What can the church learn from a Starbucks barista?

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Evans serves up joy one cup of coffee at a time.

Feeling crappy about the state of the world and our nation in particular? Well, let me introduce you to Evans. Evans will make you feel better. His job—or calling, I might say—is to make you feel better.

I met Evans this morning standing in line at an airport Starbucks. It was a long line. It was early. I needed caffeine. But they had the tunes cranking, James Brown was playing, and Evans—the barista—was dancing and singing out loud as he worked. “I’m sorry people, I’m sorry,” he shouted to the growing coffee-thirsty crowd. “But I just love this song! I love it! So I’ve just got to sing and dance.” After the song was over, though, he didn’t stop. He kept dancing, coordinating his barista moves of pouring our dark brews, mixing our caramel macchiatos and whipping our cappuccinos into his choreography. When the cashier took our order she wrote our name on our cup before handing it to Evans. This was his point of entry. “Hey, Teri! How are you doing, Teri? Are you having a good day?” How could the answer be “No” in the face of such exuberance? Evans spoke like this to each customer. He greeted the man in front of me, Alec, so warmly that, having not yet caught on, I thought they were old friends. “Hey, Alec.” Evans said. “Great to see you, man. I’m going to take care of you today. Don’t you worry. I got you covered.” Alec didn’t seem to be having a good morning, but he managed a smile when Evans handed him his iced coffee with cream.

Evans’ effect on the people gathered for their ritual morning coffee dazzled me. In the friendliest of ways, he broke down our stoic, I’m-in-public inhibitions, giving us permission to show a little joy ourselves, turn to our neighbor to share an appreciative laugh, or help her with the pot of creamer that was extra dribbly today. He single-handedly transformed that Starbucks into a space where community was fostered, where joy and kindness were collectively shared. When Evans handed me my coffee, I asked him if I could take his picture because, as I told him, “You’re awesome, and I want to remember you.” The five or six customers gathered around smiled and laughed appreciatively at my desire to acknowledge our favorite barista. They cheered for Evans as he posed, proudly, for my picture.

Evans’ effect on me didn’t stop, though, once I left the coffee shop. Afterwards, I found myself smiling more at the strangers around me. I offered a napkin to a man who spilled his coffee. I wasn’t irritated with the woman who took the clean sink I wanted in the restroom. Generally, I found myself to be a more outgoing, positive, caring person after my time at Starbucks. The whole experience felt like church—if church could be defined as a place where community is created and people are transformed into new and better versions of themselves.

Because I serve as the chaplain of a college, I was recently asked to lead a workshop on how to attract young people to the church. If it works out that I can do the workshop, I think I might begin by introducing those gathered to Evans and his style of service. Not everyone can be Evans—he certainly is someone special. But we, in the church, can learn from him if we pause to ask some relevant questions. How did Evans create community in that Starbucks? What was he offering, besides coffee, that was attractive? How did he inspire positive change in the people he served? And how might we provide a similar experience?

 

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Refusing to let God Vanish

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A poet friend posted this quote to Facebook last week. It was the anniversary of a difficult miscarriage and she posted this as a prayer that her grief enlarges instead of diminishes her.  This struck me as a beautiful sentiment and so typical of a poet. I keep turning to the poets for the way they enlarge life, for the way they take a magnifying glass to all that seems mundane. A good poet can create a whole scene (or deliver a whole sermon) out of a detail as small as the petal of a pansy. In this enlarging of life it seems that Hirsch’s point is well taken; that the poet’s job is to leave a verbal record as a way of refusing to let any thing—any detail or experience or person, for that matter—vanish.

As I contemplated Psalm 36 for an upcoming sermon, I began to recognize the psalmist’s job as leaving a verbal record of God. These ancient poets enlarged every detail of God. Psalm 36, in particular, enlarges the details of God’s steadfast love that extends to the heavens, God’s righteousness that stands like the mighty mountains, God’s judgment that runs like the great deep and God’s refuge that the psalmist emphasizes is for all people. Implicit in this poetry is a refusal to vanish and a refusal to allow God to vanish. It almost seems like an act of rebellion–an act of rebellion against all that counters love and justice, refuge and righteousness; an act of rebellion against all the pain, heartache, and grief that this world dishes out–to refuse to let God vanish.

This past holiday season all of the end-of-the-year reviews seemed to be ripe with heartache, tragedy and grief.

