The Group: a short story in a big world

Prologue

This little short story started out as a dream I had not long ago. In my dream, I was frustrated and then challenged by my Pastor as he seemingly refused to take charge of a group of people waiting for some meetings to begin. As the day went on, various groups of us just decided what we wanted to do and did it…all with the blessing of my Pastor. Our church has a motto: EveryOne EveryDay EveryWhere. Apparently my brain was working out what that meant in real life while I was sleeping.

In the morning, I shared my dream with my husband, who encouraged me to write this story down. I’ve changed the names and places — everyone from my past and present were mixed up and shifting about as people do in dreams — but this is essentially the story as I dreamed it.

Ken fingered the heavy cream envelope and felt its weight, mentally calculating its contents based on the subtle clues ingrained into his subconscious from years of society parties and invitations just like this one. The envelope was oversized, which meant its sender expected to be taken seriously. It was mailed first class, with a special edition Edward Hopper art print stamp. Not a wedding, then. And nothing institutional. The paper had a high linen content. He had always enjoyed the feel of a fine paper. Whoever had sent this envelope to Ken had taste, background, strength behind them.

All these thoughts flickered through Ken’s mind in the amount of time it took to toss the envelope on his pile of mail to be opened personally, before dropping the rest of the mail in the bin for his assistant to tend to later in the day. Without giving the envelope

another thought, Ken punched the button on his espresso machine and got down to the business of the day, checking his iphone for the day’s schedule and heading to the gym for his morning run.

Across town, Michael and Jen received an envelope just like Ken’s. Jen snatched it from the pile of advertisements, catalogs and bills before Michael had a chance to get there first.

“Let me!” she laughed. “You can deal with the tedious stuff. I want the fun stuff!” Michael smiled at his wife and paused to watch her opening the envelope, assuming another son or daughter of one of their friends was heading for matrimonial bliss. Not a bad state of being, Michael thought. He and Jen were thoroughly enjoying this phase of their married lives, the period of time after their children had struck out on their own and before grandchildren or ill health slowed them down. Jen was a beautiful woman, and after thirty years of marriage Michael was still smitten. He watched her now as her eyes scanned the heavy card she had slipped from the envelope. Her brow furrowed as she puzzled over the contents.

“What is it?” he finally asked, curiosity getting to him.

“I’m not sure,” Jen answered slowly. “It’s from Jonathan.”

“Pastor Jonathan?”

“Mmhmm. It’s an invitation to a two day retreat.” Jen handed the card to Michael and

he read its simple message:

You are invited to a two day experiential retreat.

We will be examining the role of generosity in the mission of the church.

This event will be held Friday and Saturday, May 25-26 from 9-5 PM each day.

Please come dressed casually. Everything you need will be provided.

This is a by-invitation-only event. You have been specially chosen for this retreat,

and its success depends on you being there. Please contact Nadia at Pastor Jonathan’s office if you cannot attend.

Dear friends, please join me for this gathering of special friends. The Kingdom is waiting for you.

It is time. Time to BE.

“Well that’s mysterious,” Michael finally replied. “I wonder what Jonathan is up to?” Michael and Jen had been friends with Jonathan for years, Usually any event at the church had been discussed at least once over coffee or a meal between Jonathan, his wife Sofie, Michael and Jen.

“No idea,” Jen chirped from the kitchen counter. “But we’re good to go, of course. I’ll call Nadia and RSVP.”

In the executive offices of the church, Jonathan stood looking out his window over the parking lot. It was a large church and growing larger every day. The parking lot alone looked like a sea of blacktop stretching on and on. Jonathan hated that parking lot. He felt like it separated the church from his town. If it had been his choice, the church building would have been built up against the sidewalk with parking hidden

around the back of the building. Jonathan wanted his church to be part of the community. The city council had other ideas on setbacks and landscaping, however, and so now Jonathan spent a good part of his day staring out over a barrier of handicapped parking spots, regulated trees and landscaping burms, all designed to completely disguise the church’s presence in the community.

Nadia bustled into the office, a stack of messages in her hand.

“OK, Boss, we’re hearing back from The Group.”

