Sunday, May 28, 2006

Mmmm .... fruity donut

I have only recently discovered a donut shop whose specialty temptation involved a yeast donut stuffed and exploding with fresh fruit from California’s finest markets. I no longer look at donuts the same. When I first heard of it, I regarded it as a legend of Homer - a place of food mythology whose decadent delights lay somewhere inside the mind of Homer J. Simpson’s one-time visit to chocolate land. But, sure enough, such a place exists, known simply as The Donut Man.

Anna and I drove the twenty miles east on the 210 out to Glendora as a simple means of quieting Wyatt for a short while on a Sunday night. And when we arrived at The Donut Man and opened our car doors, the first thing to smack me was the fresh scent of donut-making. It was a smell I associate with The Donut Den, Zionsville’s donut and coffee hot spot that was the “it” place before farmer’s markets and double latte’s took over the town … such a sad age. But nothing I had ever seen or tasted at the Donut Den on a Saturday morning after the hometown football game had ever prepared me for the sight at the front of The Donut Man.

There beneath the soft yellow glow of the neon sign above me and the pale yellow light of 1970’s interior lighting in front of me were the usual suspects of donuts: cakes and yeasts, long johns and cream-filled, chocolate and maple. But just behind the cash register there was a table with multiple rows of “donuts gone wild.” From as best as I can gather, the two Latino chefs in the back of the shop had taken mildly glazed, yeast donuts, sliced them in two and stuffed them with gigantic strawberries. And over the top of the strawberries and down the sides of the donuts there was clear evidence of strawberry filling – the kind grandma might use to line one of her summer pies. Out back, behind The Donut Man shop, stood the leftover boxes and crates of strawberries – remnants of a busy Sunday.

We ate our donuts in the car with Wyatt sleeping in the back. We didn’t say much since our mouths were almost entirely absorbed in chewing and swallowing each generous bite. When we did speak, we mostly said simple things: “geesh this is good,” “kinda tastes like a great fresh dessert,” “I want to try the peach.”

I left The Donut Man wondering if I had just tasted the last of an American culinary dinosaur. Or, maybe, just maybe, I was tasting the beginnings of a new kind of donut – a fresh concoction of basic, natural ingredients … save the pie filling of course. This is a donut after all, and one that even Homer Simpson could find enjoyable.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Special Days

Today is one of those “special” days, where 85% of Wyatt’s waking time is spent crying (you may think I exaggerate here, but I assure you, 85% is exactly what I mean). This, of course, means 15% is sheer bliss for both of us, but given how little the boy sleeps, it is none-the-less a very difficult day in our little apartment.

This son of ours is doing a number on me. I just always imagined (and doesn’t everyone?) having a wonderfully mellow baby…one that, if at all upset, would cease his crying the instant he found himself in my arms. Instead, we were gifted with a child that remains largely inconsolable, wreaking havoc on my confidence as a mother, and even causing me to question my ability to empathize with him as a fellow human being. You see, at some point, I just “tune out.” As a means of survival (I’ve justified), when Wyatt is in the throws of certain unknown angst, my emotional self walks out -- escapes. This is the time when I begin to wonder if I’m maternally inept. I start to remember all the days I steal glances at universities for advanced degrees I’m interested in, or for career opportunities, as if those things were a present option for me. I ponder whether or not I might I be the type better suited for the world outside the home… Then I read and take great comfort in Anne Lamott’s book, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. A friend passed this on to me upon finding out I was pregnant, unaware of how apropos it would prove to be. The book has been a God-send, truly.

Those days that I don’t turn to stone, it seems, I do absolutely the opposite and cry almost as hard and as long as he does. Hours of this during the weekdays drain me, and the fact that it all takes place in a space as big as my thumbnail doesn’t help. For all the things I will miss about Los Angeles, I am desperately ready to have some space – space for both Wyatt and I to breathe, and perhaps to cry.

All that said, let me also say how much I am encouraged during my days by this little ray of light. His smiles (!) and new ‘verbal’ banter with me make it invariably worthwhile.

I thank God for the rain today, the sound of which has provided me with much needed peace this morning, and I thank Him for the sunshine this afternoon, bringing a little hope for the evening hours to come.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Month and a Half

So much for trying to update this blog every week or so. Wyatt, work and a pleasant development in my search for a call have altered my typical blogging schedule.

Where to begin?

