Wednesday, November 28, 2007

pruning boy #012

"Episode 12: Tales from the migrant worker seat"

Within my employment of Son & Dad Tree Service, Inc. there are five seasonal jobs that each come once a year. They involve the maintaining of a certain kind of tree: spring fertilizing, three separate pest sprayings, and a winter fertilizing. Recently, we started the winter fertilizing,

There are usually somewhere between 80-120 customers on our list who want one, some, or all of the tree maintenance jobs. If we work from sun-up to sun-down, we can usually get all of them within two or three days.

These are very easy and monotonous jobs. No where near as exciting as taking down a multi-ton mesquite tree or a tall pine that MUST fall a certain direction. No elements of danger like me sliding around atop a two-story metal roof, hoisting up a fully extended pole saw to a limb that I must catch so no windows will break.

Just a couple of old men and me making routine stops. And a lot of time to ponder the universe.

Often on these tree maintenance jobs, we spend the first hour or so discovering all of the equipment failures since it’s been sitting unused for a few months. Like realizing the spray rig needs a new battery or some repair. Or there’s a flat tire on the trailer. Or the metal scoops for the fertilizer had deteriorated with holes because they weren’t washed last spring.

So I muse: this is fucking brilliant. We are a confederacy of dunces.

Meanwhile, I pray every hour that I won’t be here a year from now doing this again. Yet I’m keeping in mind that I took this quirky job after being instructed so by the CEO via a dream the night before this job was offered.

And I’m still convinced my family and I are in a wilderness period of our lives. The wilderness is where one has absolutely no resources except the lord. The wilderness is where the lord has someone travel as a training period for some greater future task, calling, ministry, whatever. The wilderness can last a long damn time.

Yet, while I enter the backyards of some of the wealthiest citizens of the fair mother city...

...and as I sit in the migrant worker seat (the wood bench in the back of the van with no seat belt and a metal coffee can of tools in my lower back), I ponder...

Just what the hell is this great future task? And is there really a future task?

Maybe I should have sold out long ago for the stellar career and the American dream. And drink a lot more beer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


The poverty culture encompasses more than homelessness. The “working poor” is a term usually used to describe the poor that have places to live and they sustain their lives via means deemed undignified by the middle class.

I once wrote on the many friends I had who lived like moles – people who lived off some government pay and holed themselves up in low-income apartments all day while nursing addictions.

Since moving into our current house five years ago, I’ve learned of another subcategory within the working poor: the jawas.

Jawas sustain themselves with the waste and excess of the middle class. They often drive old pickups (or cars with trailers) down residential alleys collecting scrap metal for resale. It’s not a huge income, and I forget the current price per pound for scrap metal, but a full pickup load of metal and old appliances can easily net around $50.

Hell...if I had a pickup, I'd be a part-time jawa too.

Other common valuables are carpet padding, pallets, broken lawn equipment and anything that looks good enough to sell in a garage sale or flea market.

The Tiger has found multiple lawn mowers in the alleys. Sometimes they only need a $2 spark plug to get them running.

As far as I know, it’s not illegal to take things in the alley next to garbage dumpsters. So jawas are not stealing. Once something is lying in the alley, it’s fair game (I think). Most home owners leave unwanted items in the alley on purpose, just for the jawas. Otherwise, the garbage man will eventually get it. In some ways, this act seems kin to the old testament teaching of leaving the edges of the crops for the poor to collect. I don’t know.

When I’m home in the afternoons, it’s common to see two or three different sets of jawas driving by a couple times a month. I recognize some of them from the old izzy group ministry food pantry days.

Recently, my friend Jack and I were fixing up a rental house. We made two huge piles of crap in the backyard of stuff that needed to be hauled off: one to the dump, the other to the metal recycling. We figured there was more than enough for dump fees, some beer, and maybe a lunch or two. But some jawa guy drove up and asked if he could have it.