Jonathan turned his attention to his secretary, who had more energy than he had

ever imagined in a pint-sized woman in her late sixties. She’d been his secretary for the past 20 years, since he had come to the church as a young youth pastor fresh from college, and Jonathan honestly didn’t know who really made most of the decisions at the church. He and Sofie had literally sat at the feet of this woman for years, learning from Nadia and her husband Curtis, who had passed away last year.

“What’s the count looking like?” Jonathan asked.

“Looks good. We haven’t heard from the Dickinsons yet, and the Smiths will be out of town. I didn’t know if we should try to reschedule, or if you want to go ahead without them?” Nadia pulled out her iPad and got ready to take notes, sitting at a chair in front of the Pastor’s desk.

“We’ll stay on schedule, I think” Jonathan responded after a moment. “We prayed over this date. I’m going to believe God has a better plan than we do when it comes to who will be there.”

“OK then. So I’ll make sure Facilities has the room ready to go, and I’ll order lunch in. Do you know who you want to cater? Do you want to use the church staff for that, or order out?”

“You know what, Nadia, don’t order anything.”

Nadia raised one eyebrow.

“I know,” Jonathan continued.”Strange. But you will have to trust me on this one.

Also, don’t bother calling Facilities. I”ll take care of everything myself.”

Nadia snorted. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Boss, but are you sure about that?”

Jonathan was notorious for forgetting details, losing important papers handed to him, changing schedules and not notifying anyone. Jonathan could tell she was skeptical abut his abilities to pull this retreat off without her usual help.

“No I’m not sure about it. But I think we’ll all be surprised.”

The Friday of the retreat was a beautiful southern day, with soft clouds drifting across the sky and a pleasant breeze causing a banner outside the church entrance to flutter in the wind. The banner welcomed The Group and directed everyone to please return to their cars and drive to the Community Center the church had recently purchased across town.

Ken and his wife Jackie were confused as they entered the Center and found the meeting room designated on the banner. Opening the heavy swinging door to the room, they found many of their friends from church milling around inside, chatting happily with each other as they caught up on busy lives. There were plastic chairs scattered here

and there, but most people were standing holding cups of coffee or bottles of fresh water.

“Well hello, Ken, Jackie,” a voice greeted them from the side. Turning, Ken and Jackie saw Stan Lomand, an acquaintance from various church committees. Stan was standing next to the refreshment table, which had the coffee and waters displayed on it.

“Good to see you, Stan,” Ken answered. “So any clue what the agenda is today?” “None. Jonathan hasn’t said a word. I was hoping you might know.”

“Just got the same invitation you did, apparently.” The two men scanned the room

and began taking a mental inventory of the men and women gathered. “You know,” Ken continued, “This is a pretty heavy-hitting group.” He nodded with his head towards a cluster of men and two or three women on the other side of the room. Stan turned to look.

“You’re right, now that I think about it,” Stan said. “Michael and Jen are over there, Doc Phillips. And that guy…what’s his name? The one in the green golf shirt?”

“That’s Mitch Richards. He owns that car dealership in town.”

“Oh that’s right. Yep. And over there is Lee Kitson. He was on the building committee with me. An architect.”

“Yeah, but who are those people?” Ken gestured to a smaller group of men and women. “I don’t recognize any of them.”

“I know one of them. The guy in the striped shirt is Nick Swan. I think he’s a policeman? Not sure. He was in a class I took once.” Ken looked at the guy Stan had identified as Nick. He was in his thirties, clean cut, and seemed to be the center of the small group of unknown people.

Just then another acquaintance joined Ken and Stan, and the conversation turned back to community events. The room buzzed and hummed with men and women enjoying the unexpected free time. Before long, however, the doors swung open and Pastor Jonathan entered with his wife, Sofie, by his side and Nadia scurrying along behind him, several large plastic bags in her arms.

The room grew quiet as the Pastor made his way to the side of the room where a few tables were shoved up against the wall. Nadia placed a cup of coffee in his hand and Jonathan turned to greet his gathering.

“So I see we all made it!” Jonathan quipped to begin. “It’s good to see you all! I haven’t seen some of you since our trip to Israel!” There was a murmur as the group realized that indeed, some of them had been away traveling all summer.

Jonathan continued.

