Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Here's Johnny ... Johnny Cash that is

If you watched the special on CBS tonight, you heard some of Johnny Cash's classics - including one of my favorites, the Wanderer (originally performed with U2). Over the last year, I've been introduced to Cash's music, and I'm the better for it. We'll soon see if the movie about him is able to capture some of the mystique and power of his life and music. I hope so.

The upcoming movie also reminded me of a story which I had hoped to publish on Unfortunately it never made their site, so I'll do my own publishing this time. The story was written in the early part of '05 - when I was listening to Johnny Cash for the first time and the world was awaiting the fate of Pope John Paul II. Here's the story:

Somewhere in heaven the man in black has probably tipped his hat to the man in white. Call me speculative or even ludicrous, but I would like to believe Pope John Paul II was welcomed into the heavenly realms with a firm but cordial handshake from Johnny Cash. Yes, I am serious, and I mean the comparison with the utmost respect for the Pope, Catholics and Country music fans worldwide.

Though John Paul II and Johnny Cash had their obvious differences, the similarities between the two men run deep. Both men were icons for their people. Both were known as common men – able to embrace all levels of society. And no similarity is more significant than the way both men identified themselves with suffering and with the meek. They were champions of a humble road, and thus a lighthouse for our sleek, sitcom world.

Pope John Paul II welcomed his later years of suffering as a powerful, redemptive experience. The Vatican newspaper suggested in February the Pope was participating in the suffering of Christ and said “the bed of pain” had become the “the cathedral of life.” Though he passed away quietly in his apartment, his weakness was not hidden. His head held low, his words inaudible, he appeared just days before his death to pray and to bless.

The Pope’s final days were a stark contrast to his early days as Pontiff. When he became Pope twenty-six years ago he was athletic, determined and charismatic – attributes he would use as a world evangelist. Some even assert Pope John Paul II helped topple communism in his home country, Poland, and beyond.

However, his powerful influence emerged out of a humble and harsh childhood. He experienced the greatest tragedy of the 20th century when his country was occupied by Nazi Germany. More intimately, three of his family members, including his mother, died before he reached his 13th birthday.

Against this backdrop of sorrow and with his own health deteriorating, he freely acknowledged in 1994 “the pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is...a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.” His last act of leadership was to remind us that even godly, bold people still suffer and die.

Johnny Cash had his own way of walking the rugged road of death and suffering. Known as “the Man in Black,” Johnny Cash once sang “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” This song and several others from Cash have gritty language more suitable for prison yards than churches. But the harsh side of Johnny Cash was more musical folklore than truth. In reality, his attitude was down-to-earth – mirroring the somber sound of his baritone voice. And his song “Man in Black” revealed Cash’s willingness to identify himself with the underprivileged and unknown, including these lyrics:

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times . . .

Well, we’re doing mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be Man in Black.

Both John Paul II and Johnny Cash could have chosen different styles to demonstrate their fame in this world. They could have gone the way of many stars and people of power: building barriers between themselves and others. Thankfully, though, they chose a different path, the more difficult path. Pope John Paul II chose his years of suffering as a road to compassion, not isolation. Likewise, Johnny Cash chose to remember people others would just as soon forget. Both men dared to keep the door to brokenness open, knowing that many roads to heaven pass initially through Gethsemane and Golgotha.

So my idea may not be ludicrous after all. Pope John Paul II, the man who ended his earthly days hunched in white robes, was likely welcomed by a whole host of saints and angels. And I would like to believe up there in front somewhere Johnny Cash got a chance to say hello and welcome a friend.

What is certain is the legacy these two men left: modern examples of Christ-like compassion. They left some big shoes to fill, or should I say, some important clothes to wear. And regardless of what clothes you wear – black or white – you may want to reflect on the Pope’s final messages while listening to some Johnny Cash. I think they would be pleased, and you would be enriched.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Efficiency vs. Intimacy

For the last month and a half, I have been employed as a bank teller, and it has been a frightening introduction to the pace and expectations of service jobs. Let me preface all of this by saying the last customer service job was also my first: a grocery bagger. Back then, my job performance was entirely about efficiency and effectiveness in processing a customer's grocery assortment. Ask whether the customer prefers paper or plastic, keep the eggs and bread near the top, build off a foundation of cereal boxes and soup cans, pack perishables separately, and always keep cleaning products separately: these were the fundamental rules of a bagger.

