Coffee Shop Blues

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After spending last night watching probably my favorite cult movie of all time – one of Pittsburgh’s greatest contributions to cinema, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – and then feeling a need to watch My Cousin Vinny again, I got a later than usual start to my day this morning. I eventually crawled out of bed, got ready to step out into the world, and went to my favorite coffee shop/hangout here in Gahanna to nurse a cup of house blend forever while trying to finally finish reading a book I’ve been piecemealing for too long – Pub Theology by Bryan Berghoef.

When I got to the shop, a sign on the front door announced that they were now under new management. Honestly, it didn’t come as a terrible surprise. From personal past experience, I recognized the small signs of struggling ownership, I noted mysteriously disappearing employees, and I overheard occasional bits of tense, under-the-breath telephone conversations about money issues during recent visits. I guess I hoped my perceptions were mistaken, but honestly, the signs were all there for those who had lived it themselves, to those who had eyes to see.

This would actually be the third ownership of the shop since I started hanging out there shortly after it opened. To be honest, most of the people that made the place so enjoyable for me had left when the second owners showed up. They seemed nice enough, and a couple of the old regulars provided some continuity, but over time they’d sort of drifted away, too. And now there would be new owners.

I stepped inside and walked up to the counter. Everything looked pretty much the same, except the menu board was slightly different. The price of a medium house blend had gone up a quarter, but no big deal. There were two people working behind the counter, a young woman and a middle-aged man. The woman was preparing a drink for a customer, while the man was doing some staff-type thing with his back turned more or less to me. I stood there at the counter – not for an excessively long time, but long enough that I should have been acknowledged. I wasn’t. The woman, no more than five or six feet away from me, never even looked my way. After a little while longer, the man did look over at me – giving me the same sort of look that a scientist might give a mold sample in a petri dish; a kind of disconnected observance with no real emotional connection of any kind. He just stared at me for a moment, then, without a smile, without a nod, without a “Hi, how are you?” or a “We’ll be with you in a moment,” he just turned back around and kept doing whatever it was he was doing – which actually wasn’t much. Once he got done doing his not much, and while his coworker continued to ignore my presence, he turned and looked back at me standing at the counter – now with a couple also standing behind me. Ah, I thought, now he’ll come take my order. Instead, after staring at me for another while, he turned his back on me again, and, putting his hands on his hips just stood there, back to me and the people behind me, looking around for something else to do that he must have considered more important than waiting on his customers.

I turned and walked out, muttering incredulity as I did. Time to find a new coffee shop.

To be honest, I’ve waited lots longer for service any number of times in this place in the past. But there was always some clear reason for the wait. And even then, there was a smile, a greeting, an acknowledgement that I was there, and that I wasn’t being viewed as an intrusion.

Maybe I just caught the new ownership at a bad time. For their sake, I hope so. I hope they understand that a customer doesn’t have to come into their particular place; there are coffee shops all over, and for the most part, the quality of the product and the atmosphere are not all that different. What matters is attention to the customer/visitor, and making human connections; acknowledging them, making them feel welcome and a part of things. And the window for fostering those connections is surprisingly small – make someone feel unimportant or unwelcome even once, and there’s not likely going to be a second opportunity (under the previous ownerships, I felt comfortable enough to wander behind the counter to get my own free refills if the staff was busy; here today, I was mold). Churchy types, it wasn’t my intention to do so when I started writing this, but feel free to draw the obvious ecclesiastical parallels here. He who has ears to hear, and all that.

So, darn. Where’s my new coffee hangout going to be?

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Magic Mirror

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When I grew up, a lot of different cities hosted a television show called Romper Room. It always featured an attractive young female teacher of sorts – always Miss So-and-So; when I was that age in the mid-1960s in the Pittsburgh area, the local host was Miss Jayne, or maybe Miss Jan, I can’t quite remember – and maybe a dozen or so preschool-aged children. As far as memory serves, it mostly taught kids simple little games, exercises, and songs that were always centered around teaching the kids to be well-mannered, to be helpful to their parents, and to always walk with good posture, which apparently was considered a major social problem of the time. To help with that, the teacher and the kids would walk around while trying to keep these little, flat-bottomed baskets on top of their heads, while singing, “See me walk so straight and tall; I won’t let my basket fall. Eyes ahead and don’t look down; keep that basket off the ground.” I remember they also did some stretching calisthenics, singing (remember, these were prime Space Race years) “Bend, and stretch; reach for the stars; here comes Jupiter, there goes Mars. Bend, and stretch; reach for the sky, stand on tippy-toes, oh so high…” Watching Romper Room kept us all healthy, socially well-adjusted, and prepared to keep the country free for democracy, all while keeping us out from under our stay-at-home moms’ feet. Of course, they had a full line of merchandise that kids could ask their parents for – those posture baskets, songbooks, different things. One of the parts of the show that always caught my attention was when Miss Whoever would look through her Magic Mirror, right through the television tubes of every preschool child in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and call them out by name – “I see Bobby, and I see Mary, and I see Alex, and I see Susie…” I waited breathlessly each time to see if this day, maybe she caught a glimpse of me through the Magic Mirror, but its superpowers never seemed to reach through the televisions of children with uncommon first names for some reason. Ah well, I’d be a good Do-Bee anyway, it’s what Miss Jayne and the President and Mom would want.