“I’m calling all of you The Group.” he said. “The Group. With capital letters. I’m wondering if any of you have figured out what you have in common yet?”

“We’d all rather be golfing?” Mitch Richards called out. There was a smattering of laughter.

“No way,” Jen called out from Michael’s side. “I’d rather be here!”

“Don’t get too excited,” Michael continued, draping an arm around her shoulders, “She hates golf.”

“Very funny,” Jonathan responded, taking control of the group, which numbered around twenty. “No, if you look around, you’ll notice people you’ve served with on committees, people you’ve sat with in church. Maybe you’ll see a few faces you don’t know. Everyone here is here because you have a heart for the Kingdom, and in one

way or another you’ve demonstrated a willingness to use what you’ve been given for the Kingdom.”

The Group began looking around at each other, processing Jonathan’s words. This retreat was growing stranger.

“Well when are we going to get started, Pastor?” This came from Ken, who was tired of standing and ready to sit down and get to work. Whatever that work was.

“Oh soon.” Jonathan replied easily. “In the meantime, why don’t you all have a look around the Center, take a break and meet back here in a few minutes.”

“Take a break from what?” Michael whispered to Jen.

A few minutes later, Michael and Jen were chatting with Jonathan at the back of the room. Stan stood nearby sipping on his coffee.

“This Center was a great idea, Jonathan,” Michael said. “The neighborhood needs something like this, a place for the kids and the old folks to gather. We’ll be able to make an impact with this place. What are the plans?”

“We’re still developing them,” Jonathan answered.

Stan jumped into the conversation.

“You know what this place needs?” he asked. The others looked at him. “It needs

skateboards. And bikes. Imagine if the kids could come here and ride bikes together like we all did when we were kids.”

Jen’s eyes sparkled. “Yes! Bikes would be great, Jonathan!” Jonathan smiled. “Great idea. Why don’t we do it?”

Stan, Michael and Jen stared at him.

“Do what?” Michael asked.

“Get bikes.” Jonathan answered. “Why don’t we go do it?”

“Now?”

“Why not?”

“Well, aren’t we having a retreat?” Michael was confused, and he could tell Jen and

Stan were as well. Jonathan just smiled.

“We are, but we can wait. There are enough of us in this room…Stan, why don’t you

go see if you can get money for bikes?”

Michael stared at Jonathan like he’d lost his mind, and then laughed. “Well ok, then.

Bikes. I guess I can give $1000 for some bikes for the center.”

“I’ll give you $500,” said Stan quickly. “Let me go ask Ken what he can do.”

In a matter of minutes, The Group had raised $5,000 for bikes for the community

center. Nick Swan had only been able to give $100 toward the effort, but he offered to use his pickup truck to go pick them up. Ken, who had chipped in $2,000, offered to go with him. The two men, who had met each other only moments before, left to find a bike shop who could outfit the center with bikes of various sizes.

While the two men were gone looking for bikes, Jackie and Jen were getting hungry. “Jonathan, is there any food around here?” Jackie asked.

“Not much. Why don’t you and Jen go get some?”

“Oh. OK. Why didn’t you tell us to bring food? We could have had a lunch prepared.”

Jen was looking around the room and counting how many mouths there were to feed. Jonathan patted her on the back. “I figured we would buy food in the neighborhood

somewhere. Kind of support the local economy, you know?” Jackie and Jen smiled. “We get it! Be right back!”

The women grabbed Sofie on their way out the door, and walked down the block toward the grocery store, chatting as they went. The walk brought them through the small cottages and houses that made up the neighborhood where the Center was located. As they walked, each woman noticed the kids playing and the women watching them from yards and porches.

“These kids are really going to enjoy those bikes,” Jen remarked.

“They are. I wish we could see them figure out they can come and play!” Jackie added.

Sofie was quiet for a few steps, then stopped the other two women with a hand on their arms.

“Do you think we should invite people we meet along the way back to the Center this afternoon to see the bikes?”

“I don’t know,” Jen responded slowly. “We’re supposed to be in the retreat by then. Would Jonathan be upset if all the kids show up?”

“Do we care?” Jackie giggled. “After all, he’s already turned everything upside down and sent us out shopping. Let’s do it!”

