Parrot Heads, Street Preachers, Sunsets and More

KW Sunset1

In my mind Key West has always been a mystical place. I’ve read about it, seen pictures of it and been aware of some of its characters but had never been farther south than The Tamiami Trail, (FL Route 41 through the Everglades) so on this trip I decided it was worth the extra miles to finally experience Key West first-hand.

Over the course of my ten days in the Florida Keys I made the journey into Key West from Rico’s (you’ll read about him soon) home on Cudjoe Key, a total of five times.

My first trip in I was just trying to get the lay of the land in order to plan my exploration. I found it to be every bit as quaint and charming as I had heard, with beautiful old homes, a super relaxed feel with Chickens and Egrets wandering freely in the streets. It has been said that the feral foul that roam about are a perfect metaphor for Key West; they are colorful, noisy and don’t know when to shut up, causing many to consider them an annoyance but an unavoidable part of the culture.

On my second trip I went right to Old Town to check out the Duval Street crowd. I grabbed a late breakfast at Harpoon Harry’s and chatted with a few “locals.” In my wanderings I spoke with a woman from Michigan, a man from Boston, another from New York and yet another woman from my home state of New Hampshire, who have all moved to Key West over the years. I must admit I began to sense the appeal of the place and understood why it was so heavily populated by northerners.

My third trip, however, took place later in the day and into the evening. Having been a fan of Hemingway since my High School days I wanted to check out some of his old haunts. Though a fan of his writing; because of my work with men in recovery, I know too well the destructiveness of his lifestyle, so I was saddened to find, more who were trying to live (and perhaps die) like Hemingway, than those who sought to record the grittiness of life. In the middle of the afternoon the streets were teeming with men and women stumbling about from bar to bar (each providing live music in the form of dozens of Jimmy Buffet wannabe’s) in various states of inebriation. The earlier sense of charm was replaced with an awful feeling of despair.

Trip number four was a simple ride in with Rico to pick up tickets at the Tennessee Williams Theater (Williams being another famous author who resided here) for a show he was planning to attend. We stopped in to Bobalu’s on Big Coppit Key for a delicious “Garbage Pizza” (pepperoni, sausage, bacon, ham, onions, peppers and who knows what else) and my view brightened once again.

2014-12-19 18.54.06The purpose of my fifth and final sojourn was to catch up with Bill Welzien, a street preacher who offers a clear biblical message three nights per week along the famous wharf at Mallory Square where tourists come to watch the sunset. To call Bill a street preacher is not entirely accurate as he also pastors an Orthodox Presbyterian Church and heads up Keys Evangelistic Ministries, where he trains others in the work of evangelism. Still, most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays you will find Bill among the jugglers, tightrope walkers, sword swallower, acrobats, psychics and other street performers with his easel and bottled paints, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, something he has been doing here for the past twenty-eight years. (For a video of the above pictured message click here)

I had corresponded with Bill and spoken with him by phone so he was expecting me when I arrived. We talked at length as he prepared his materials for two separate talks he would do that evening. I watched as he interacted with some of the street performers and tried to read the crowd, determining when to launch into his message. What I witnessed was interesting, challenging, disturbing, yet, warming.2014-12-19 17.53.42

You see, as the juggler/tightrope walker or the sword swallower (performers to either side of Bill) began their acts, crowds were drawn to see what was happening and swelled further as they went on. However, when Bill began to preach, those standing nearby tended to scatter and crowds thinned. It was almost as if people didn’t want to be associated with the preacher and drew back. But as I stepped back to get a better photo of the scene, I realized that many on the periphery were indeed paying close attention to what was being declared. They watched the sunset, all the while eavesdropping on the preacher. When the message was complete, Bill offered to answer any questions people might have and was clearly skilled at engaging people from all backgrounds and perspectives.

Over the course of the two messages and post message engagements, I watched Bill converse with a fellow believer, two Muslim women, some Asian tourists, three young Jewish women and a couple of Christian women who were vacationing at a time-share nearby. To each one he gave a tract that explained what he had shared and offered again to answer questions. With one Christian man, we got into a lively theological debate where I found myself acting as a mediator between an Arminian stance and a staunchly Calvinistic position, each declaring a caricature of the others beliefs. When Bill and I were alone, we talked further about the free grace vs. predestination debate and found ourselves taking a decidedly Whitefield/Wesley stance of agreeing to disagree. (those interested in a deeper understanding of this debate may find this article enlightening.)