It was probably better for this guy to have it than for us to drink on the job anyway.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

inner child rantings

My family recently returned from a holiday gathering with my mother and step dad in Houston. We will be making a sequel trip to Canada next month, so our Houston trip was thanksgiving and christmas rolled into one.

Even when it’s not a holiday, my parents shower our kids and us with gifts and stuff.

That’s ok, I suppose. Gifts are nice. Who doesn’t like receiving them?

Although our kids are very young, it’s getting out of hand I think. They are starting to equate grandparents with presents. I don’t like that. But maybe that’s the grumpy, down-to-earth dad in me.

I think there’s something about my parents and that generation. It’s something about how they prefer showing love with a checkbook. I personally think throwing money at something is the easy way to deal with anything (that is, if you actually HAVE money - even a little). There’s little if any commitment.

Like handing $5 to the homeless guy with the "hungry" sign instead of asking him to join you for lunch at a table.

Of course, I wasn’t seeking any deep thoughts or commitments when I opened up my French press coffee brewer gift. I practically cried. I’ve wanted one of those for 10 years.

I mean seriously. I’m not trying to be some ungracious punk. Am I?

Call me a jackass. But ever since I was a teen or young adult I’ve always wanted family, including aunts, uncles, and grandparents, to ask me things like:

Who are you B?

What kind of things are important to you and why?

And honestly, I’d like to be able to ask those same questions back to them.

Swimming is harder work in the deep end. But its benefits usually stick around much longer.

Monday, November 19, 2007

fair mother greeting

For years I have joked that here in the fair mother city, the standard greeting to a new person is “hi, what’s your name?” followed by “what church do you go to?”

I was maybe half joking. But it’s very possible to be asked the church question somewhere in conversation.

The other night I had a stellar gig for my solo instrumental act. One of the local museums had their annual fund-raiser. There were literally hundreds of people there. Yep. Hundreds of the hoity-est toity-est people in the fair mother city forced to listen to either my act and/or the jazz combo made up of former professors and various acquaintances of mine in the other room.

This was just what I needed to come out from my five-year self imposed exile on the music scene. A huge answer to prayer (thank you CEO). If I don’t score some serious paying dinner party type gigs out of this then there's something wrong with all of us.

Anyway, like everyone else, us musicians got access to the full catered meal AND the two, count them, TWO open bars. This is where I learned that I probably shouldn’t drink too much early in my set. I was playing fairly loosy-goosy, but they liked it anyway.

All four of us musicians sat at a table together and about three others joined us: some rich, elderly guy with a yankee accent, his wife who was half his age and looked like Geddy Lee from Rush’s early days, and a sharp-looking guy with a shaved head who loved jazz. And scotch. At least I assumed so since he had like four glasses with him.

I asked the jazz and scotch lover how long he had been in the fair mother city. He said six weeks. “Wow”, I said. “What brought you here?” He really didn’t look like someone who planned to blend in with the locals.

He said he was some kind of real estate developer and saw some good opportunities here. Right on, I said. Develop something with good live music. I’m in. He laughed.

Then one of the other musicians, a minister by day, asked him, “so what church do you go to?”

I couldn’t believe it! I mean, I don’t think it’s wrong or incorrect to ask that question, I suppose. I just thought I had made that question up as a gag. I guess it's real.

The jazz lover gave a very diplomatic response, “No where. Got any good suggestions?”


*photo by businessweek

Sunday, November 18, 2007

evang-e-droppings #008

The tract collecting has not faded away. Unless I receive instructions from headquarters to stop, I have yet to cease this operation.

This week’s collection was dismally low (22) compared to last week’s record of 61. But the low number was overshadowed by the $20 bill I found. Who says that being a secret agent doesn’t pay.

There’s been a new assortment of tracts lately. All of them seem to follow a 10 commandments schtick, ie: what laws have you broken lately?