After that, the three women stopped and chatted whenever they saw kids playing. Careful not to scare their mothers and grandmothers and fathers who were watching them, the women invited the whole family to come to the Center later in the afternoon. By the time they reached the grocery store they were reasonably certain there was going to be a neighborhood bash later in the day.

“We should get enough food for snacks for everyone,” one of them said. And that settled it. Jackie, Jen and Sofie went into party planning mode and bought enough food

to feed everyone they had invited and a few more. By the time they were done, they needed to call for a ride back to the Center!

When Jackie, Jen and Sofie walked back into the meeting room, they found the place turned upside down. In one corner of the room a group of men were having a discussion on the economy, waiting for the retreat to start. Other groups of people were wandering around the center exploring the nooks and crannies. A group of young couples who’d been playing basketball outside quickly began setting up the lunch an snacks the women had brought. Sofie went to find Jonathan.

“Honey, what’s next?” she asked.

“Not sure!” he answered with a grin.

“Was this your great plan?” Sofie asked with a sideways look at her husband.

“You’ll have to wait and see like everyone else!”

Just then a little girl holding the hand of her momma walked through the front door of

the Center. The two of them looked around with skittish eyes.

“Is this the place with bikes?” the young mother finally managed to ask.

“It will be!” Jonathan beamed at her. “Come in! Come eat!” He led her off to the

meeting room to get a cookie or two. Just as he opened the doors to the room one of the men in the corner approached him. It was Mitch Richards, the car dealer.

“Pastor, the bathrooms in this place are deplorable. They are dirty, and broken. They need to be fixed.”

“OK.” Jonathan answered and turned back to the refreshment table.

“OK, what, Pastor?” the man continued, tapping Jonathan on the shoulders.

“OK, get them fixed.”

“How? Who does that?”

“I don’t know, to tell you the truth,” Jonathan answered slowly. “But I bet you can

figure it out, Mitch”

Mitch stared at the Pastor and stomped off.

“For Pete’s sake!” he muttered. Mitch wasn’t used to participating in events where no

one was in charge, and he was irritated. “Fine, then…” he said to no one in particular. Mitch grabbed his cellphone. “Yeah, Joe, I have kind of a plumbing emergency. No, no, not at the house. I’m at the Community Center downtown. I need you to come on down here and work this out for me. Yes, now, if you can. I know it’s a weekend.” Mitch listened to Joe on the other end of the phone for a moment more, and then told him to make sure the bill was put on his own account. “Problem solved,” Mitch muttered once more as he rejoined his group of friends in the corner. “Pastor’s gone off the deep end,” he said as he pulled up a chair to the circle.

Nick and Ken returned with a pickup truck full of bikes, followed by a delivery truck from the store loaded with more. A crowd quickly gathered around as the bikes were unloaded one by one and wheeled to the playground area of the community center.

“Hey Nick, what are these?” Jonathan asked as he began unloading larger, adult- sized bikes.

“Oh, yeah…about those, Pastor,” Nick answered sheepishly. “We were talking on the way to the store about the neighbors around here, and how most of them had only one car or none at all. And it occurred to us that maybe the Center could loan out bikes to

the neighbors. We could put big stickers on them so everyone would know who they belong to. And big baskets on them, so that the ladies could take them to the grocery store and back.”

Jonathan grinned.

“What an amazing idea!” he said.

“And don’t worry, Pastor,” Ken called from across the parking lot. “Jackie gave up

getting her nails done to pay for ‘em!” Everyone laughed as Jackie squealed and threw a pretend punch in Ken’s direction.

By the end of the first day of the retreat The Group realized they hadn’t spent any time together learning or praying or doing any of the usual activities. They pulled Pastor Jonathan aside.

“Pastor,” Ken began, acting as an unofficial spokesman. “This has been a great day, but are we going to get to our meetings?”

Jonathan looked at his happy, dirty, sweating church members and shook his head slowly. “Probably not.” he answered. “But we do have some more business to take care of tomorrow. See you at 9:00 AM sharp!”

“Pastor Jonathan, may I see you for a moment?”