In the days that have passed since my visit with Bill I have thought of these words from the Apostle Paul: For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. (I Corintians 3:4-6 NIV)

In my ongoing search for the Reflection of Christ, I am beginning to think that while no one person may serve as an accurate reflective image, if the people of God’s church could embrace the 95% of things we hold in common and stop allowing the other 5% over which we may disagree to become insurmountable obstacles, perhaps the world could indeed see that we are his disciples because we love one another. (See John 13:35)




LostAndFoundWhat does it mean to be lost and what does a lost person look like?

This question has been bouncing around in my head for the past couple of weeks. As a very white, very middle-class boy growing up in very white New Hampshire, (our mountain range is even called the “White Mountains”) the neediest people I knew might have had holes in their sneakers. As an adult Christian, God has called me out of my comfort zone and I have become aware of greater needs, and while I have ministered to many of the needier people of New Hampshire, most of my church experience is with middle-class white folk who, for the most part, are extremely self-sufficient. I have become convinced of this: self-sufficiency can easily translate to self-righteousness, and self-righteousness can lead to death.

It’s no wonder that New Hampshire is the least churched state in the union! That’s right year-after-year New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine come in as the bottom three states for church attendance. What else do these three states have in common? Well besides being bordered by Canada to the north, they each have very little ethnic diversity and rather low poverty rates. When you have everything you need, you don’t need God and if you don’t need God, you certainly don’t need to waste what little free time you have going to church.

You may say, well, people who know Christ know that’s not true. Perhaps intellectually we know the error of that thinking but do we recognize the neediness of our neighbors? I don’t think we do.

Now, truth be told, I don’t care if you live in New England or Virginia or Florida or most anywhere else on the North American continent, if the people around you don’t appear to have physical needs, it is hard to see them as having spiritual needs. While we may read in our Bible’s that: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 NIV) Do we really understand that one day we will all face judgment? Do we understand that no one is self-sufficient when it comes to the judgment and that to face the judgment seat of God without a savior is to be lost for all eternity?

Pardon me if I get to preaching here but this is serious stuff! Plus I will admit, I have a long history of writing sermons on Saturday.

As I search for the reflection of Christ and think about some of the characters I have met thus far, it strikes me that most of the ones in whom I see Jesus would be described by most as “a little rough around the edges.” Come to think of it, I guess that’s the way the religious leaders of the day might have described Jesus when he walked about the hillsides of Judea and the shores of Galilee. And certainly, John the Baptist was considered rough around the edges – he wore camel hair clothing, his diet consisted of bugs and wild honey and he was always hollering at people to REPENT!

But let me ask you; when you hear the term Baptist (particularly if connected to the words conservative or southern) today, what image comes to mind? Chances are you may think of some uptight, moralistic, judgmental, registered republican with starched underwear in an out of date, ill-fitting suit and plastic hair. Or perhaps you imagine a dowdy woman with no makeup in a long dress or a jean jumper with her hair done up in a bun? (Maybe that’s a tad over the top) Anyway, my point being, when you think Southern Baptist you probably don’t think of a guy with long hair, tattoos up and down his arms, riding a Harley do you? Well perhaps you should.

You see, one of the things I have discovered on my journey to date is that the preachers/church leaders who are a little rough around the edges tend to attract people who are also a little, or even very rough, around the edges; perhaps even tattered, torn and broken – people who are able and willing to see themselves as in need of a savior.

Two such leaders I already wrote about are Ray and Susan Kelley, co-founders of Daytona Outreach Center. Another who warrants more than a passing mention is James “Cochise” Powell, Pastor/Church Planter of Set Free Church where I have been invited to share and sort of tag team preach tomorrow morning. In just a very short time I have come to love this brother in Christ and I look forward to sharing more about him and the wonderful work God is doing though him within the next few days.

Jesus put it this way: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13 NIV)

Or as he quoted from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then concluding with this: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-19, 21 NIV)

I guess it’s no coincidence that in my search for the reflection of Christ the Spirit has led me to folks who are ministering to the poor, those held captive by sin, the sick, the oppressed. Now if God will open our eyes to the fact that such a description applies to our tidy, apparently self-sufficient neighbors, perhaps the church in North America can turn the tide.


Simple Joy in the Face of Challenges

Last night I was feeling sorry for myself and perhaps a little depressed. I tend to be a glass half-full kind of guy, so usually I can talk myself out of a bad mood but as I have indicated here before, there are certain circumstances of my life right now that I simply wish were not. So, it was with a slightly downcast spirit that I walked into Jakob’s Well, again last evening to check out the open mic/karaoke night.

