Back in Black: It’s Thursday But Friday’s Coming!

Black Friday is the high holy day of conspicuous consumption. Thanksgiving is supposed to be the day that we look toward God in gratitude for his provision. Instead we glut ourselves and whet our appetites for a day at the mall. It is the Friday after Thanksgiving when most retail stores go from being in ‘the red’ (owing) to ‘in the black’ (turning a profit). We awake from our tryptophan-induced slumbers to hunt for the best prices, the biggest and best Christmas gifts (some of which are for ourselves).  We will push carts through the crowd and will maneuver to get what we want. We will hunt for the gifts that say, “You are special and we love you” at the least personal cost to us. Nothing says I love you like a new blender for $14.99

In previous years I have abstained from Black Friday, at the very least avoiding big stores and shopping malls.  This year I am working at a hardware store and have set up the displays for tomorrow’s sale. I am complicit in the mass consumption.  Others will participate by going to the mall or big box stores because of the promise of the best prices (or best shot of getting the item you want).

I find the name ‘Black Friday’ ironic. There is another Friday we call Good where the sun disappeared from the sky, the ground shook and God died. We call that Good Friday because through such a death God opened up the way to new life for humanity. A day of buying and selling of goods, we call Black Friday and the name communicates more than the move from credits to the debits. Black Friday has left an indelible mark on our souls.

In Desiring the Kingdom (2009) James K.A. Smith explores how the ‘liturgy of the shopping mall’ both reflects what matters to us and shape what matters to us (93).  The telos of the mall is antithetical to the Kingdom of God and represents an alternative vision. Smith observes that the mall’s version of the Kingdom carries  an implicit notion of human brokenness (I’m broken, therefore I shop), a strange configuration of sociality (we size up people based on our own shopping habits), promises the hope of redemption through consumption (always something newer, better, shinier), and provides an unsustainable vision of human flourishing (96 ff).

Smith uses the mall as an example of a secular liturgy. His project  is to get us to pay attention to our practices of worship and the implications for Christian education (and formation). My question is, if Smith is right about the mall both reflecting what matters to us and shaping what matters to us, what does it say about us that we begin our Advent season every year with a day of mass-consumption? If our participation in Black Friday shapes us into good consumer capitalists, how are we being shaped as citizens of God’s Kingdom? What practices nourish us? Where can we find an alternative vision of the mall?

Black Friday has muddied our souls and still many of us will brave crowded parking lots and long lines tomorrow. No judgement. If you come into my store tomorrow, I will sell you a power tool you don’t need for someone who doesn’t really want it. I want you to know that consumerism is a lie which subverts the truth and dulls your senses. Shop if you must, but guard your heart.

Vocation, the Chrysalis and Labors of Love

As I sit sipping my second cup of french press coffee I have some time to reflect on my life and the shape it has taken. Last year’s Labor day was not a day off for me, but one among many as I was unable to get a job. Today, I am home from work and have enjoyed the lazy morning. Later I will climb down the embankment in our backyard to see if I can forage enough blackberries for blackberry jam. But for the moment I sit enjoying my coffee in the midst of the chaos that three active children create.

This is not how I imagined life. I graduated seminary a couple of years ago and envisioned that when my wife finished up her degree we would step into pastoral ministry somewhere, in some context, hopefully urban. Frederick Buechner has written somewhere, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I feel most alive doing ministry: preaching, visitation, praying with and for people, communicating the gospel. And I see the need to pastor, to shepherd God’s people into deeper relationship with God and care for one another and their communities. But then I couldn’t find a job as a pastor and while I have had opportunity to preach occasionally, my present occupation does not even allow me to even worship regularly at my church. I work at a hardware store in a small town on the verge of Canada in Northwest Washington. I am not doing with my life what I feel I was made to do.

This doesn’t mean I hate my job. Stocking shelves is physical work and certainly feels cathartic. It feels good to do something productive with my time. I also like helping people find what they need. I guide customers to the mystical land of nuts and bolts and other odd fasteners, scan the shelves quickly and then dig my hand into a drawer and pull out a jam nut or a cap screw and say, “Here, this should do it.” Of course I feel far less confident when people ask me questions about their plumbing or why their jerry-rigged solutions to what-have-you don’t work. But I like being invited to brainstorm creative solutions for people.

A friend asked me recently how it feels living where I am and doing what I am doing. I had a one word answer: stuck. This is an in-between-time and as an old prof of mine put it, “I feel muddled in the middle.” I am a caterpillar who has spun a chrysalis (called Blaine, WA) and I wait, unable to move and immersed in utter darkness (the sun is shining but this is the NW, the darkness cometh). I wait and wonder, when will I emerge? What will I become? Or will I ever become?

I admit, some of my stuckness is my fear and inaction. I have applied to churches, been weighed and found wanting (I didn’t get the job). I know if I am to move on from here, it requires risk and my life has become too safe. I likely will find a place where I can do what I was made for, but the road to get there will mean more rejection, more failure, more occasions for self-doubt. But I am feeling a little thin-skinned and fragile at the moment. this is part of life in a chrysalis.

So I wait and enjoy the time I have, watching my children grow and take on new challenges (my oldest daughter starts Kindergarten this week!!! OMG!!!). I savor the sweetness of late summer blackberries and the yield from my garden plot. I struggle to love my wife as we both wait and long for the what next. In the chrysalis we grow, learning patience, humbleness and how to be gentle with ourselves. One day we will soar. Until then we labor quietly here with love.

