an all-clergy episode of "The Weakest Link"???
(And don’t worry, whatever you say about it you can claim was ghost written by William Shakespeare….)