February 16, 2017
I’ve been to “Our Lady of Starbucks” a number of times this week! I seem to have spent 4 to 6 hours there on several days, working on my “Thursday Thoughts” book draft, trying to edit, check for repeated stories, catch typos, and so on. It’s a semi-outdoors setting, in the large open-ended area of a small group of stores, under cover, out of the sunlight, fairly peaceful, lots of people passing through, not so noisy... kind of like church in some ways. There’s a mixture of languages and clothing, too; I’ve heard French, English, German, and Italian, and probably some Portugese... and certainly a lot of Spanish! I’ve seen folk looking like they’ve just stepped out of the water and off the beach, some who are “on a mission,” with kids in tow, and others who are having a leisurely wander-along, ready for whatever happens! There are coffees, teas, and juices (cold or hot); ice cream, gelatoes, and fruit; slices of cake, sandwiches, cookies; there’s even sushi in the next court! So, at times, I’ve plugged my earbuds into the music on my tablet and “zoned out;” but mostly, I’ve tried to stay in the moment, and listen to the children who needed a nap, friends laughing and calling out to others; shopkeepers inviting newcomers into their stores, and dogs playing and barking friendly with each other and the passersby.
I began by saying that this week’s pilgrimage was like church; here’s why: Last Sunday, having not found an English-language congregation with which to worship, we spent the morning at leisure, enjoying time with our daughter and son-in-law, and wandering along via the beach-side street. But I can only “take” so much of idle time in the sunshine, and so I gathered up my tablet and went to “Our Lady...” where I could work on the Thursday Thoughts collection. There are more than 300 of the 2-page, single spaced pieces, and some of them required a lot of attention... so there I was, wordsmithing along, when a young man (about 20 years old, I suppose) came up and presented a piece of paper to me in his handwriting, conveying a message to me in Spanish. (Now, I don’t read the language terribly well, but can “get by,” generally.) It had his name on it, and said that he was deaf and mute, and needed some help to get something to eat. I had seen him be rejected, treated rudely and harshly, and ignored by folks around me, some without even having had a look at his note. I found that although he couldn’t speak, he could read lips... in both English and Spanish! So for nearly 10 minutes, he and I had quite a “conversation” about his story, my family, and how difficult life was for this young man whose only recourse was begging others for help. When it was apparent that our time together was coming to a close, I found some pesos in my pocket, tried out my best “Dios Bendiga” (“God Bless You”), looked him in the eyes and shook his hand.... and then he leaned in for a hug, kissed me on the cheek (a common greeting in the local culture), and managed to convey “God bless you, too, sir.” Folks sitting nearby had been watching, and listening in... it would have been difficult to have avoided the engagement; we were acting as if there was no one else around! He put the pesos in his pocket, and moved along to the other side of the outdoor café area, and in a moment, was gone. Jesus’ word to the “Sheep and Goats” in Matthew 28 came to mind: “Whenever you’ve done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you’ve done it for me.” Here was one of those folks Morris West called “the clowns of God,” drawing out a response to the plight of the Almighty from our hearts and faith. It was like being in church to have had the opportunity to help this one in need.
And then, late yesterday, as I was nearing the end of a 6-hour marathon of book work, with the last chapter I planned to edit in process, and sitting in the same venue, I became aware that two of the baristas were setting up a couple of tables next to where I was sitting. There were green cloth napkins, a bag of local, Chiapas State coffee, a coffee press full of the hot, aromatic liquid, a stack of little paper cups, and two plates of cake and bread slices. And there was one of those three-sided, “Science Fair” poster/display boards with pictures and maps and information displayed. “What’s this?” I asked one of the young women; she said “You’re one of our three ‘Customers of the Week!’ and we have a special gift for you!” Two others quickly came forward, and we had an elaborate introduction to the “proper” way to taste and experience a new coffee flavor... sniffing it, then sipping it noisily, and then holding it in the mouth, and then adding a piece of cake to the liquid before swallowing the mix. Who knew?!? So there we stood, with a lot of people watching us eat cake and drink coffee in the middle of the mall! And then it was time for more cake, and the photograph, which they would display in the Starbucks Store! Now, I’m famous! I’m a Customer of the Week! (Reminds me of one of comedian Steve Martin’s early movies, “The Jerk,” when he blurts out, “The new phone book’s here! I’m somebody!”) Kind of like church, I thought. There we stood, eating and drinking, being gathered together in the fellowship of an elemental meal with five or six folks “from all over.” We were there because we were invited, treated as honored guests, bound up in a kind of family... kind of like church, gathered ‘round the Table of the Almighty. Reminded me of the phrase Jesus used: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I also, in the midst of them.”
I think church happens in a great many ways, in a wonderful array of settings, from set-apart buildings with magnificent sanctuaries (like ours) to simple gatherings of chairs and a table outdoors under a great, spreading tree, to a setting in the open space of a mall with half a dozen folks over coffee and cake... and a simple word of benediction, “Dios Bendiga! ” It happens when an invitation is made to unknowns and outsiders and those without resources, priority, or standing. Church happens when grace is extended when none is asked, and where concern for the well-being of all is a matter of conviction and priority. It’s where resources are shared, such that “the least, last, and lost” are provided for... not just out of abundance, but out of poverty, too.
So, we didn’t make it to “church” last Sunday, but church has come and found me several times this week, inviting me to look for it, and see it with “eyes opened” all around. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is not “here or there,” but within us. Find ways in these next days to invite someone to share in the circle of faith... and maybe some coffee and iced lemon pound cake, too!
Grace and peace,
Jim Earley, Pastor
Sr. Pastor, Tabernacle UMC