Monday, July 25, 2011

Coffee With Reverend Feelgood

I went to the coffee shop for an iced mocha on an I-don't-care-it-costs-$4-it's-sunny-and-Sunday kind of morning. As I waited for the barista to take my order, a white-haired man approached me with something in his hand.

I thought, "Please, no," because in this city when a stranger approaches you with something in his or her hand, they are usually crazy, or asking for money, or both. The man was smiling, but it was a wide, genuine kind of smile rather than the maniacal type I had been anticipating. (The last time I visited this location, a man sat at the table next to mine outside and began smoking a cigar and muttering to himself.)

The smiling man handed me the two items in his hand - a gift card and note card folded in half - and told me he wanted me to use the gift card to buy myself whatever drink I'd like. I sensed my face as it scrunched up into skeptical puzzlement, melted into surprise, and finally relaxed into a smile. I then waited for the catch; usually, whenever someone who isn't crazy hands you an item that is even remotely appealing, you have to make a pledge or sign up for something or give money on the spot.

The catch, which was sort of a catch but not exactly, was for me to do something nice for someone else - a 'pay it forward' kind of thing. Something was being asked of me, yes, but neither required nor demanded.

I thanked the man several times and ordered my iced mocha with a smile on my face. I had wondered if I was this man's only caffeine beneficiary, but the barista's look of jaded disinterest as I handed him the gift card answered the question for me: I was not the first, and I would not be the last. In my mind I conjured up an image of the man as a sane-looking but truly-crazed Random-Act-of-Kindness-ophile, getting off on his altruism as he flashed a jacket full of $5 gift cards at unsuspecting customers. But it was 90 degrees and the man wasn't wearing a jacket.

While I waited for my drink, a woman - presumably the man's wife - came in and sat down at his table. When two teenage girls entered the store, the woman quickly got up and sidled over to them, planting herself in front of them and ignoring their startled expressions. Their faces scrunched up into skeptical puzzlement, melted into surprise, and finally relaxed into smiles as she delivered the spiel.

I took out the note card, certain it would contain a link to the couple's self-help book/wind chime music recording website. I wasn't too far off - printed on the card instead was the name, address, web site, and phone and fax number of a local Methodist Church.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been plugged by Jesus.

Five or six years ago, my first reaction would have been disgust. As a new nonbeliever disgruntled with the religion in which I had been raised, I had almost no tolerance for an institution I was beginning to view as - well, intolerant. I would have found the gesture hypocritical and phony, like the teachings of filthy rich televangelists and pastors of so-called megachurches, who preach about humility while their limos wait outside. The giftcard-giving would have registered merely as a cheap ploy to get more butts in the pews by feeding people's addictions and guilt (it was, after all, Sunday morning, and clearly none of us was at church).

Thankfully, I have abandoned both the blind faith of my childhood and the resentful cynicism of my adolescence. After finally taking the time to start truly learning about religion (not just learning prayers or condemning an entire belief system outright), what I see today is a struggle for relevance and visibility. Pastors and priests used to have the public's ear because everyone went to church every week. Now, they must go out and prove they are worthy of our attention.

Perhaps this cultural shift seems that much more profound because I am in the middle of reading a book about Isabella of France, queen consort to the English King Edward II during the early 14th century. Isabella's subjects, having never heard of coffee shops, married clergy, or Methodist churches (or any Protestant church at all) would have been absolutely floored by what transpired on Sunday. In an age where people were fined, thrown in jail, and executed for failing to show up to church and/or conforming to the cultural standard, it would be unthinkable that a spiritual leader would have to go into secular society offering gifts and asking - in a roundabout way - if I would pretty please go to his church if I was so inclined?

I'm not here to say whether these changes are encouraging or catastrophic, or what the Christian church will look like in 700 more years (if it even exists by then). But I do know now that I was wrong to say the Christian Church is rigid and unchangeable compared to the rest of society. It's more like one's thought process while high on marijuana: it'll reach the same place it would otherwise, only a hell of a lot more slowly.

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