I arrived just before the advertised start time of 7:00 pm and what I found when I walked through the door set me back on my heels. To put this delicately, I discovered a short-bus load of well… grown up short-bus riders. Okay, maybe that wasn’t very delicate. The fact is I have never been politically correct and I happen to think that some of the pc terminology can be more offensive or confusing than straight talk but I guess the current language is either “developmentally delayed” or “developmentally challenged.” Perhaps as I have heard it’s not “developmentally disabled” but “other abled.” Whatever terminology you prefer, feel free to do a pc edit in your own mind – I won’t be offended.

Now, the reason I rocked back on my heels and took this in so quickly is that two of the challenged folk were up on stage singing karaoke with far more enthusiasm than their vocal talents warranted. For a moment I wondered if I had stumbled into one of those American Idol first audition deals. While I fear I may have stood agape for too long, I think in reality I processed the scene far more quickly and my slack jaw face turned to a smile in a mere second or two. I continued to absorb and process the scene as I walked to the counter, ordered a coffee and made my way to a seat.

As I sipped my coffee, my smile broadened (in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I was laughing on the inside but it was not a derisive laughter at all) taking in the whole scene. Please excuse my feeble attempt at painting this picture with words, but Imagine if you can, a rail thin man in his thirties with wispy thinning hair and thick glasses, dressed in tight tan shorts, a red t-shirt and shod in converse sneakers, with his hips canted slightly when still, but moving rapidly to the music belting out Alabama’s, “roll on eighteen-wheeler, roll on!”

As soon as he finished his set, he went to the DJ and ordered up a song for one of his compatriots to sing and it became self-evident that this man was the alpha-male of the room. As further proof of this fact, since the song now being sung was a slow song, I watched as he went to the girl who was clearly “his woman” and led her to the dance floor. As they swayed in rhythm to the music, her head on his chest, I was enthralled. Just when I thought I was witnessing the epitome of simple, joyous love, she leaned back, gazed longingly in his eyes, and he bent to give her the sweetest kiss I think I have ever seen. Nicholas Sparks could not capture with words what I saw with my own eyes.

Well the night was still young and I began to ponder what else was in store. I was quite certain I had been told that a regular crowd of un-churched folks came to perform for open mic and as some of them began to shuffle in I kind of wondered how they would respond to the group that was already there. What would this interaction look like? Would there be disgust? Would there be a clear distinction between the “normal” people and the “challenged” folks. Would the room be evenly divided and segregated? Would there be rivalry? How would the staff keep order since it had been pretty much a free for all to this point? Perhaps it was my previous mood that conjured up these negative speculations but any fears of tensions I held were quickly put to rest, for the interaction between the have’s and have not’s was one of casual comfort and mutual respect.

I watched as a hipster dude with a baldpate, partially hidden beneath a fedora, and neatly trimmed goatee warmly greeted the alpha-male. This was clearly not the first time these two groups had mingled. While the karaoke continued, Mr. hipster dude tuned his guitar, waiting patiently for his mic time. When he was ready and it was his turn to perform, along with his buddy on the snare drum, the entire audience listened with rapt attention.

After he played three or four songs, Tim, the manager, announced that he needed a couple volunteers (he wound up with four or five). He instructed his team of volunteers to choose a song – any song – for Tony (one of the guys in the Daytona Outreach Center program) to sing. This was a little game they call “karaoke roulette” and the idea is to find a song that’s hard to sing in an effort to embarrass Tony. Alpha-male huddled his troops to discuss the matter and when they broke he clapped his hands pointed to Tim and said, “Eighteen Wheeler,” the song he had earlier performed. Tony accepted the challenge but it was painfully clear he did not know the song as well as the previous performer.

While Tony struggled to sing, the music played and the hipster dude danced across the floor inviting a blond haired woman with Down’s syndrome to join him. Though she was at first flustered, she stepped out and tried to follow his lead. He gently spun her and swung her around the floor and she began to relax enjoying the attention and doing her best to mimic his moves. The room was filled with an air of pure delight.

Now, some of you might think that Jesus would never dance and make such a spectacle of himself, but I’m pretty sure I saw the reflection of Christ last night.





Authors note: It is difficult to capture in little more than a thousand words all I witnessed, for there was so much more worthy of cataloguing. Yet, I fear that my descriptions of some of the other characters I saw would come off sounding snarky, like I am poking, fun when my desire is just the opposite. I truly was taken by the simple joy exhibited by these folks who face life’s challenges with their own special kind of dignity. They helped put my problems in perspective, lifted my mood and caused me to give thanks to God for so many good things in my life. My glass is more than half-full — in fact, “my cup overflows.”