Last week after collecting the 61 tracts, I spent a good bit of time with Little Wing who wandered through the area. Too bad he wasn’t around today. I might have shared the $20 with him.

I like Little Wing, even though he constantly refers to himself as “we” and rarely makes sense. But sometimes I think that’s because I’m not smart enough to understand him. Once I asked him what he had been doing lately and he said something like, “We’re trying to figure out the subtle inconsistencies of black versus white within the red, white, and blue.”

Too deep for me.

Still convinced we believers in Jesus are suppose to deliver people from demons, I asked Little Wing if he wished he could stop hearing the voices in his head. He said yes, he’d like them to stop. So I offered to ask my god to take them away and he graciously accepted.

So we prayed. And he was thankful for the praying. And I don’t know if anything happened.

Maybe next time.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Our children’s unofficial grandfather is my dear friend, neighbor, mentor, and instant-coffee brewer Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan is 90. He’s been wheelchair bound since his left leg was amputated in February, but he’s still convinced he’ll soon get out in the yard and fire up his home-made BBQ pit that’s made out of a deep freeze.

Obi-Wan doesn’t have nice stuff. His house could probably get condemned by the city if they found out about it. Most of the electrical outlets and hanging lamps are some rigged setup of his from 35 years ago with wires hanging off the ceiling, etc.

My family goes over and eats dinner at his house once or twice a week. Sometimes we bring grub. Sometimes he cooks depending if he’s in the mood for fried catfish nuggets or pork steaks.

The last couple of dinners there, Obi-Wan left his TV blaring in the living room while we ate in the dining area. And both times it was tuned to TBN. I think that’s the only channel that comes in clear at his house with rabbit ears. TBN must have been having a pledge drive of some sort as people were preaching (sort-of) in front of a studio audience and asking viewers to call in now.

A scroll ran across the screen asking for pledges of $70, $700, or $7000.

I have no deep thoughts here. Just reporting on the weird mix of wealthy looking televangelists asking for money in the context of Obi-Wan’s dilapidated house.

*Photo from Wilson Tai

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


*This post is part of a synchroblog on the subject “Money and the Church”. So, sorry if some of this material sounds familiar. Other blogs on this subject are linked at the end of this post.

Does god want you to be rich? Does he want your best life now? And what is that best life supposed to look like? Does it involve having nice stuff? I don’t know. Probably not.

Based on all possible common evidence, the guy we christians follow (Jesus) had very little possessions if anything. He was recorded to have said, “The son of man (that is, himself) has no place to lay his head.

Yet many Christ followers look at god as a loving father who wants “the best” for his children. How should we define “the best”? Somehow, “the best” for gulag-bound North Korean christians probably doesn’t equate with “the best” for westernized suburbia christians. Just a guess.

Twice recorded in Luke, Jesus sends out his followers to share the good news to neighboring towns. And both times, he instructs them to bring nothing: no extra clothes and no money. I suspect this is partially because money (or money-making devices) combined with the good news is a terrible testimony to the world.

Kind of like, this god/faith thing real or are we a bunch of charlatans?

The people who don’t follow Christ can’t take our message seriously if we’re consumed with trying to make a buck from this message in any way.

George Carlin, the least quoted person in church, once did a comedy schtick that mocked people who believed in “an invisible guy in the clouds that watches your every move. He demands you follow his ten rules, and if you break just one, it’s eternal torment in hell for you baby. Oh, and by the way...God loves you”. The crowd roared. And then George added:

“Oh yeah, by the way...this god, he needs MONEY. Lots and lots of MONEY.” More screams of laughter. “He sees and knows your every move, but this god can’t seem to manage his damn money. So he needs yours”.

What a sad message to those non-believers that we christians follow a guy who fed 5000 people with some kid’s lunch, yet we refuse to start up a church, ministry, or whatever the lord tells us to do...until “you pledge $50 a month in support”.

