Friday, July 29, 2011

Trapped in Indiana

I was trapped in Indiana. I couldn’t go forward or backward or even sidewise. It was 10:37 pm, and I had been driving for six hours. Following my workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, I had left Iowa City heading east; I had driven through Iowa, Illinois, and almost all of Indiana. My goal: my bed in Northeast Ohio – a lot of miles and a lot of hours away. I was not on a time schedule, but I knew that I only had so much energy left. The last Starbucks I had passed had been closed for the night (just when I so desperately needed caffeine – what is wrong with these people?), and I needed to keep moving.
But I wasn’t moving. I was stuck. I was jammed between a gate in front of me and a car behind me. All I wanted to do was pay my toll, have the bar rise up, and be released. Before that night, I had often wondered why so many states still used human beings to hand out cards when that task could so easily have been done by machines. Well, apparently my thoughts had resonated with the operators of the Indiana East-West Toll Road (What a great title for the directionally and financially challenged: “What direction does it go? Does it cost money? Hey, the answer is in the name. Wow.”) This road is no longer operated by the State of Indiana but by a private company whose parent companies are in Spain and Australia. In 2006, this company paid Indiana $3.8 billion for the rights to collect fees on the road for the next 75 years. Part of the plan to recoup that $3.8 billion must have been to replace human workers with automated toll booths.
Machines are great, aren’t they? They always show up to work on time. They don’t get sick. They don’t take lunch breaks. They don’t ask for raises. They are always there smoothly humming along 24/7/365. Just replace the Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs every six months, and these automated toll booths are just like Las Vegas slot machines only better. They keep taking in your money but never pay off.
I’ll be honest. I often prefer dealing with a computer or automated unit rather than trying to communicate with a human being. Amazon’s website was designed with me in mind. I would buy a lot fewer books if I had to drive to a bookstore or actually talk to someone. If I only have a few items, I prefer the unmanned check-out lanes at the grocery store. Pump my own gas? No problem. Online banking and ATM’s make me smile.
I was buying two coffees, a breakfast sandwich, and a pecan roll a few weeks ago, and the human being working the cash resister punched a few buttons, and my total bill appeared on the screen: $12,000. At least, he knew he made a mistake and corrected it. Some clerks would have held out their hands expecting me to produce 120 crisp hundred dollar bills. Let’s be honest. Human customer service is often lacking. That’s why I often prefer the computer. It usually has less of an attitude problem.
And it isn’t that I dislike people. I like Tiffany who sits behind the glass at the drive thru bank window. She is friendly enough, but she knows her place (behind the glass) and I know mine (in the car). So I am not anthropophobic. At least I have never had it diagnosed.
But that night on the Indiana border, the machine failed me. The automated unit into which I had fed my credit card to pay my $7.50 toll grabbed my card and refused to give it back. And it wouldn’t open the gate either. I am sure the driver of the car behind me was having choice words for me and was probably reaching for a weapon under his seat when I pushed the button that said “Need Help?” The voice that answered was every bit as clear as someone talking to me through a tin can connected to my speaker with a wire.
“Can I help you?” (An irritated voice that might have been human or machine.)
“Yes, my card is stuck and the gate won’t open.” (I didn’t swear or say how I really felt.)
“Did you put the card in the cash slot?” (An accusation.)
“No.” (I hoped that I was telling the truth.)
Then those threatening words: “Well, I’ll have to find a supervisor.”
It sounded like she had to issue an All Points Bulletin and launch a search covering the entire State of Indiana and parts of Northwest Ohio to find that elusive supervisor. I got the sense that she was not happy actually having to deliver on the “Need Help” invitation. A typical customer service response by a human being. But perhaps she had a right to her irritation. This kind of thing had probably never happened before. Maybe she would be summoned to appear before an emergency meeting of the Board of Directors in Australia to investigate this surely unprecedented incident:
“One of our machines failed in Indiana? Nonsense. Let’s arrest that Ohio driver and torture him by withholding Starbucks until he tells us what really happened.”
In a minute, the voice returned saying ominously: “The supervisor will be there soon.”
I had second thoughts about asking for human help. I tried to look at my surroundings with unemotional Zen like concentration. Maybe I would sense a new option. But the gate was still down in front of me blocking my way, the car was still behind me likely filled with terrorists armed with WMD’s, and my card was still stuck in the machine. I wasn’t sure if I could even open my car door wide enough to run away. And if I managed to get out and run, they would always find me. I couldn’t outrun them forever. I’ve seen those movies. I just hoped that if I sacrificed my own life, they would spare the lives of my family. Those human customer service supervisors just make me nervous.
About five minutes later, a car pulled up. I held my breath and knew it might be my last. I was shocked when a woman bounded out and skipped towards me. She seemed almost giddy. Instead of yelling at me or accusing me of hurting her machine she said:
“Hey, I’ve got the keys. I’ll help you. Machine ate your card, huh?” She inserted a key into the side, pulled out a panel, extracted my card, and handed it to me. “This happens sometimes. Try it again. But just let it pull in your card. Don’t push it.”
What, no accusation? No charges of machine abuse? I did as she instructed. The unit accepted my plastic offering, did whatever mysterious things it does with credit cards, and then shoved my card back at me. Feeling like I had won a prize by being allowed to pay $7.50, I took my card and receipt. But amazingly enough, that toll booth machine wasn’t done just yet. It casually raised up that bar that had been blocking my way as if it did that kind of thing all the time.
I was no longer trapped. The cell door had been opened. I was free to go wherever I wanted to go as long as it was in an eastward direction and away from Indiana.
Before I pulled away, the supervisor said: “Have a great night, sir.” And I think she meant it.
I was speechless. I had been saved by a human being, a friendly human being who acted like she was happy to help me, like it was her job to assist me. She didn’t yell at me or try to make me feel unworthy. A human being had actually been superior to a machine in customer service. I drove away into the night seeking Starbucks and the Ohio border. I had a lot to think about.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Unanswered Questions