After the shooting in San Bernadino, California articles were written about how there had been more mass shootings this year than days—as of December 2nd, 355 mass shootings had occurred in 336 days. So much heartache has been caused by these shootings, and yet we Americans are so solidly entrenched in our culture of guns and our worship of guns that we can’t seem to do anything about this abhorrent violence. It breaks my heart to know that my 6-year-old not only knows the drills at her elementary school for tornado and fire, but also what to do when an active shooter is in the building.

hqdefaultAdding to my heartache this holiday season, I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness in preparation for a college trip I am leading where we will study the mass incarceration of our American men of color. What I learned in reading this book—about how our nation’s War on Drugs has strategically and systematically rounded up and locked up our impoverished, black males—blew me away and it made me understand the urgency of the #BlackLivesMatter movement all the more. Our societal imbalance and ‘disadvantaging’ of a whole population of people is a tragedy.

And then there’s the continued evil of groups such as ISIS, Al Queda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. There’s the insanity of Donald Trump’s popularity, our nation’s gobbed up political process, militia men taking control of a wild life refuge in Oregon, another black teen gunned down by police and a “Bible believing” man who walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic to shoot it up.

My God, it seems in the midst of all this heartache and grief, evil and tragedy that there is simply nowhere to turn. Everything is just so messed up.

So I am grateful for the Psalmist who leaves us a verbal record of:

Steadfast Love

Faithfulness

Righteousness like the Mountains

Judgment like the Great Deep

A refuge in which ALL PEOPLE may find shelter

By recording and enlarging these sacred details, the psalmist refuses to let God vanish in a world so full of heartache. The psalmist defiantly lifts up that which counters the insanity, grief, tragedy and evil of the world in which we live.

People of faith do the same every time we gather for worship. Have you ever thought of worship as an act of rebellion? I mean really, how dare we gather to read the psalmist’s words out loud, to pray bold prayers for peace, to sing hymns of hope when all that is taking place out there? It’s kind of crazy, really. But God will not vanish as long as God’s people gather to speak God into this world.

2301691623_7d9f87ac31_oWith the state of the church today—which is a state of rapid decline—I oftentimes think to myself where Christianity would be without the church? Or even, where Jesus would be without the church? If no one is gathering anymore to read the scripture, to sing the hymns, to pray the prayers and build the Body of Christ, then where does that leave Christ? I know this is kind of radical, but consider with me this question: If the church vanishes, then would Christianity, maybe even Christ himself, vanish too?  I don’t know my answer to this question yet.  But I want to ask it.  Because I’m afraid God would vanish if God’s people do not speak and act and live God into existence.

So I guess I want to encourage an uprising—a revolt against all that is terrible and terrorizing.  I want us to rebel against the heartache. I want us to be enlarged, not diminished by the grief. I want us to counter the evil, hate and bigotry with steadfast love, and righteousness, and justice for ALL who are welcome into the fold of God’s refuge. I want us to be God’s poets, refusing to let God vanish by leaving a verbal record.

Who knows, maybe this could be the start of something big? We won’t know unless we try.  And I think God is hoping, maybe even depending upon us to try.

 

 

 

 

 

When Worship Works

4044933922_d27e258d54_bWorship doesn’t always work. It doesn’t work when your student pianist can’t get through a whole hymn verse without stopping and starting three times. Or when the toddler, who accidentally bumps his head, drowns out your sermon’s climactic crescendo with his screams. Or when your congregation, who faithfully shows up Sunday morning after a long weekend of mission projects, only has enough energy left to go through the motions. Worship experiences are certainly not all under our control.

I work hard at worship, though, because I believe it deserves my hard work. Nothing, in my mind, better inspires or better pulls a community together than good worship. Every year I tell my students that worship done well can transform a person’s faith. Worship done poorly can kill it.

In my position as Chaplain at Monmouth College my students and I lead weekly Chapel services all year long. In addition to these, we design and lead special services annually: Christmas Convocation, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Baccalaureate. Seeing as the Baccalaureate Service is our church-related college’s premier worship moment, it gets planned a year in advance.

The planning process for this year’s Baccalaureate Service was particularly frustrating. We had lined up an amazing preacher—the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget—so we wanted an amazing worship service to surround her sermon. The Baccalaureate Planning Committee and I came up with all sorts of wild ideas at first. Special lighting effects. Flash mobs. Marching bands and drum lines. (The beginning brainstorming phase of worship planning, when no idea is a bad idea, is always fun.) When we narrowed our focus, though, and started hammering out the possibilities, we kept running into setback after setback. We can’t do this because so-and-so isn’t available. We can’t do this, because there isn’t enough time to rehearse. We can’t do this, because so-and-so has fallen into the abyss of final exams and end-of-the-year stress and is no longer responding to email. When the day of Baccalaureate arrived, I felt confident that what we had eventually planned would work. But I also knew that a whole host of things could go wrong.