Uncle George (that is, 1800’s British orphanage operator George Muller, not Carlin) is one of the few missionaries who refused to advertise his needs to people. He went straight to the father and to no other with his needs. Through days, months, sometimes years of waiting, the lord always provided just as need arrived. The waiting can be grueling.

Waiting is a difficult concept when we bow to the god of convenience. This false god has the most prominent pedestal in American culture and has many followers.

But the non-believers of his day witnessed Uncle George's faith and actions, who never performed a show for money. And many were turned to this loving god through his examples.

Money is not a bad thing. It is a resource that can make stuff happen sometimes. Good stuff. Like feeding and sheltering people, research towards disease elimination, paying daily bills, or whatever.

Money-making combined with gospel telling, extravagant and or wasteful living, and placing personal comforts over human suffering is a terrible testimony to the rest of the world.

Let god’s provision be the testimony, not the manipulation game towards others.

**special thanks to the freelance writer of Boston for the link on the mansion photo...

The Check That Controls at Igneous Quill
Pushing The Camel: Why there might be more rich people in Heaven than in your local Church at Fernando's desk
Sally Coleman at Eternal Echoes
Lord, Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz at Hello Said Jenelle
Zaque at Johnny Beloved
Walking with the Camels at Calacirian
Greed and Bitterness: Why Nobody's Got it Right About Money and The Church at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Kirk Bartha at Theocity
Money and the Church: A Fulltime Story at The Pursuit
But I Gave at Church at The Assembling of the Church
Moving Out of Jesus Neighborhood at Be the Revolution
Money and the Church: why the big fuss? at Mike's Musings
Coffee Hour Morality at One Hand Clapping
Bling Bling in the Holy of Holies at In Reba's World
Magazinial Outreach at Decompressing Faith
Money's too tight to mention at Out of the Cocoon
Bullshit at The Agent B Files
The Bourgeois Elephant in the Missional/Emergent Living Room at Headspace
When the Church Gives at Payneful Memories
Who, or What, Do You Worship at at Charis Shalom
Greed at Hollow Again
Silver and Gold Have We - Oops! at Subversive Influence

Monday, November 12, 2007

testimony #037: medical debt relief

As mentioned in this report, my friend Obi-Wan owed $4600 to a local hospital, which was impossible for him to pay. So I filled out paperwork for a hardship case two months ago.

We have not heard from them. But, Obi-Wan has not received his usual monthly bill for a while. That looked promising.

So today I called the woman who gave me the paperwork in September.

She said his account has been cleared and they forgot to send a notice about it. Obi-Wan no longer owes the local hospital $4600.

This is a massive ordeal for me. Not only a faith boost, but this appears to be a personal lesson in not putting too much faith in plans: the CEO of the universe will use whatever means he wants in whatever time frame he wants to answer prayer.

For those who have been following along since July: I posted and emailed a plea for $500 to help with Obi-Wan’s eyeglasses. If we ended up with more than $500, the extra would be applied toward his $7000+ medical debt.

We received $850, which blew me away that everyone is so generous. Then the deal shut down as Obi-Wan wanted to see his regular eye doctor who couldn’t schedule him until December. So I contacted the donors to return the money.

Meanwhile, we stumbled upon a deal where we could apply for hardship towards a $2800 debt to a local rehab outfit. His debt was canceled within 24 hours of turning in the paperwork. So I decided to try the same stunt with his $4600 hospital debt, which we were informed this morning of the good news.


My plan: beg for money on the internet for his eyeglasses and hope to decrease Obi-Wan’s debt.

The CEO’s plan: eliminate the whole damn debt via simple paperwork ordeals (hardship case applications). And take care of the eye work in December. Which by the way, my friend The Corporate Guy offered two months ago to pay for Obi-Wan’s eye ware when the day came.

My dear friend, mentor, and fried pork steak chef Obi-Wan is a debt free man.

Thank you CEO.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

so, you want a homeless shelter?