I am heading west tomorrow for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I have my MapQuest directions all printed out. The directions read like this: “Take a left out of your driveway, jump on the Ohio Turnpike a few minutes later (also heading west), and keep driving on Rt. 80 for about 560 miles.” If all goes as planned, I will travel a straight line from Hudson, Ohio to Iowa City, Iowa. Nothing out of the ordinary will happen, and nothing will go wrong – just like life. It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

The workshop I’ll be attending is called “Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay,” and participants have been asked to bring ideas for essays we’ll be developing while we’re there as well as actual magazines which might publish these essays.

So, I’ve been looking at magazines and examining their policies about submitting articles. Of course I am looking for those magazines with editors who have been waiting all of their lives for the essay that I will send them. “Stop the presses, change the cover, I don’t care about the expense, we’ve got an article written by Jim Bane here. I couldn’t put it down, I laughed, I wept, I was inspired, and I’ll never look at life the same again.” I haven’t quite found that publication yet.

I have identified two solid prospects, but I am puzzling over a third. A friend suggested a well-known religious publication, and I checked their submission guidelines. After a quick read, I doubt if my writing would fit their standards. A few quotes from their webpage: “Dramatize the situation, conflicts, and struggles, and then tell how the person was changed for the better or the problem was solved.” I would have no trouble dramatizing an event – I’m a preacher, I do that every Sunday in sermons when I am not on sabbatical (thank you New Horizons Christian Church). But unfortunately, in the world in which I live people are not always changed for the better and problems are not always solved – at least not in the length of a small article in a monthly religious periodical. Some problems just don’t seem to get solved to our complete satisfaction, do they? And some people do change for the better for awhile but later revert to their former lousy lifestyles. That doesn’t stop me from lifting up these people and situations in sermons because I think that most folks in our local church community have experienced life in a similar way. Life is rarely as simple and straightforward as those MapQuest directions from Ohio to Iowa.

Another admonition from the submission guidelines of that same magazine: “Don’t leave unanswered questions.” I don’t know about you, but I live with unanswered questions every day of my life. I don’t believe that I will ever have all the answers to all the questions I have – at least they won’t be answered on this side of the grave. Even the walk of faith involves questions and doubts. Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward:
"I worry about 'true believers' who cannot carry any doubt or anxiety at all, as Thomas the Apostle and Mother Teresa learned to do. People who are so certain always seem like Hamlet’s queen 'protesting too much' and trying too hard. To hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt. To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable."

The prodigal son found in the Gospel of Luke is one of the most provocative and well known parables of Jesus. A story that would almost fit the submission guidelines of that magazine. A son demands his share of the inheritance and in essence declares that his father is dead to him. The father complies, and the son leaves town and stays away until all the money is spent. While sweating with the swine, he realizes that life would be better back home and heads back. You know the rest – the father seeing him, running to him, embracing him, loving him, accepting him, and throwing a welcome home party for him. “My son has come back. He was dead but is alive.” I am a father and this story always, always pulls at my heart. No matter how many times I hear it.

And the parable would be so much simpler if it ended at that party – life changed, situation resolved, no loose ends, and no questions unanswered. But Jesus just won’t leave it alone, will he? Because there is that second son working out in that field – the “good and faithful” son who didn’t run away, who didn’t waste the money, who had to pick up the slack when his younger brother hit the road. He hears the noise from the house, hears that a feast is underway for that lazy brother of his, and not surprisingly, he gets angry. He is resentful. He doesn’t want to join the celebration and pretend that it’s all copacetic. The father leaves the party and goes out into the field to encourage this son to join the other.

And the parable ends there. Will the older son show respect for his father and come to the house? Will be realize how much he missed his little brother and with tears in his eyes give him a big hug? Will he grab him by the neck the next morning and say: “It’s your turn to work. I am taking the day off.” Who knows what happens next? The story ends before everything is resolved leaving us to speculate about what happens next.