In the end, it was beautiful—more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Things came together for this service that we didn’t plan. Emotions were evoked that we didn’t expect. Worship leaders rose to the occasion in ways that can only happen when they are inspired and feeding off the energy present in the room. I was honestly blown away.

And humbled. Clearly, what made this worship service work, was a divine guiding hand. Yes, good worship requires a lot of hard work, planning, and preparation. But it’s work that’s never about us. So when it comes time, after you as a leader have put in all that you have, the best thing to do is get out of the way.

God makes worship work.

[feature image: susanlloyd]

Writing Sex

romance31I’m attending a lot of panels here at AWP: a couple on social media, one on the contemplative writing of Thomas Merton, and one on writing the “occasion” poem (which inspired my forthcoming inauguration prayer.) All the panels I’ve attended have been really useful and informative, so yesterday I decided to attend something completely different. I attended a panel called, “No Shame: Sex Scenes by Women, About Women.” Clearly, I was not going to get any good sermon material here. I just went into the panel open and without expectation. And I chose a seat in the back, hoping there wouldn’t be any required audience participation.

Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the best panels I attended. To set the scene, it was standing room only. The convention hall room was full of women. We sat shoulder to shoulder in rows of uncomfortable chairs. There must have been about two hundred of us crammed in there. No one looked liked a sexual deviant. In fact, most of the women looked a lot like me (see yesterday’s post about the boring gray dress slacks with the black blouse.) There were a few men scattered in the room, but (good for them) they kept quiet and let the women hold forth. The presenters were all amazing; strong, courageous, smart, witty women who spoke frankly about the role of sex scenes in good literature. (We’re not talking erotica here, folks.) The takeaway theme of the panel was that it’s never just about the sex in literature.

In fact, the panel was more a discussion about the messages our culture sends women about sex and sexuality. The most retweeted quote (yes, I tweet now!) from the panel was, “Sex is often about power, and female sexuality is too—and female power often makes people anxious.” One of the presenters shared how after her mother-in-law read her novel, which included a few fictitious sex scenes, mother-in-law called her husband to tell him that his wife was obviously a sexual deviant who must be molesting his children. To her credit, the presenter refused to let mother-in-law shame her and she kept on writing. But shame seems to be the name of the game when women talk sex.

In the discussion that followed the panelists’ presentation many confessed to their sexual shame and their need for liberation. Typically, the stories included messages of shame that were received early (between eight to twelve years old) and then kept up for a lifetime by a culture ill at ease with a woman’s sexuality. Listening to these stories unfold, I couldn’t help but think about how the Church has been the main supplier of this sexual shame. Maybe we should have a panel discussion too.

In a lighter moment, a woman shared that she was too worried to write about sex for fear of what her family and friends might think. To which one of the presenters replied, “It’s time to stop worrying about whether people like you or not. We’re grown ass adults. Pack that away.”

Obviously, there was lots of hilarity in between the meaningful discussion. One presenter rattled off a seriously long list of clichés, words to avoid when writing the literary sex scene. The list included: gazongas, bodacious bosoms, family jewels, ta-tas, tube sticks, penis fly-traps…(there were more, but I was laughing so hard at this point I couldn’t write.)

Finally, there was a sense of camaraderie in the room by the end of the discussion—or to use a more churchy word—a sense of community. I had turned to my neighbor sitting to my right and my left numerous times during the course of the panel to share a laugh or an appreciative nod. We were no longer strangers. We had bonded over a subject that is important to all of us, and yet one that we rarely have the freedom to talk about. Maybe we should talk some more? Maybe we could find ways to celebrate our sexuality, rather than shame? Maybe we could be more like Fred Rogers who, in my book, wins the prize for the best non-anxious description of the way God made us. “Boys are fancy on the outside. Girls are fancy on the inside.” (Tweet this.)

Out of My Zone: A Pastor Attends AWP

I decided to stand out today as I got dressed for my first AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). So I pulled on my gray wool dress pants, black ballet flats and a black blouse. When I registered yesterday I noticed a lot of body piercings, black framed eye-glasses, leggings and boots (Doc Marten style.) I rode the elevator with a plus-size woman in ripped (on purpose, I think) black nylons underneath a pair of black denim short-shorts. Later, I noticed a man with a necklace of large bones. A presenter at my first panel wore denim and a red baseball cap with the rim flipped up. Am I cool enough to be here? I thought to myself as I settled into a comfortable seat in the middle.

