Reflections on Retail

After a catastrophic season of burnout, I stepped away from parish ministry and took an available job in retail to help maintain insurance and pay the bills.  And to see if I was the POS (pardon the coarse self-reference, but it’s what I felt at the time) I’d come to perceive or if I really did have anything worthwhile to lend to other people and organizations.

Long story short, I’m back to active ministry within the structures of the church, and I’m still with the retail gig.  I’ve received a good bit of healing.  God’s had a hand on everything in this strange passage of my life.

Working in a retail environment provides considerable insight that helps me better understand and witness to the message of Christ.  This week, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints a portion of Matthew 9, including

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

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Lifted from here.

Working in retail camps me out among the harassed and helpless, for whom Jesus feels compassion.  It’s helps me “sit in the pews,” mentally, recognizing more of the stresses and strains that people bring to church.  I still don’t like the toxic ways in which they act them out, projecting them onto the clergy in particular and very often onto the other lay people, rather than receiving the transformation that Jesus offers them.  But I have more compassion than I did a couple of years ago.

I know what it is to give a long week’s effort for a few hourly bucks.  Yes, clergy are way underpaid – but so many folks in the “secular” workplace toil under more stressful, less uplifting conditions for longer hours for as little or less compensation.

I recognize that it isn’t only churches that that suffer busts having little to do with the quality of their efforts.  Folks in retail can do sustained, quality work only to watch hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars leave for a flashy, cheap or geographically convenient place that opens up a few miles away (or on the internet).  And I see how the “losers” in such shifts are helpless against harassing feelings of failure.

I watch managers in the retail setting and realize how much more harassed they are than I was as a congregational pastor.  Pressure from “corporate” to bring in more sales; pressure from customers aggrieved by this, that and the other thing; pressure from well intended laws and policies that force them to be accommodating to even their most lazy and incompetent employees; the normal human pressures from within themselves and their relationships.

I’ve gained respect for the South Sudanese members of one congregation I serve, many of whom work in a meat packing plant for long shifts and still manage to clean up and get their families to church.  I know more of how a work week can exhaust people, and what a precious offering working folks make to take part in worship, let alone all kinds of mid-week church stuff.  And retail is especially guilty of the diminution of Sabbath in our culture – we’ve turned so many aspects of not working into a feeling of added work.

Then there are the experiences that give me thoughts like, “OK, maybe I went a little nuts, but it’s not like the church isn’t a bit of a crazy-maker.”

There’s the reality that “I’ll pray for you” means more when I say it to folks in the retail store than when I said it as the expected (and often unappreciated) thing in church.  I used to keep a discipline of calling church members on their birthdays and asking, “What should I be praying for in your life?”  It became one of my most deflating and eventually abandoned practices, as time and again the reply was something like, “Oh, nothing.  You save those prayers for the people who really need them.”

Now, when I offer to pray at the store, I find myself and the person who wants the prayer huddling between teetering pallet loads of merchandise as our sanctuary.  I see tears in others’ eyes.  I hear sincere “God bless you”s in return for my fumbling words.  I got a heartfelt “God bless you” just this morning for doing a minor favor to help out a coworker.  The apt sharing of Scripture seems to reach people at the store whereas it often bounced off of people in the church.

This Sunday’s Gospel goes on to reveal that where people are harassed and helpless is exactly where Jesus wants his church,

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Working the retail job seems to drop me in that harvest field in a way that the church itself resists.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not rejecting the church; I believe that it is Jesus Christ’s body at work, the Holy Spirit’s Temple on the earth; the royal priesthood ministering to the Heavenly Father. Christians affirm the church as an expression of the reality and mystery of God in our Creeds, and I’m not finding excuse to deny that (which would be heresy on the way to apostasy).

I guess what I’m saying is that this retail job continues to raise questions even as it gives fresh perspective.

I welcome your prayers that I see and speak more of what Christ calls forth, and that I do so as a living member of the church he desires.

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The Thief On His Own

“Paradise,” you said.

Can you hear what I’m thinking?  It hurts too much to breathe, let alone talk.  And anyway you’ve stopped talking, too.

“Paradise,” you said.  “Today.”  And with you.  But you’re not saying anything now.  

Even in all this crazy pain – my useless body is straining to keep breathing and it’s helping these Roman dogs torment me – I felt joy when you said what you did.

But I thought you would help me along the way there.  And now you’re not saying anything.

My partner on the other cross isn’t talking either.  I could see the disgust in his eyes when we talked about Paradise.  I can’t say I blame him.  My last words out loud were to snap at him for mocking you.  His eyes have angry heat – he’s still alive and hurting like me.

But you.  It’s like you’re asleep now.  Are you going to wake up and say something else?  Are you going to help me through this pain and pathetic fear and walk with me to Paradise?

Oh God, I don’t want to cry.  The Romans and this deadbeat crowd of gawkers would take pleasure.  But Paradise.  You said I was going to Paradise with you.  And now you’re not saying a thing.  Are you already there?  Why did you leave me alone?

How can you be like this? How can you not care for me?  I know you felt alone, too.  I heard you call out that holy song, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  And when they mocked you I spoke up, painful as that was, on your side.  But now you say nothing.  

Well, I know some of those songs too.  Even a thief hears the prayers sometimes,

“Friend and companion hast Thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.”

Will I just wake up in Paradise?  O do I need to keep suffering until you wake up and talk to me again? What?  What must I do?

Here come the soldiers with spears and iron rods.  This is it.  They’ve had their sport and now they want to go back to town so it is time for us all to die.  No respect for our lives and our deaths are boring them.

Can you hear these thoughts?  Have I been talking to myself all this time?  You’re not even twitching.  Are you gone already?  Gone to Paradise?  

I don’t care if the tears come.  You – wherever you are – are my last bit of life.  Remember me, please.  Remember me.

Chill pill

I’m going through one of life’s desolate seasons.  The details aren’t important.

People of faith have desolate times.  Maybe we have more of them, more often, since we are prone to see what is holy and also perceive our distance from it,

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  (Romans 7:21-24 NRSV)

Those familiar with that passage of Scripture know that the very next line is an outpouring of thanks for the rescue (salvation) God sends in Jesus Christ.  But stay with me here in the desolation for a moment.

Elijah, the inspiration for this blog, knew desolation and hosted his own pity party.  The Lord who saves us knew desolation, watching followers walk away, hearing the snores of friends in his hour of need, crying out with a cosmic case of abandonment.  (The people who stood gawking and mocking at his desolation thought he was calling out for Elijah to come help him, btw).

Anyway, this desolate morning I felt one of those strong inner naggings that sometimes turn out to be the voice of God.

I have a son with special needs, and he requires an array of medicines.  These I keep in a weekly organizer, and it was getting empty.  I was going to wait until tonight to fill it, but the inner urging to do it this morning, even before my coffee brewed, persisted.

So I grumbled and grabbed the medicine bottles and started loading the organizer – and discovered that if I waited until tonight I would be out of an important med and unable to refill the prescription until Monday.

I felt a twinge of joy (oh, don’t worry, I fought it off).  That nagging was God.  It was God’s own tenderness breaking in to see that my son had his medicine.  It was personal love and concern from the heart of the universe.  A cosmic chill pill soothed me just as much as any of my son’s meds help him.

Later I read from one of the Prophets, who affirms that God is good and praiseworthy, even in our desolate days,

For though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit appears on the vine,

Though the yield of the olive fails and the terraces produce no nourishment,

Though the flocks disappear from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD and exult in my saving God.

(Habakkuk 3:17-18 NAB)