Dear Citizens of Abilene, Texas (the fair mother city):

Rumor has it that you want a homeless shelter. I’ve heard this for years, even back when I helped run a once-a-week shelter with the izzy group ministry at the Happy Days Community Church’s building.

This subject always seems to come up around this time of year, when the weather gets cooler and a local ministry does its annual food/clothing and all-around resource drive. And of course, something like the recent sad news of a homeless man’s murder can make this a front-burner issue fueled by local media, even if it’s nothing more than a platform for funding local ministries.

Most people who want this shelter are christians and thus, followers of Jesus’ teachings. Sounds good to me.

What I don’t understand is: why are we expecting someone else to do the dirty work? You know, some volunteers or poorly paid employees of a non-prof to be the ones to do this?

Why don’t YOU do it?

Seriously. Why create another building, another non-prof, another system, another machine, another heartless nightmare where people become projects and trophies?

Abilene has some 150* church buildings. And I would bet all of them are fine, functional facilities that only get used three times a week at most.

Why not buy a bunch of inflatable air mattresses and open your church's doors? Maybe one or two nights a week? Maybe only during inclement weather? Hell, if the churches won’t do it, why not open the doors of our homes to an individual or two?

If we christians follow the teachings of a guy who fed 5000 people with some kid’s lunch, then why do we wait for the million dollar check to fund some imaginary group of heroes to do this for us?

Start with what you have. Let’s get going.

*not an accurate count, but in 1997 the official number of registered churches (not buildings) was 147.

Friday, November 09, 2007

what preachers aren't preaching #005

Preachers rarely talk about Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:5-13. You know: “don’t pray like those hypocrites who stand up in church meetings and on street corners to be seen by men. Go where no one can see you.”

“And oh yeah, by the way, don’t keep on babbling wordy nonsense”.

What exactly do these words mean?

If this passage is as literal as it sounds, how do these words of Jesus weigh up with: a) christians rallying against lack of prayer in school and b) public outdoor prayer assemblies like the National Day of Prayer events held downtown every May?

How come preachers don’t emphasize praying behind closed doors and out of the sight of other people?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

murmurings in the fair mother city

There's a letter to the editor in Abilene's local paper that's worth reading here.

The author of the letter was also interviewed in one of the stories about Eric McMahan's murder, found here.

I have met this guy about a year and a half ago, during the same sting operation at the downtown baptist beach head where I met Eric. The author is not homeless, but once was and is now on a mission to help our friends on the street. Or so that's what I gathered.

He once talked of organizing a "million man" march of homeless folks through downtown Abilene to protest Abilene's church culture. He got the idea from Momo, of all people. Momo wanted to sue every church in this town for not doing what Jesus said in the bible.

Anyway, the letter is poorly worded, but his gist gets across. The "comments" section has some interesting conversation. (You can now comment on stories from the on-line newspaper like a blog).

More than one person in the comments have referred to the church scene as a "social club". Ha.

And all this time I thought I was the only one who used that descriptor...

Monday, November 05, 2007

Eric McMahan obituary

Usually here on the agent b files, all names are changed to protect the guilty. This blog report will be an exception.

As reported here, on Sunday October 28, 2007 in the fair mother city of Abilene, Texas, Eric McMahan passed from this life. He was the victim of a supposed random murder.

My friend Scott (aka Agent S - former agent cohort here in the fair mother city and current resident of the Dallas area) helped me realize in a recent email that this was the Eric I briefly knew. During the early months of 2006, I had performed an undercover operation at City Light Community Ministries (the downtown Baptist Beach Head). This lasted about two or three months until my cover was blown and that operation became difficult to continue.

Eric was present during my cover blowing. I also remember playing a few cut-throat games of dominoes with him, as well as Little Wing, Momo, and several others. He was, as all others have mentioned, a very genuine guy.