Nowadays, I live by different, yet similar rules: enter various computer codes for various transactions, ask to see a driver's license for any cash withdrawal, keep focused on one transaction at a time, and always count money three times. Like my job as a bagger, the goal is efficiency and effectiveness, and there's two different ways I can know if I'm not hitting these marks. First of all, some customers have an incredible if annoying habit of letting me know when I am not processing their transactions quickly enough. The security glass between myself and members can prevent bullets from ending my life, but it can't protect me from angry glares and critical comments. Sticks and stones, right? Secondly, the managerial side of the branch is continually gauging my accuracy and speed in helping member's perform their banking needs. The ultimate test comes at the end of the day - is my cash drawer balanced or not? So there I sit as a bank teller, positioned obediently between the ongoing demands of personal finance and the ever-seeing eye of a security camera over my right shoulder. Both sides expect excellent service. I am essentially a conduit between consumer and producer - a middle man between those with financial needs and those with financial answers.

So the question I have to ask myself is why does a human being fill this job? If I am correct in that the necessities and goals of my position are effectiveness and efficiency, than it seems a computer would be a better employee. Not surprisingly, that is becoming more of the standard in the customer service world. Automated phone services and internet outlets are beginning to dominate as the only option for speaking to a company.

But the credit union I work for has decided that customer service is how they are going to differentiate themselves in a sea of financial options. The credit union realizes that regardless of how many mistakes a human being will make (about five a day for me), some people would much prefer driving ten miles to wait in a ten minute line to speak to a human being than getting on the internet and making an ebranch transfer.

Consequently, I find myself in the middle of a much larger struggle occurring in our world - a struggle between efficiency and intimacy. And I find my current employment situation to be a good reflection of these two forces. As a bank teller, I am challenged by forces of depersonalization and utilitarianism. As a disciple of Christ and as a pastor of God's people, I am challenged to make life ever more personal and to treat all peoples as God's children - regardless of a persons social value.

I am seeking that place Bonhoeffer said is where "your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Whatever it is that I am called to, I hope and believe that it will mean an enlargement of my spirit and personality.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Simon Peter's journal

"Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!' When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, 'Get up and do not be afraid.' And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone." - Matthew 17:1-8

I went to the mountain never knowing I was going to see the glory of God in flesh and blood, but I did go with anxious steps - anxious to touch, taste and see Your marvels, Lord. I was eager ... I am ever eager to feel Your magnificence crowd into this world. For some reason, You consented this time, at least in part. You told our patriarch, Moses, we could not see you with the naked eye, only the passing of your glory. I was fascinated by this - fascinated You would tickle our fancy with a brush of Your power and potency.

But, now, to be on the other side of such glory ... where do I begin? When it happened I could only sputter nonsense, but even now I have nothing better to say! On the mountain, that is where sense became senseless; I became intoxicated with light, overpowered with substance. Where was I to go from Your magnitude, and, yet, to be hidden was my utmost desire. I was consummed. My speculation solidified into awe - my hope into dread. My thirst for knowledge of You became an incapacity to even swallow a drop. Fear told me to hide; Your radiance pulled me in, and I would have been left in the limbo of repulsion and attraction had it now been for Your touch. For where there was no hope of remaining on common ground with You, You became mercy on the mountain - exchanging glory for more common garb. You touched me not with the iron rod of heaven's thunder but rather with the simple, meek hand of a human. I too was transformed, Lord - from the stone of contrition to the flesh of relief and gratitude.

I came to the mountain to see Your glory; You came to introduce me to grace - manifesting mercy with gentle words. I looked high only to have you pick me up.

Kids Need Stability

I met with several teenagers at the hospital today, all living in the throws of confusion, loneliness, and anger. One male tearful over the gang-life he finds himself in, another who lamented the lack of emotional response and trust from his mom. Two girls, each of whom had lost their mothers in the last year, and one other girl, living with a friend because she hated the repeating pattern of separation and reuniting that her parents regularly engaged in.

I am just amazed at the way all teenagers I talk with long for constancy, for something stable and lasting. And I remember how tumultuous those years were for me, and I can't imagine trying to survive them on my own, as so many of these children do.

A big thank you to all of you who were the "fixtures" during my teenage years ...