The congregation that I’ve been serving has a small enough Sunday attendance that when we ask for prayer requests during the Prayers of the People, those in attendance will just raise their hand and call out people’s names, and usually a brief explanation of the reason for the request. Thankfully, no one has ever shared that they were asking for prayer for Ethel’s recovery from surgery to remove a hemorrhoid so large that it would be mentioned in the next edition of the Guinness Book. In any case, every Sunday I’ll dutifully jot down the name of the person for whom the prayer of concern or joy was intended, and then during the prayer I’ll mentally collate them and fold their names, more or less list-like, into the prayer in a way that the congregation can briefly consider and pray for each of the people and/or situations. This is absolutely an important part of each service, but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t become routine, or worse, that there’s an impression that there’s some sort of Magic Mirror aspect to the prayer – that the Send button for our corporate prayer isn’t actually pushed until I’ve actually mentioned them, by name, in the body of the prayer; and if by chance in the mental sorting process, I accidentally miss a name – something I have, on rare occasion, done – then the prayer didn’t “take” for that person, even though we’ve already vocally lifted up the person for the whole congregation’s consideration just moments before.  Let’s face it: prayer – the amazing, brazen act of conversing, communing with, hearing the transcendent Creator of the cosmos – is an odd activity, pretty much by definition, and thinking about and trying to understand it might be even more odd a task.

I’m not sure who said it – I think it was Anne Lamott, but I’m too lazy to verify that, so I’ll attribute it to her, anyway – but whoever it was said that prayer is a lot less like sitting down and demanding God appear, conjuring up God to have a private, one-on-one conversation with you, and much more like you simply tapping in to a conversation between God and everyone that’s really already and always ongoing, and which is immediately adjacent and accessible to us. For us, entering into prayer is more like picking up the phone on an old-fashioned party line, if you’re ancient enough to actually remember those, or like driving your car up an entry ramp and onto a highway already full of traffic. Our prayer is melded together with everyone else’s prayers; in some mystical way they’re all intertwined and become, in a way, music, where our prayers for others and prayers for ourselves and prayers for all the other pray-ers joining in the song are all one and equal and perfectly in balance. And over, and under, and around, and through it all, is God, penetrating all and hearing all and answering all, and actually becoming part of the song; Bonhoeffer’s cantus firmus,  or maybe just the universe’s most awesome bass line, or something. Actually, Lamott, or whoever, didn’t say all that; I took the core thought and ran with it. There have been many times when I’ve felt that my prayers actually were summoning God into my presence for an individual command performance, and sometimes I’ve felt amazing, wonderful answers to those prayers. But the idea that when we center ourselves and enter into prayer, it’s usually more our entering into that eternal, continuous polyphonous song, has been tremendously helpful to me in my prayer life.

Yesterday, during the Prayers of the People, we prayed for others, trying not to be Magic Mirrorish – for people and situations in dangerous, strange, foreign places like Syria and Egypt and Russia and Zimbabwe and Louisiana; for survivors and families of victims of bus crashes; for a safe and fun time for all at the county fair; for a full recovery for Ethel after her recent surgery. And then, I asked the people there to pray for themselves, in a special way. Borrowing a form of prayer mentioned in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, but tweaking it just a bit, I asked the worshipers to sit upright, but comfortably (Romper Room posture baskets not required), with their arms out in front of them and their palms upward. I asked them to imagine all of their sins, all of their shortcomings, all of the things in their lives that they were ashamed of or struggled with or that were in any way separating them from God and the joyous life God has called us into. I asked them not to think of them abstractly, like a big glop of something in their hands, but to identify each thing, particularly, with specificity. Name them. Anger or hatred that I feel for Joe, or Angela. Worry over a strained relationship with my son, Tim. Anxiousness because I don’t know where next month’s mortgage payment is going to come from, let alone gas money. The agony of watching my father, Sam, slipping further and further into the hell of Alzheimer’s. Whatever. Name each one. Feel the weight, the burden of each one of them, weighing your hands down, lower and lower. And then… still in a state of prayer, turn your palms downward, letting those burdens slide out of your hands. dump them into Christ’s waiting hands. let them all go, even the ones whose familiarity gives you some perverse form of comfort. Let them go. Jesus says come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, not to leave those burdens on you, but to take them away. So let him. Hand them over to him. And then… turn your palms upward. Feel the lightness, the airiness, of those empty hands. Feel them almost float upward in front of you in their lightness. But that’s not all. That’s not enough. Now, ask God to fill that emptiness with God’s very self. Fill every void, every gap, every crevice in your being that those old worries and angers and hatreds had filled before. Feel God in your fingertips, tracing down your arms, racing through your body,  God-beams of grace and mercy and love flowing through you like blood through your arteries. Feel God’s love surrounding you. Hear the cantus firmus, and add your very own life-harmony to it.

It’s a very effective way to meditate and pray. I recommend doing it every so often in your own prayer life. It’s a wonderful way to feel centered, renewed, refreshed, and to feel God’s presence filling you. It’s what all good Do-Bees do. And Miss Jayne would approve.