Monday, August 30, 2010

Scene from a Checkout Line

Today I found the shortest line at the grocery store, like I always do, like everyone does. George Clooney's character in Up in the Air knows which security line at the airport to choose by profiling the passengers. There is no virtue in getting stuck in the slowest line.

I had four items: cherry tomatoes, two kinds of lunch meat, and cheese. Easy in, easy out.

I clearly don't profile as well as Clooney. The line I chose was the shortest, but I was there for a long time. There was a group of four in front of me. An older woman, a pregnant young woman, her younger sister (about 12 years old) and a baby boy, the son of the pregnant young woman. Each of the women wore head coverings and long skirts. Only the young girl spoke English.

The check out lady was tired--tired of working, tired of problem customers, tired of life. And she didn't pay attention as the young girl tried to explain that she needed to swipe their wic card before she rang up their groceries. She had done this before, often. But the checkout lady ignored her and when the wic card was finally swiped at the end, there was a remaining balance of $25, and our family of four had no money. The young woman said they would have to give back what was not covered on the card. Evidently, this was not clear by simply looking at the receipt.

By this time there were several other customers behind me in line. This would not be pretty. The woman directly behind me saw the trouble clearly. She was immediately exasperated, clearly disgusted with the way this family was slowing us all down. She scooped up her items and looked for another line. The cashier told us all that this could take awhile and that we should find another place to check out.

My eyes were on the young girl. She had been in this situation before. She was stuck between her older companions speaking her native language and an overtired cashier who clearly wished that her family had selected another check out line. I decided to stay and was determined to be patient.

The young girl was amazing. She calmly showed another receipt that itemized what they could purchase with their wic card. Calmly, she pointed out to the cashier where the mistakes had been made, but the cashier was confused and in little mood to help. The girl looked up at me and calmly said, "this could take awhile, maybe you should find another line." I smiled at her and said I was in no hurry. I wanted there to be one non-anxious person in the middle of all of this for her.

A manager came to help and after listening to the cashier's incoherent account of the episode, finally turned her attention to the girl who again flawlessly explained the predicament. The manager went through each item on the receipt. People lined up behind me and left, lined up and left, lined up and left while this unfolded. There were sighs and frowns. The girl looked at me again as if to say, please find another line so I won't feel bad about slowing you down. The old woman looked at me curiously. I smiled at them both.

I considered just paying the difference for them, sending us all on our way more quickly. But I wanted this young girl to experience victory and I was willing to wait. The manager quickly lost patience working through the register tape. The credit card swipe on the line next to us was not working and that cashier was asking for help. She voided the entire transaction in our line, which meant this family would have to start checking out all over again.

The girl looked at me and said, "you should go to another line." "I'm not in a hurry, it's fine," I told her. "These things can be complicated and you're doing your best." I could see her shoulders shrink, the tension ease. The manager took a long time at the other register. Finally, the girl asked the cashier, "why can't you check this man's groceries while you're waiting." The cashier had clearly not considered this. "I guess that would be ok." And she checked me through.

I was so impressed with this young girl. She stood straight, head high, hands on her hips. She was confident, persistent, patient, insistent, and smart. And all of this in a young girl's costume, a cheap dress and scuffed shoes. As I walked past the family, I looked in the old woman's face and told her, "you have a very smart girl here." The old woman smiled, though I'm sure she didn't know what I said. The girl looked at the ground.

We were all caught in this snarl. A snarl of impatience and bureaucracy and bigotry and poverty, and all of this was caught on the shoulders of this girl. And I thought about how often this must happen for her, how seldom it happens to me. The powers are aligned for me, but not for her. And patience seems like a small gesture over against it all. But today, it was what I had.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Satellite radio this morning. Listened to the station, The Loft. First song, Van Morrison. Second song, Bob Dylan. That's already a good morning. The Dylan song was "When I Paint My Masterpiece."

Masterpiece. That's a tall word. And not one you want lurking around when you're writing a dissertation. It's hard enough to put one word after another without them having to be so many sparkling bits of glass for a stained glass window.

Honestly, most days I'm writing to finish. If I happen to put things together in an interesting or compelling way, so much the better. But there are days when I think to myself, "dang, this could be something." These are dangerous thoughts.

Its words like masterpiece that keeps dissertations from getting written. After all, its often the first great album that keeps the second one from coming out, or that keeps Pet Sounds from being released for years (Brian Wilson's rumored "masterpiece").

I believe in masterpieces, though perhaps not for me. But I also believe they are mysterious. They're as much lightning in a bottle as they are sweat and toil (though I do believe they also require sweat and toil). I think Dylan, who has had a few in his career, knows this. Life is what happens while you're waiting for your masterpiece. So, I'm going to find the best ordinary words I have, string them together as quickly as possible, and live my life.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Missional Musing: We're Not Afraid of Strangers

My friend, Cheryl, in talking about the missional journey of her congregation says, "we're no longer afraid of strangers." This is the mark of a community in mission.

One of my favorite ways to distinguish missional churches from others is that they're learning to ask a different question about others. Instead of asking the question, "how can we get others to belong to us?", missional communities are forming their life around the question, "how in Jesus' name do we belong to our neighbors?"

The first question tends to sort "prospects" around their fit with the members who are already there. We tend to look for people who will be attracted to who we already are. The rub here is that if they're already like us without being a part of our church, why would they need to belong to our church? Or, it requires people not like us to do all the adjusting.