I’ll start with Owensboro, KY. That is the place on this broad map of our nation that God has decided to place us – tucked away as it is in the hills, woods and acres of the heartland, a place not completely flattened or devoured by the great icebergs that once migrated south.

In this city of barbecue and grain silos, there is a church, an old Presbyterian Church, seeking to continue its legacy and rebirth itself for a new century. That church, First Presbyterian Church, has extended a call to me to be its associate pastor. They are calling me to be a minister of the Word and Sacrament – to use language and visible signs to bring God to them.

They are also making it abundantly clear we will be surrounded and loved by them. Thus, we feel like we are being sent by God and being received by God’s people.

As I scanned a plethora of openings in Presbyterian churches and read through a long list of church descriptions, I was drawn early to the way FPC of Owensboro summarized their ministry and life together. I was also excited about the type of person they were seeking to call; the attributes listed seemed very much to fit the mold God has been shaping me into.

But, the greatest confirmation of God’s presence in the dialogue I’ve had with this church really began when I started speaking to Jonathan, the head pastor of this congregation. Like-minded and common spirits we seem to be. Even more, our wives share many of the same interests, and we all four share the new joys and responsibilities of parenthood – ours the fusses and smiles of a son and theirs the coos and cries of a little girl.

That’s Owensboro in a nutshell, and there will be more to come about that place.

Now about Wyatt … Well, if every day were a battle (and I’m not saying it is, but if it were), than Wyatt would have won today. Anna and I have just come through what amounts to two hours of fussiness and screaming over the last three hours. And to think this day began with such promise; he slept a miraculous three and a half hours earlier today. But, those hours of peace slipped away into prolonged cries.

As best as we can figure, Wyatt doesn’t sleep enough. We’ve heard newborns are supposed to sleep something like eighteen hours a day. Wyatt maybe sleeps ten a day. He goes through a normal feeding period and begins to yawn and his eyes begin to close. But right at the moment of surrender something pulls him back; it’s obviously upsetting to him as he eventually works himself into a grumpy, fitful fury of kicks, screams and sharp jabs with a left and then a right. For Anna and I watching his insomnia is just as exhausting and irritating to us as it is to him. Like tonight when he was well into minute thirty of a screaming episode, we just found ourselves lying on our bed at 8:30 pm in complete darkness. We couldn’t go anymore; so we just lay there in the early hours of the evening conceding defeat and praying silently yet together for some moments of rest and rejuvenation. We’ve thought and talked about getting Wyatt onto some form of schedule. We’ve been around and around what might help ease his situation. And, yet for all that, we still find ourselves being finished more often than we find ourselves finishing a day as we planned it.

Wyatt is going to pull out the best and the worst of me. All those wonderful traits I’ve longed to equip myself with and live by – things like patience, peace, gentleness, forgiveness, grace – those traits are no longer ideas or abstractions. They are realities that I can choose to live by as each new crisis arises in Wyatt’s young life.

To be sure there are moments of grace, beauty and happiness – more than enough to make me thankful everyday for Wyatt. Often they are mixed right in there with the struggles. This past week, for instance, I awoke with Wyatt at 6 am since he apparently could find no more cause to rest. There we lay together in the early light of day: he alert on my chest and I dreary yet thankful he was quiet if not asleep. He managed to pick his head up and hold it in the air just off my chest. His eyes found something wonderful about the Venetian blinds dancing back and forth from the fan in our room. And I just sat there looking into his dark eyes – seemingly holding the depth of the cosmos and equally dark and mysterious. I looked long and hard into his eyes, hoping to find some early treasure of his awareness of me. No such luck, but I was happy for what was given me: the abundant curiosity of a newborn - coming alive to the richness of life and to the beautiful simplicity of contrast and movement. That’s Wyatt.

I want to close with one other episode from this past week, which has impressed itself upon me. It occurred at work, a place I have unfairly downplayed as robotic, which it can be at times. But, there have been numerous positives about work, and it is time I shared one. I’ll tell this as if you were with me.

It’s 10:00 am on a Friday morning, and I’m gearing up for what is always the most difficult and busy of days: payday. Already, as soon as the doors opened at 9:00 am a steady stream of people have been strolling into the branch seeking some money for the weekend or trying to cover some payment with their latest paycheck. Some of these people I will see only once, never to remember them again. Some others though I recognize in an instant – having familiarized myself with them after many, many visits. I never knew the bank could have such regulars, but indeed it does. Some people even come two to three times a day, as though this were a great deli or bakery. Lester doesn’t visit that often, but he does come every payday.

