Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jesus Came to Save Retail

I have a complicated relationship with capitalism.

My day job is in retail and it appears no one has gotten word out to all the consumers that the recession is over. (It must be over---I heard it on NPR!) Sales are terrible and so there is no little hand-wringing over how to increase them.

Christmas to the rescue!

Suggest Christmas gifts to people, push certain product that is supposedly "hot" this year (which is to say, convince a customer that a product is hot and therefore must be bought).

I love my job. I really do. If I didn't, I wouldn't be there for 6 years at a wage suitable for part-time college students. I love helping customers find what they're looking for, I love making suggestions if they have some ideas but nothing in particular. I even love trying to figure out what it is they're looking for when they have only partial information. I actually use a lot of my pastoral care training from seminary. I ask questions, rephrasing what they've said to help jog their memory, tease out information they didn't realize they had, that sort of thing. I've even told a few customers along the way (when they've asked for something that's a little embarrassing), "don't worry, talking to me is like talking to your therapist. Nothing goes beyond this transaction." It's good for a laugh and it seems to put them at ease.

I think I'm really pretty good at this. Judging from the repeat customers who have told me, "you're always so helpful," I think I can back that up with testimonials.

But I'm a terrible salesman. I don't really believe in convincing people of things that are not their idea. I don't really believe, in fact, in consumerism for the sake of consuming, which is what a lot of selling is. "You don't realize you need this, but here's why you do."

This year, perhaps more than any recent year, Christmas is going to make or break some retail establishments. Every year, it's the Christmas gift-buying that shores up businesses, keeps them in business for another year.

And here is my complicated relationship. I don't want to see anyone's livelihood disappear. I also don't really believe in buying gifts just to sooth guilty consciences or otherwise puff up false attitudes of generosity. I don't believe in the expectation of Christmas gifts. I need to keep my job. I don't like taking advantage of people's paranoia about needing one more gift for someone.

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw A Charlie Brown Christmas with some friends. I couldn't help thinking about how many people have seen this cartoon over the last four-plus decades and how little difference it's message of anti-commercialism has made.

I really just want to tell people, "you know, if you don't know what they like or what they want, maybe you don't know them well enough to buy them a gift." Maybe the money is better spent on a charitable donation to something everyone can get behind. Cancer research, for example.

I am not against Christmas gifts. I enjoy buying a handful for a few dear people in my life. I enjoy getting a few from people who know me well enough to make it a real show of care for me (even if it is a frivolous gift but still shows they know my particular tastes in frivolity).

But I'm still disturbed by how much our economy depends upon Christmas. It's an economy built upon false desires, false obligations.

Jesus didn't come to save retail stores. It just looks that way.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Saints and Saints and Saints

All Saints Day. Remembering the faithful who have gone before us . . .

November 1st, I always remember Mama and Daddy. Lucille and Alfred. I was born late into their lives. Mama was 42, Daddy was 46, and they had 6 kids before me. I always say this doesn't look like "planned parenthood." At the same time, I never felt unwanted or in the way. Maybe I was just unexpected. Well, for all I know, I was expected, too. I shouldn't judge by appearances. But when your first daughter is about to have her first child and you find out you're expecting your 7th . . .

We were a "churched" family. I was baptized as an infant, St. John's Lutheran Church, Paige, TX, at the age of 17 days. We weren't necessarily an every Sunday family, but most Sundays we went to church. When child #6 became the age for confirmation class, we transferred to the "town" church, Martin Luther Lutheran Church, Giddings. There weren't any other kids Gary's age in Paige with which to be confirmed and we went to the Giddings schools, etc.

I don't always know how to talk about my parents, to give a good idea of who they were to the people who never met them. Daddy was annoyed by the 1970s fashions of longer hair and jeans without a belt. Looked "sloppy" to him. We, in turn, were annoyed with him. I believe he also had a sly sense of humor, which I was only getting to appreciate when he died in 1988. I have memories of him saying things like he was fussing at us, and then looking up at him and seeing a faint smile. I find myself doing the same thing with kids, saying things that sound like reprimands, but are really just that "picking on" sort of humor that we grew up with in our rural German community. It may be that, as in my case, the things we were doing were nonsense to him, but I wonder if he sometimes also knew that it was just a generational thing. Maybe by the time I came along, he'd already raised a generation and saw how it went. Maybe for my older siblings, the reprimands were more real.