Prayers for Ordinary Time: 13th week after Pentecost.

I went to church this morning and just came from work this evening and have had very little time today to just sit. Since today was not true Sabbath for me, having spent a goodly portion in buying and selling and working for unrighteous mammon, I have selected these prayers for ‘work’ from The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers. May these prayers carry you into your work week this week:

O Lord, give your blessing, we pray to you, for our work.

All our powers of body and mind are yours,

and we would fain devote them to your service.

So bless our efforts,

that they may bring forth in us

the fruits of true wisdom;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. ~Thomas Arnold

 

Lord, in union with your love, unite my work with your great work, and perfect it. As a drop of water poured into a river is taken up into the activity of the river, so may my labor become part of your work. Thus may those among whom I live and work be drawn into your love. ~Gertrude the Great of Helfta

 

Dates and times;

Appointments to be kept;

Meetings to attend;

Anniversaries to remember;

All tightly scheduled

to fill the day.

The diary tells it all.

It tells of how we use our time,

Of how we fill our hours

And wish we had some more.

Hardly a moment to ourselves;

Almost always under pressure;

Often we drive too fast.

We feel we are caught–

Held imprisoned

In the little pages

Of our life’s day.

Lord,

Set us free within our daily round;

Free us to do our work

Without the sense of burden

Or of constant rush and pressure

To get done.

Set us free to live our life

With Joy and gladness

In the knowledge of your presence

Everywhere we go.  ~Robert McN. Samson.

[prayers found on page 372, 373, and 374-5 of the Westminster Collection of Christian Prayer]

“Job” for the Jobless

Thank you to anyone who read the title of this post and clicked on the link because you thought it meant I found a job. No such luck for me, but I hope I’m doing more in this post than just making bad puns. I did not mean ‘a job’ in the sense of gainful employment, but Job (proper name) as in the Old Testament righteous dude that suffered lots and had lousy friends (no offense).

It might be presumptuous to compare my suffering to Job. I have food in my belly and roof over my head. I have had to defer student loans and haven’t been able to replace broken computers, ipods, or buy new clothes and copious amounts of books (never fear, I’ve got my hands on a few), but this sort of suffering amounts to ‘first world pains.’ What Job had to suffer was the loss of wealth, health, the death of family members, and festering sores. All in all, I think I’ve gotten the better deal.

But the comparison was given to me about a week ago when I attended my wife’s graduation from Regent College (the same seminary I graduated from). While there I saw many old friends happy to see me and eager to hear what I’m up to. Invariably I would flash them a sheepish grin and say, “Actually I’m still looking for work.” Which of course makes people feel bad so they’d tilt their head to the right and say “Don’t worry, I’m sure something will come up.” After a few moments I would saunter off to go and be awkward with someone else. It was really fun.

While at the graduation, my wife and I sought out one of our professors, Phil Long, for a photo and to express our appreciation for his teaching. Predictably, when he saw me, he asked what I was doing now. I tried to hide my shame when I said I was still looking for work. He gave me a thoughtful look, and said that he doesn’t know why some people he’s known have struggled to find work when there seems to be no reason for it and encouraged me to continue to trust God through this season.

I nodded my appreciation and confessed the ways I have failed to trust God, and rehearsed several flaws which I think have made me unemployable. Phil said these words to me, “I wouldn’t look for a reason in yourself. Take a page out of Job and trust that this too will reveal God’s glory.”

And so I have spent the past week thinking through and reading Job and trying to explore what wisdom and understanding he has to offer me. I have also delved into one of my favorite short commentaries, Gustavo Gutierrez’s On Job. Several little insights have revealed themselves to me and I’ve been chewing on them. In no particular order, here are some things I’m thinking about(this isn’t a formal study, just my little notes):

  • The Satan thinks that Job only serves God because of what God gives him; Job’s friends think God is punishing Job for something he did. They are both wrong.
  • When you go through hard times, you are tempted to either doubt God or doubt yourself (which is an indirect way of doubting God’s goodness/grace). Job is relentless in his trust of God and is never self defeatist. He feels abandoned and alone, and is miserably comforted but he still presses into God and longs to make his case to him.
  • God doesn’t answer any of Job’s questions but confounds Job with the big picture of who he is.
  • Job’s suffering increases his identification with the poor and he’s sees with greater clarity the ways that the wicked prosper and fail to ‘get what’s coming with him.’ Job was good and righteous from the beginning but his suffering also increased his capacity for compassion.
  • Job learns to trust God and his ways, though he cannot fathom him. His comfort comes not in restoration but in meeting God in the whirlwind.
  • Job got a whirlwind because he needed it! Elijah doesn’t meet God in the whirlwind but in quietness. I might not know how God will show up, but he knows the best way to make an impression.

So these are my random thoughts on Job. Admittedly even though the reason for Job’s suffering is never given (Satan’s wager is the occasion but doesn’t give the reason), I tend to read of Job’s righteousness and still think I suffer because I’m not that good. And I didn’t suffer as much as he did. Crazy self-defeatist attitude!

I speak without understanding
marvels that are beyond my grasp!

I once knew you by hearsay
now my eyes have seen you;
therefore I repudiate and repent
of dust and ashes.
[42:3,5-6]