He’s maybe in his mid forties and the first time I met him, I didn’t get him. Seemed just a little flighty to me; one of those people who will be in mid conversation about something only to break his train of thought or change who he is addressing by looking around while he’s talking. Struck me as being anxious or timid. But over time I saw Lester has a huge heart, and it was probably the third or fourth time I helped him he told me what a gift his job was and how we should all be thankful for employment.

Anyway, it’s 10:00 am on Friday and in walks Lester. He comes to my window with his big smile – still looking to his left and his right as he approaches. He then looks right at me and addresses me by my full name, “Hey Wesley, how’s it going man?”

“Good Lester,” I reply, “how’s your day going?”

“Oh, I’ve got no complaints. Just thankful to be alive. Say, how’s your little boy doing?”

“Wyatt, oh he’s a handful! He’s doing well.”

We go on like this for a few moments, and I finally ask him if he’s working today. Lester says he isn’t because every once in a while he plays the pipe organ at different churches around LA. He tells me his boss is understanding of his desire to do so, which means he can usually get the time off as needed.

Now I think I know Lester pretty well by this point, but this absolutely surprises me. It’s not everyday you find someone who plays the pipe organ, and Lester just doesn’t fit the stereotypical pipe organ persona. I take this as a sign and opportunity to tell Lester the difficult news I have: after months of getting to know him and intersecting at this place or market of his life, I am about to move on. I began by telling him how much the pipe organ has meant to me recently … a segway of sorts. Finally, I get to the tough part.

“Lester, I’ve got some bad news that is also good news. I’m going to be leaving this job in the next two weeks to move to Kentucky.”

“W-o-o-o-w … that’s a long way away, bro. What’s in Kentucky?”

“Well, actually, I have taken a position as an associate pastor. I’m going into ministry.”

This floors Lester, but not in a bad way. I stop talking, and I just start observing. He looks through the bulletproof glass at me. At this point his attention is clearly centered. More than that, his eyes are beginning to tear up. Right in the middle of a busy Friday morning, Lester’s standing there looking at me as though I just told him his daughter is getting married or his father just passed away. He is moved by emotion, and I feel the awkward delight of knowing God has used me to touch this man.

“I knew it man,” Lester finally says to me. “I’m surrounded by angels in this place.”

And that’s it. That’s all Lester can muster up, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more. He takes his check with tears still in his eyes and leaves my window – leaving me to soak all this up.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I’m no angel at work – especially on a busy Friday. But, I’m also mindful enough to know Lester and I were able to engage in conversations well beyond whether he prefers $20’s or $100’s or who I was making his check payable to. Our transactions were more personal. And I also know that for Lester my calling to be a pastor had a profound effect upon the type of transactions he was engaged in. As soon as he realized there was a spiritual component to my own life, he was able to see and appreciate a spiritual realm in his own life. I give thanks to God for this.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Vice of Nice

Business majors will tell you there are three different ways a company can differentiate itself in a free economy: price, product and service. Rarely is a company ever able to command control of all three areas in the market. The lone exception I can think of right now is In-n-Out burger out here in sunny California. A few businesses are lucky enough to make their mark by offering a superior product or selling at a ridiculously low price; these are the companies whose brand names distinguish themselves: BMW, Charles Shaw wines. But in a world growing ever more competitive and linked, the vast majority of companies are left to win the consumer over with their service.

It’s no wonder then customer service has become such a critical concept and buzz-word in today’s economy. Companies are left to get nasty about being nice.

My employer has a corporate goal to exceed the member’s expectations in everything they do as an organization – a lofty, audacious goal that seems both admirable and absurd. The thinking on my employer’s end is that the only way they’re going to compete in a financial market where .25% points means all the difference is by making sure people feel taken care of and genuinely cared about. They want every teller transaction to be the member’s most pleasant experience of the day, which will then translate into the member telling other people about the exceptional service, which will lead to more members joining the credit union, which all leads back to the bottom line.

Now I have nothing against serving other people; the very Savior I confess to follow made service the cornerstone piece of faith and love. Service is a great goal.

Nor do I mind the goal of my employer is so audacious. The church would do itself well to have as lofty a picture of service as the business world often does.

The problem I have with my employer’s service-oriented goal is that it is determined by the consumer’s expectations and needs. When your goal is to please people, you open yourself up to exploitation from people whose expectations may be – and there’s no nice way to say this – flat out wrong.