Jonathan looked over at Mitch Richards, who was standing a little apart from the rest of the group. Mitch’s face looked like trouble. Jonathan groaned, wondering what Mitch was getting ready to say. The man was not the easiest to get along with.

“What can I do for you Mitch?”

“Well, Pastor, I appreciate what you tried to do today,” he began. “I see that you tricked us into an old fashioned work day, and I applaud that kind of industry. But you see, I think it was dishonest.”

Jonathan’s eyebrows shot up. “Dishonest? Mitch did I tell you what we would be doing, or coerce you into doing something you didn’t want to do?”

“Well, no, not exactly, but the invitation led us to believe this was a high end kind of deal. Working in the center may be ok for some of these guys — maybe that young Nick and his friends — but I’ve done my time already. I don’t do this kind of thing anymore. And frankly, I’m not very good at it.”

“I think you underestimate yourself Mitch.”

“Really? What did I do to help. Tell me that.”

Mitch looked older than his years as he watched the others in the group saying

goodbye to kids, packing up food and chatting here and there. Jonathan realized that Mitch looked lonely.

“Mitch,” he said gently, “you were able to fix all the bathrooms. I wouldn’t have been able to do that, you know. And not only that, you encouraged the other people who were making lunches and playing with the kids. I heard you complement Sofie on her choices of snacks. That made her happy. So even if you feel like you aren’t contributing, just being who you are — where you are — makes a difference. I meant it when I said that every one of you was important for this job!”

“Well that’s kind, Pastor. You’re a kind man. But I still think you’re just stringing me along. I don’t know if I’ll be back tomorrow. In the meantime, it was definitely a day to remember.”

“Well goodnight, then, Mitch. I hope to see you tomorrow.”

The next morning Michael and Jen were the first to arrive at the Center, followed by Ken and Jackie. Jackie had brought some curtains for the front windows, so the two women hung them on the rods they had noticed the day before. The men were chatting and preparing some coffee for themselves when Stan entered the room.

“Hey guys!” he called out.

“Stan! How was your night?” Jackie tossed over her shoulder as she finished arranging the last fold of the curtains and stood back to take a look.

“It was good. I ended up eating dinner with Nick Swan and his friends. Great guys. I had more fun last night than I have for a long time!”

Ken chimed in. “Jackie and I went to dinner with a colleague of mine and couldn’t stop talking about our day here,” he said. “I think he’s coming over later to see if there is anything he can do to help.”

Michael high-fived Ken. “Awesome! Is he a church-type guy?”

“Doubt it!” Ken laughed. “Wife number four, I think. But I didn’t realize we had to limit this to church folk?”

“Well remember that invitation was pretty specific,” Jen said slowly. “But we can ask Jonathan later.

“You know,’ Stan said, “I feel like I’ve accomplished more in the past day than with all the committees I’ve served on in the past year. It feels like…real work.”

“I know what you mean,” Ken answered. “That’s why I wanted to invite John over today, He really appreciated the authenticity of what we were doing.”

“You know what we need to do?” Jackie piped in, “We should all figure out if there are other things around here that need doing, and check to see if there are people we know who could help. For instance, I’m thinking that we need a little paint around here now that those curtains are up.”

The men groaned.

“Should we ask Pastor Jonathan first?” Jen asked. “You know what he would say,” Michael laughed. “Go for it!” they all answered together.

Later that day The Group gathered for an impromptu lunch on the back porch of the center. Scattered here and there in the group were kids from the neighborhood taking advantage of some hot dogs the men had grilled. Ken and Jackie sat with their friend John at a table with Stan and, surprisingly, Mitch. John was telling them about a small business in his neighborhood run by a young couple he’d met.

“You know what they need,” John said, “They just need a couple of businessmen — real businessmen — to take them under their wings an help them understand how to make the tough decisions. You know what I mean? They have a solid idea. They are just lacking a little street smarts.”

Stan and Ken looked at each other and smiled. “OK!” they said.

“OK what?” John asked.

“OK, go for it. Do it.”

“You mean me?” John asked with his mouth hanging open.

“Sure,” Ken answered. “Stan and I will do it with you. Go for it!”

Jonathan walked by just then and heard the men’s laughter as they realized they’d just stolen Jonathan’s now trademarked line. Jonathan walked over to the grill and got everyone’s attention.