I don’t believe for a second that the writer of Luke misplaced the neat and happy ending that Jesus had originally intended. Jesus wanted us to deal with the tension and confusion and conflicts and doubts in this parable. He wanted us to wrestle with the enormity of God’s love for us even when we have strayed as well as our own personal challenges in trying to forgive others. Jesus wanted us to wonder about just which role we play in that parable.

Jesus wanted this parable to reflect real life – your life and my life. Real life which so often resists neat and clean and straightforward answers. Jesus invites us to resist easy answers to the difficult questions that we have; he invites us to struggle – but not to struggle alone but alongside him. “Come to me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, for you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30.

Tomorrow I head to Iowa. Will the trip be as uncomplicated as MapQuest suggests? I doubt it. But the uncertainty won’t stop me from opening the door and leaving home.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Abbey Normal: Part 3 (Surprised by Communion)

Disciples of Christ (the religious movement that ordained me into ministry) must always be hungry. We insist on having communion (aka The Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) during worship services every single week. This sets us apart from many other groups under the holy umbrella of Protestantism (such as Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC’s, and certainly most mega-church movements) who have concluded that the Lord’s Supper needs to be celebrated only now and again. Since our local church usually has two Sunday worship services and I preach at both services, I share in communion over 100 times every year. I have communion more in one year than many Christians have in a lifetime. I don’t say this to boast, but instead to state how very privileged I feel to participate twice a week in a physical reminder of Christ’s great love and sacrifice for all of us. You might argue that Disciples aren’t really that hungry but just have short attention spans and need to be reminded again and again and again so that we won’t forget.
I am about halfway into a three month sabbatical, and so far I have been in North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania with trips to Michigan, California, Iowa, and Virginia in weeks to come. It seems like almost every Sunday morning I find myself in a new place. Although my sabbatical has been a wonderful blessing and I have been able to devote more time than ever to writing, to reading, and to my personal devotions, I realized during my recent visit to the Abbey of the Genesee just how much I was missing that weekly communion experience. And I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would be able to share in the Lord’s Supper while at Genesee. The Abbey is very welcoming and I enjoyed and appreciated their hospitality, but I had accepted that while I was there that their celebration of the Eucharist (held every day) was not open to me since I am not Catholic. Their understanding of that sacrament is not the same as mine, and I did not want to trample on their hospitality by coming forward during Mass because I thought to do so would be like walking into my host’s home with muddy feet.
Even though I had accepted in advance that I would not have communion while I was there, I was surprised by the deep loss I felt when I stepped aside while others came forward to receive the elements during Mass. On the way to the service, I had eaten a chocolate chip cookie baked by the monks and had joked with myself that the cookie (which had no doubt been prayed over sometime in its creation) would have to take the place of the communion elements. It didn’t work. It didn’t satisfy.
This experience made my think of all the ways that various churches partially welcome people into their midst but do not allow them (for one reason or another) to have full and complete communion. We hold back the body of Christ and offer a cookie instead (or maybe only crumbs) so that people won’t feel left out. It doesn’t work. It will not satisfy. A cookie is not communion. Of course, everyone is welcome as long as we don’t ask and they don’t tell. As long as we keep things on a surface level. But that’s not true community or real communion is it?
During a meeting the next day with one of the monks, I shared these feelings - my appreciation for their hospitality, my respect for their tradition, as well as my sense of loss. At a lecture the day before, this same monk had asked this question: “How many of you are out of communion with Rome?” During our session, I reminded him of his question and told him that I did not feel out of communion with Rome, but that Rome seemed to be out of communion with me. I told him that I understood that he didn’t make the rules but was bound to carry them out. And I respected his obedience to Rome. His reply surprised me: “I can’t offer you dispensation, but my understanding is that if you need communion you can have communion.” In other words, I didn’t have to pretend to be Catholic, but I could still be welcome at the Lord’s Supper.
The next day (my last full day at the Abbey), I arrived early for Mass which was a special celebration of the birth of John the Baptist. And I can tell you without a doubt that I needed communion. I had a serious communion deficit to make up. And after all of the readings and the chanting and the incense and everything else, the time came for the worshippers to come forward to receive the elements. This time I didn’t step aside but walked to the communion rail with my hands out to receive the host. I was nervous and excited as I put it into my mouth. I moved down the rail to the priest who held the chalice, and he offered it to me. As I tipped the chalice to my lips, it wasn’t that usual Welch’s grape juice that I tasted, but it was wine. I had known it would be wine but I had forgotten. How fresh and unexpected it was for me. What a marvelous surprise. My communion deficit was instantly overcome. I truly felt in communion with Christ and with those around me. I will not forget that meal.
What did that bread and wine taste like? They tasted like love.
When was the last time that you were offered true communion instead of a sweet cookie? Did it surprise you? What did it taste like? Did it taste like love?