Here’s a perfect example. I was assisting a member yesterday who had a legitimate concern and complaint about an ATM card. She had ordered it on Monday, been told it would be there by Wednesday and here it was Friday afternoon and no card had been sent. Add to that the issue of money, which inevitably ruffles peoples feathers: she had paid $18 to get the card early. I spent about five minutes assuring her the card would be delivered to her by Monday and she would not have to pay for the “express shipping” costs since the card didn’t arrive on time. I heaped generosity and compassion at her as though we were enjoying a cup of coffee instead of looking at each other through inch-thick bulletproof glass. Fair enough, this is the role of my job and the goal of my employer’s service oriented approach.

Thankfully, she seemed satisfied, and moved on to her next expectation: she needed temporary checks. I hurriedly began to get her temporary checks as I saw the line of people stewing behind her. I asked her what check number she would like to start with, and she coolly claimed she was up to check number 3000. A big alarm goes off in my mind. I suspect she’s been getting temporary checks every time she comes in instead of being like a traditional member and paying $10 for a box of checks. So … I ask her if this is what she has been doing. Yes, she replies, as though it were perfectly natural. I stare at her in disbelief. I tell her that it doesn’t seem quite fair for everyone else to pay $10 while she continues to bypass the fee and get checks for free. Then she hits me with it. She looks at me with all sincerity and claims, “That’s not nice.”

Nice. The consumer’s trump card had been played. She intended to put me on the defensive by latching onto “the customer is always right” motto. Did this lady not see the complete irony and hypocrisy of her claim? It’s not nice for me to give her something for free while she cheats the company. It’s not nice for me to stop short of making the world revolve around her.

There was also another member who had the nerve to tell me this week he didn’t want any record of his paycheck hitting his account. “I don’t want the IRS to see it,” he told me as he went on to explain that he’s currently trying to work through a problem with them. Again, I sat speechless in disbelief.

In my view, both of those customer’s had erroneous expectations. Their needs were either irrational or downright illegal. Yet, the way customer service has evolved, I was left with no option but to give them what they wanted.
The fact of the matter is that in some cases, the customer is wrong. There are times when nice can be a vice.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Derek Webb's Not So Subtle Musings

I just received the most recent Relevant magazine, which I usually thumb through in about five minutes. But this month it featured an interview with Derek Webb - former band member of Caedmon's Call who has struck out on his own - and his interview has stuck with me.

I've decided to include a great majority of the article because I think it is a tremendously important read, largely because of how bluntly Webb puts many things. I specifically enjoyed reading his thoughts about Christian art and Christian politics - two subjects Webb and I see eye-to-eye on. He is not subtle, and that's what I appreciate about him.

There's a number of quotes that may jump out at you. They should; there is some challenging and controversial stuff in here.


Relevant Magazine's Interview with Derek Webb:

Generally, it’s seen as a bad thing if people walk out halfway through a concert. But for Derek Webb, a strong reaction was exactly what he was looking for. Even if it wasn’t the most supportive one.

In the fall 2005, Webb went on a tour of colleges to introduce fans to songs from his then-upcoming album, Mockingbird. During a decade as a member of the popular Christian folk band Caedmon’s Call, Webb built a strong following and was able to sell tickets anywhere he played. Then, at an otherwise unmemorable stop along the tour – Webb says he doesn’t even remember where it was – part of his audience walked out.

He’d just finished playing “A King & A Kingdom,” a song about allegiance. When it came time for the second verse, he sang it like he had every other night on the tour:

“There are two great lies that I’ve heard:
‘The day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die’
And that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class Republican
And if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like Him”

No one can know for sure, but that’s probably when he lost the crowd. A full three rows had left when the song was done …

Webb has become a thorn in the side of many in the Church and a voice of hope for others. He is both polarizing and unifying. Love him or hate him, Derek Webb is the voice of a new direction.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for Webb’s critics is that he was once one of their own. He played at their churches, sang on their albums and graced the cover of their magazines. Now he’s their disease, and he’s criticizing them with a bluntness that’s rarely seen in the Christian music industry …

His sophomore album, 2004’s I See Things Upside Down, was praised for its experimental instrumentation and brash lyrics but was all but ignored by Christian radio. Webb knows how the business works, though, and says he couldn’t care less about being on Christian radio.