“Group, can I talk to you for a few minutes?”

“It’s about time Pastor!” someone cracked from the back. There was a lot of laughter as The Group realized they still hadn’t held their retreat.

“So…” Jonathan began. “Our time together is almost complete. And as I’m walking around the room, I’m realizing that we have learned the lesson of our retreat.”

“We have?” Nick asked out loud. Others murmured the same question.

“We have.” Jonathan answered. “I invited you for an experiential retreat. The emphasis was always on the word experience. You all learned and demonstrated how the church is meant to live out its generosity. You did it. Look around you at the Center: repainted, filled with bikes and toys, lunch on the back patio, neighborhood kids coming and going.

The Church is not that amazing building we have across town, though that is our spiritual home base and has been used by God to form an amazing group of kindred spirits. No, the Church is this. What we have right here. People living in the community and doing what needs to be done. Without a committee to study it or a budget to fund it.

In fact, our church hasn’t spent one dime this weekend to get the Center operational. You have all used the talents and skills — and yes, the financial resources — that God gave you to do what you could clearly see needed to be done.

I told you it was time to BE, and that’s what you have done. You have been the Church. With capital letters.”

“But Pastor,” interrupted Stan, “How did you know we would do anything at all? Did you plan all this?”

“No, Stan, I didn’t. In fact, poor Nadia has been going crazy because I refused to plan this retreat.

You see, for years I’ve listened to you. Some of you are amazing at pinpointing what ‘needs’ to be done. At every gathering, every meeting, one or more of you will always tell me ‘You know Pastor, what we need to do is…’

If we could have done even a fraction of the ‘need to do’ items, we’d have changed this community for the Kingdom. And that’s when it hit me.

God never intended for my church and staff to be the only ones DOING things! Every time God planted one of those ‘what we need to do’ ideas in your head, maybe He wanted you to go ahead and DO it!

So I decided to gather all of you ‘idea people’ together and see what would happen if I just empowered you to go and DO whatever ideas you came up with. And you’re sitting in the middle of the results.”

“Pastor, how did you know we would choose to do…this?” Jen asked, gesturing around.

“I didn’t, Jen.” Jonathan answered. “You could have come up with other ideas completely. You could have said we needed to go sweep the neighborhood. Or hold a Bible study. Who knows? You might have scheduled another crazy trip to Israel! Or any number of things. Of course, by having you meet here I figured it would prompt you to

work within this neighborhood. But I was willing to do whatever God told you to do. I’m just so glad He prompted you to do…this.”

Jonathan sat down and grinned as his church, The Church, started jabbering to each other about the past two days. Across the room he saw Nadia slowly shake her head and begin to clear up the lunch mess. He heard Sofie telling a story to a little girl as she at a peanut butter sandwich. And he noticed Ken, Stan, Mitch and John get out their phones and put a meeting on the calendar. Apparently Mitch had found his niche after all. Jonathan was glad he’d come back for a second day with the Center.

It had been a risk, this strange retreat with no agenda and so much to accomplish. Jonathan was grateful. God had shown up and demonstrated the power of The Church. It was the power to run through a community and bring life in its wake. It was the power to take a man like John and plant the idea of mentoring businesses. Jonathan had a feeling John was taking his first few steps into the Kingdom without even knowing it. Together all of The Group had demonstrated that the Church was the power of community in a little girl’s life as she learned to ride a bike for the first time.

Jonathan grabbed a broom to sweep off the driveway where the kids were skateboarding with Nick. His mind was already reeling with the possibilities of other experiences to arrange for his church. So many of the church members shuffled through their days isolated and lonely. They wondered where the fellowship was, where the joy came from. Jonathan knew that if he could plug them into experiences like this one, not only would neighborhoods be transformed, but his church would be, too.

But he couldn’t do it alone. He knew that now.

In the end, it was the power of everyone doing what they knew they should do, everyday and everywhere.

By Marla Saunders

I am passionately devoted to living my life in the places God has given me. Over the years those places have changed: from homeschooler to businesswoman, from consumer to storyteller. These days I'm focusing on building a new business and figuring out what it means to do everything with integrity and informed by faith.