Since there was no printed obituary in our local paper, we wish to bring dignity to the death of Eric McMahan and his surviving family, wherever they are. We mean no disrespect to his family by posting this without their consent.

The following is an obituary by Scott:


He was short, and small with a beard only when things were a little bit personally shaky. He never missed a meal at City Light. Leah, my wife and food director at City Light, still has a music box hanging from her car that he gave to her when we left Abilene. He was so regular at our Sunday Morning Worship that I asked him to read scripture at our last Christmas Eve Service. He did it reluctantly but pulled out some giant glasses and did a bang up job. It was one of those fragile moments that are terrifying and achingly beautiful at the same time. He had a spot in the dining room that he always sat in. Maura, who saw him everyday as the CL secretary, said that they all miss seeing him in his spot each day. He never caused trouble, he was always polite, and was quick with a laugh. He even laughed at my jokes which few people get. For Leah especially, he was part of her family of ragamuffins and malcontents that found comfort and acceptance in her little nest of a dining room. There was no drama surrounding Eric, just a life trying to make it, to reach the next thing. He was no dummy. He knew he had a drinking problem and spoke to Leah about getting help. His murderers viewed him as less than an animal but we viewed him as a friend. The difference can not even be calculated.”

Eric: thanks for making the streets of the fair mother city a better place. We miss you.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

beware of false prophets

I am a huge fan of debt-free living. It is a necessary background of the secret agent life. Being an agent would be close to impossible, or mega-burdensome if I had to spend my time working just to make big payments on things that probably weren’t meant for my life in the first place.

But that’s just my personal mantra. Charge away if you want. Build your fa├žade of a life for all I care.

There’s a popular Nashville based radio host/author that many mega churches have embraced with open arms. I mean, churches actually have classes on this guy’s teachings. I suppose the ‘get out of debt’ part of the teaching is good since no one else is telling the church to quit spending money like spoiled brats. But as far as I’m concerned, the good qualities of this guy’s message stops there.

If this message was about getting out of debt so that you can a) be generous with your wealth and support the widows, orphans, poor, missionaries, stop injustice, whatever or b) live simply so when the CEO tells you to GO, you can go or c) all the above, then I could totally go for that.

Americans by and large are huge babies when it comes to having and wanting stuff. And their stuff ties them down like a ball and chain, making it difficult to do the things the CEO might have you do. The church in America is not immune to these ills. They could use a spanking or two. We are to be in the world, but not of it, etc.

But Uncle Dave’s* basic gist for living debt free is to a) build a self-made safety net and b) live low now so that tomorrow you can live like a king.

What faithless bullshit.

1) Safety net: I know, I know. There are plenty of (old testament) biblical references on planning ahead for a rainy day. Such as Joseph and the seven years of drought. And if the CEO of the universe has guided you to stockpile for Y2K or buy every kind of health and supplemental insurance, who am I to question you.

But Uncle Dave’s first rule is to have a $1000 cushion in your bank. Well damn, if I had $1000 bucks in my bank account at any one given time, I’d be seriously looking at property downtown to start The Table. $1000 bucks? That’s like a whole years income in some parts of the world. Sheesh, Who needs faith or trust? I’ve got my $1000 padding to keep me from falling on my ass.

Uncle George (no relation to Dave) once wrote something to the effect of, “if a person has stockpiles of resources, then in the time of need the lord will direct him to those stockpiles”. In other words, who needs the CEO and his miracles when we have our own means.

2) Live like a king: this is directly opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Building wealth for the purpose of living and dying comfortably is the secular teachings of our culture. So, why does the church embrace Uncle Dave’s teaching on this?

Somehow, I don’t think the underground, persecuted churches in communist nations are too concerned with building wealth for their personal comfort. I think they signed away comfort when they joined Jesus. Just a guess, though.

Uncle Dave speaks with knowledge and authority on the subject of debt and wealth building. But his message is not from the CEO of the universe.

*not an official uncle here on the agent b files...