There are plenty of people here who look like me, but this isn’t a church conference. I went to Hell’s Kitchen last night for dinner. I would have done this at a church conference, but it would have been ironic and silly. Not so at AWP. There’s a giant Craft Bar in the middle of the convention center where we are attending panels. At the church conference, this would be where I would go to learn new art to make with the kids in Sunday School. Here at AWP, this is where I buy beer. I think they were open this morning.

Everyone’s been so welcoming. I spoke to Susan Ito of LiteraryMama after her panel presentation. She was so nice and encouraged me to blog more and to get on Twitter. I visited my friend, Michael Morse, at Canarium Press’ table, to buy his new book of poetry, “Void and Compensation.” They had a great deal, three books of poetry for $30.  So I asked the publishers which of their poets would be best to quote in a sermon.  It took them a minute to register my unfamiliar question before responding that it depended on my congregation. I told them I was a college chaplain, so I could be pretty edgy.  “Oh!” they exclaimed. “Well, then, here you go!” And they quickly filled my arms with new books.

Needless to say, I’m having a ball. This is just the kind of conference I have needed for encouragement and new connections. I hope to blog more about it soon. But now I’m off to begin my foray into the world of Tweet and Twitter. (It’s sounds so cute, how hard could it be?)

A New Mantra: No Big Deal

183246_8db2604dfcbb2b58ffa0dee311ffb14b_largeI preached a dog of a sermon this past Sunday. Walking that dog for fifteen minutes in front of my small congregation was exhausting. I was working hard to connect—but since I was disconnected from my sermon, so was the congregation. Some people politely feigned attention, which I appreciated. Others stared out the church windows or whispered to their neighbors. A couple of teenagers in the back snickered and poked at each other. I’d wanted more time to work on another writing project, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pull out an old sermon to preach. The sermon I chose for this past Sunday wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t me. I’d written it in 2005 when I was an entirely different preacher. So the whole experience was tired and lifeless. Immediately after finishing I thought to myself, “I never want to do this again.”

Normally, such a preaching failure would send me spiraling down into despair. Afterwards I would wallow around in a depressive state and repeatedly ask my husband for words of encouragement to help build me back up. This Sunday was different, though, because of a new spiritual practice.

I’ve been re-reading Pema Chödrön’s book How to Meditate over my winter break and found myself drawn into what Pema describes as one of her biggest teachings from her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. About this important lesson, Pema writes:

I remember one time going to [Rinpoche] with what I thought was a very powerful experience from my practice. I was all excited, and as I was telling him about this experience, he had a look. It was a kind of indescribable look, a very open look. You couldn’t call it compassionate or judgmental or anything. And as I was telling him about this, he touched my hand and said, “No…big…deal.” He wasn’t saying “bad,” and he wasn’t saying “good.” He was saying that these things happen and they can transform your life, but at the same time don’t make too big a deal of them, because that leads to arrogance and pride, or a sense of specialness. On the other hand, making too big a deal about your difficulties takes you in the other direction; it takes you into poverty, self-denigration, and a low opinion of yourself.”[1]

When I came to this lesson in my reading, I was writing a sermon to be published in a journal for preachers. I was excited about this sermon as well as the opportunity to have it published. When I get excited about something, my enthusiasm has a tendency to consume me. It’s all I can think about. Then my imagination leads me to some grand delusions where I do start to feel awfully “special.” So Pema’s words resonated with me, even as they confused me. Wasn’t it okay for me to get excited? I’m a very enthusiastic person. Wasn’t it okay for me to feel joy in what I am doing and experiencing? As I lived into the “no big deal” mantra, though, I came to understand it’s wisdom and it’s power.

I ended up writing a better sermon for the journal because whenever I started to picture other people reading it, or to imagine the positive attention, fame, fortune (Ha!) that might come of it, I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—which led me to be more real, more playful, and more honest in my writing.

After preaching my dog of a sermon this past Sunday, I repeated my new mantra. When I felt myself spiraling down into my typical state of self-denigration I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—and locked myself in my bedroom for about ten minutes of quiet meditation. After this tiny bit of practice, I was able to let go of my “preacher’s despair” more successfully than I ever had before.

Through the use of this new mantra, I find myself seeking a sense of equanimity, or a state of spiritual balance. Swinging from the extremes of high-flying excitement or depressive denigration will only lead me to self-denial, life-denial, and suffering. It won’t be good for anyone around me, either. To be fully present in this moment, though, to be spiritually, psychologically, and physically balanced, is the path to a healthy, whole, and happy life.

 

 

[1] Pema Chodron, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, (Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2013), pp. 13.