“We have a radio genre that is, on the whole, pretty uninteresting and pretty bland artistically,” he says. “Radio is the gatekeeper. If you can’t get through radio, you are not going to get your big audience that you want to hear your great message or whatever it is. So you make very slow, gradual compromises to the sound and content of your music in order to get it through the passage gatekeepers, and then you are done because what you gave up to get there is all you had. The progress just isn’t worth it.”

His problems with the Christian music scene aren’t just artistic; they’re spiritual.

“Christian artists don’t seem to be focused anymore on making great art,” he says. “That’s our main problem. It doesn’t matter what we are talking about if our art is no good. A lot of the songs I have heard on Christian radio are just outright misrepresentations of the character of God. Don’t let your local Christian bookstore do your thinking for you and believe that everything they have there for sale is good and spiritually beneficial to you. If anything, we have unfortunately proven that the Church is identified with really poor art” …

Back to the people who walked out of the show. What Webb has a hard time understanding is not why they left, but why they didn’t leave sooner. Earlier in his set, he’d played songs with the same theme – idolatry that limits our relationship with God. He’d played “Wedding Dress,” a song from She Must and Shall Go Free, which calls its collective listener a whore. The audience didn’t move. Then he played “A King & A Kingdom,” a song loosely about politics, and the audience bolted.

“Politics is too specific an idol for some people,” he says.

The fact that people walked out of “A King & A Kingdom” only encourages Webb of the relevance of his message. He believes that politics and patriotism have become an idol for many Christians and that some have pledged their primary allegiance to the kingdom of America instead of the kingdom of God.

“It’s not saying not to have national pride,” Webb says. “It’s saying that there’s an allegiance that trumps all of that. Politics is a broken system, especially a two-party system. It’s really hard. I think there is work to be done. I feel like there is kingdom-building to be done in that arena, but it is not ideal” …

His problem with Christian politics is the assumption that the Republican party is “the Christian party.”

“I feel like the way that moral issues have been co-opted by a political party for nothing else but to develop a constituency whose votes they can depend on is really dangerous,” he says. “I just want to get in that I feel like it is nearly impossible to walk a party line – especially in a two-party system – and follow Jesus.”

The only song from Mockingbird that has received more heat than “A King & A Kingdom” is possibly “Rich Young Ruler,” in which Webb sings about giving things up to follow Jesus. In the second verse he sings, “Come on and follow me / But sell your house, sell your SUV … / and give it to the poor.”

Many listeners immediately become defensive. Not everyone is called to live among the poor, they claim. Saying that Christians shouldn’t have SUV’s and big houses is pure legalism, right?

To ask those questions, Webb says, is to miss the point. “Rich Young Ruler’ is not about wealth, but it is a paraphrase of a story,” he says, noting that the title of the song should have been a hint. “It’s about idolatry. When you apply the story of the rich young man to the Western Church, the story still works. We as a group are a people who have shown a lot of signs of being unwilling to give up our wealth in order to follow Jesus. I think one key symptom of that is the situation in Africa.”

He has now moved to the topic closest to his heart.

“It is the greatest concentration of the world’s poorest people, and in light of the second greatest commandment to love our neighbor, these people are right before our faces,” he says. “They are intimately linked to our economy. We can set up Coca-Cola over there, but we can’t send life-saving drugs? These people are part of our way of life” …

“If we don’t [do more to help Africa], we are going to find ourselves in the West at odds with orphans of those whose aid we did not come to,” he says. “It would be less expensive to care for them now than it will be 10 years from now to have made enemies of them and have to go to war with them. We can be preemptive about peace as much as our nation is talking about our preemption about war. Africa is a perfect example of how you do that. How do you fight for peace? How do you represent the Prince of Peace in our culture? You think ahead. You plan ahead. You get creative” …

That said, Webb doesn’t believe that getting involved in social justice issues is an absolute requirement of faith. “I’ve heard too many of my brothers and sisters who also have a heart for Africa say, ‘God is going to judge us based on how we respond to the emergency in Africa.’ But I believe that’s an outright lie,” he says. “I’m not interested in spiritually manipulating anyone. God has already judged and punished Jesus for the fact that we don’t love people well. That’s very good news, but it also calls us to be about the Lord’s business, which right now I believe is in Africa.”

[These excerpts are from “Derek Webb: The Heart, Mind and Politics of the New Church” by Tyler Clark. Relevant Magazine. Issue 20, May-June, 2006. Pgs. 54-60]