In contrast, the question of to whom do we belong puts the "other" in the place of priority. And it requires on my part the challenge of boundary crossing. And this is the Christian story, that Christ gave up the security of heaven for our sake. And if there are Christian gifts of the Spirit, boundary crossing surely must be a part of that.

Cheryl's church is now two years into a commitment to being with strangers on their terms. They have found people of peace, developed new skills, found new partnerships in the mission of God. And in the process, they are no longer afraid of their neighbors. This is the beginning of missional wisdom.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Morning in Minnesota: A Reflection on Language and Sight

I am in Northern Minnesota at a cabin sandwiched between a lake and a swamp. It is beautiful. And this morning I took a walk and wrote the following in my journal:

This is beautiful. I don't have the words to describe what I am looking at this morning. And I worry that with the lack of language, I will be unable to see all that is before me. Yesterday, Ryan talked about an article he read about a study on language. People with only one word for blue lacked the capacity to distinguish between shades of blue. They couldn't see a difference.

But, this is what I can say. I am sitting on a moss-covered log among ferns wilted with a glistening, morning dew, overlooking a swamp lined with rushes. Still, still water, without expression. So still, that things are allowed to grow on it, like a layer of dust, like doilies on a glass table.

And low-angled light cuts through the trees and illumines the underside of sleepy, morning leaves, and makes visible the rise of misty spirits that walk the bog.

And I am still, absorbed into what I see.

So, reflection on my reflection. Our host, Tony, could have described the scene in much greater detail. The kinds of rushes, ferns, trees, algae (or whatever grows on the water). And this undoubtedly would have created a larger space of articulation, undoubtedly deepened my reflection. But with the words I had, common words, lacking any real descriptive precision, I was still able to get at what I was seeing.

My sense of fit between what I was seeing and what I wrote was enabled by metaphor, by what Ricouer calls a predicative impertinence. By employing language beyond its normal semantic field, I was able to evoke what I could not otherwise describe. This is the power of poetic structures.

One more reflection. The more I described, the more I saw. The effort to describe, the attention given to bringing to words, brought out things of which I was not immediately aware. It was, for instance, only in describing the peacefulness of the scene that the light became apparent to me.

I am committed to this practice. To a reflective attentiveness, to writing a world into view.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Missional Musing: Narrating the Transformation

In working with over 20 congregations over the past few years, I've been thinking a lot about why some of them experience "missional" transformation, and why others go through the process we offer and stay roughly the same. There are no doubt many factors, and none of them in and of themselves guarantee a shift in congregational imagination. Still, there are some things that seem to be predictive.

Here's one: congregations that have someone who can faithfully narrate a coherent story in the midst of the confusion of change fare better than others.

I think there are several reasons for this. Venturing a narrative with plot and characters brings a congregation closer to naming God as an actor in their midst. This is huge. The act of narrating also brings together a useable past with a promised future. If there is no narrative, then the past is simply a mistake, something to be discarded, and people need to hold on to aspects of their past to be able to imagine a habitable future. One more. A faithful narrative has to ring true. All narratives are selective, some details highlighted, others repressed. The ring of truth comes when the worst can be admitted out loud without foreclosing on the future. Hope.

This kind of work is an art. I am wondering whether it can be taught.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

If you ever go to Houston, better walk right
Keep your hands in your pockets and your gun belts tied
If you're asking for drama, if you're looking for a fight
If you ever go to Houston, boy you better walk right

These lyrics are from Dylan's latest cd, Together Through Life, which drips with Southwestern culture. I listened to it Saturday as I drove from Dallas to Houston (long story). The cd (good, but not one of my favorites) is at home on the river walk or in a taqueria or in a seedy honky-tonk with a neon lone star bottle, half burned out, shining in the window. It sweats like a hot and humid hill country night. And this might be why its not my favorite Dylan work.

Of all possible weather conditions, hot and humid is for me the worst. If hell is a dry heat, I would prefer that to Houston. So, if you want to scare me righteous, the line would be "if you lie, you'll go to Houston." After two Minnesota winters and one in Michigan, I can say with a chest full of conviction that I prefer a northern winter to a south Texas summer. Which is to say, I'd rather thaw my eye balls than endure sweaty underwear all day. (Too much information?). I simply don't understand people who hold the opposite view.

Which is why I'm so puzzled that my friends who either live there, or who have in the past, love Houston. They love it. Last Fall, I spent an evening with my son and some of his friends in downtown Houston, and I have to admit I had a lot of fun. My friends who like it find the cultural life energizing. There's stuff to do, great food, museums, concerts, night life. And for them, sweating, horrendous traffic and sharing a city with George H W Bush is not enough to overwhelm the benefits.

I will say this. Both Houston and Dallas seem pretentious to me (unlike P0rtland or Minneapolis), but at least Houston can pull it off. Pretentious in Dallas is posing. Houston wears it more comfortably. One more thing, and this is big to me, diversity in Dallas plays only as a threat. Houston embraces its cosmopolitan-ism. I am at this moment sitting in a Starbucks near the Galleria, and its one of the most ethnically diverse rooms I've ever had coffee in.

None of Dylan's songs are about a Starbucks in Houston. He's going for belt buckles, wildcatters, accordions, pentecostal manliness, and sweaty, serial romance. And that he delivers. I'll listen to it again as I drive today from Houston to the Dallas airport (long story). But at this point I'm happy that Texas and I are not Together Through Life.