Mama was probably the stability of the family in many ways. I used to not believe it, but I've come to realize that maybe she and I had a slightly different relationship than my siblings had with her. (Some of them had told me for years this was so.) I do know I have little objectivity when it comes to her. I was completely devoted to her. She was fighting her cancer---and appearing to beat it---when I went on my seminary internship to Nebraska. I cut my internship short when it became apparent she was not beating it and I have often regretted losing so much of the last year of her life to a vocation I never really felt (professional ministry). She died in 1994.

Speaking of, that reminds me of when I told our pastor that I would not be pursuing ordination when I finished seminary. He asked me if I felt free to not go into ministry now that my mother was dead. I laughed. Of all the people encouraging (if not pushing) me to be a pastor, she was the only one who looked at me and said, "I don't know, I don't quite see you as a parish pastor." (Well, there was one other person, my best friend growing up, Dean, whose grandfather was our pastor.) She knew I was always active in church, she even said once, "Neil got his degree in theater, but he majored in Campus Ministry," but she somehow felt with me that I was not called to ordained ministry.

Today would have been Mama and Daddy's 70th wedding anniversary. All Saints Day. This was something I realized in seminary. Mama and Daddy never said anything, that I remember, about the connection. But then, we weren't a family to celebrate every day on the calendar. We barely acknowledged birthdays, so it's no wonder that we didn't make a big deal of them getting married on All Saints Day, 1939.

I remember now, though. Every November 1, it is the feast day of my parents, who raised seven children in the church, who made sure we had food, clothes, and a roof, all on a farmer's budget.

I dream about them at least once a month. Usually more often.

+ + +

This week, another saint enters my list of faithful who have gone before. Patricia Blaze Clark. Those of you who are Episcopalian can find her name in the index in the back of the Episcopal Hymnal Supplement of a few years ago. She was a classmate at seminary, although on the Episcopal side of the street.

Here is my earliest memory of Pat: As new seminarians, we were sent to a retreat center (a convent, actually) for a few days. It was a formation thing, I guess. Also, an intensive way to meet and get to know new people. I guess. I'm not sure exactly the reasoning behind it, now that I stop to think of it. Anyway, all of us new seminarians were at this convent . . .

We met in one room regularly, chairs arranged in a big circle. We barely fit in the room, so the circle was a bit irregular here and there, which is to say, a jumble, with a few sitting on the floor. As we were gathering, I sat next to Pat, more by accident than by design. As I watched people slowly fill in, I leaned over to her and said quietly, "I wonder what would happen if we started removing one chair at each break."

Pat had these wonderfully large, expressive eyes and they grew wide with mischief. "Like a big game of musical chairs!" she said. We laughed and wondered how long it would take before people started noticing that more were sitting on the floor.

We didn't do it, of course. But the twinkle in her eye, the glint of mischief told me, this one will be my friend in this place.

Pat once told me her story, that she'd spent time in a convent as a nun (she had since married). She said that growing up Roman Catholic, she always felt a call to be a priest, but all her church had to offer her was nun. I looked at her and said, "wow, I always felt the call to be a monk, but all my church has to offer me is pastor." She never became a priest and I'm not likely to become a monk, so we also shared this life of replacement activities, trying to find ways to serve that made sense despite not quite scratching the itch.

She became a hymn text writer. Google Patricia Blaze Clark and you'll find two collections of them. Some she wrote to existing tunes, others she wrote for composers to set to new tunes. She gained some reputation in church music circles and I know this gave her great satisfaction.

Pat also had multiple health issues, chief among them, lupus. She seemed to manage it pretty well, but it was the lupus that was the main reason no bishop ordained her. A few years ago, when she was diagnosed with cancer, it was the lupus that prevented aggressive treatment. Like her lupus, her doctors had to be content with managing her cancer with a hormone treatment and occasional bouts of radiation. This went on for so long, I think many of us just assumed it was under control. The tumor never grew or if it did, some treatment would shrink it again. Chemotherapy was out of the question, though. Chemo would have killed Pat faster than the cancer.

Except the cancer did kill her. It suddenly got aggressive and grew quickly. A month ago, she was still teaching a class at St Edward's University in Austin. This past Wednesday, she died at Christopher House, a hospice.

And so I remember Pat. The hymnal index will remember her as Patricia Blaze Clark, but to those of us who loved her, she will always be Pat. Funny, occasionally fiery, always a friend.

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!