When I quit my job as a pastor 8 months ago, I had very different expectations as to how my time as an unprofessionally religious grocery clerk would unfold. For starters, I didn’t quite expect tendonitis (a condition usually reserved for individuals in their late 40s who’ve worked a physically demanding job for years) to flare up in my right wrist after just seven months, forcing me to wear a nude-colored-brace (I’m more of an autumn) that only served to identify me (as I struggled to put your milk in a bag) as someone worthy of tongue-clicking pity.
Or how many times I’d have to utter the phrase: “Do you want your milk in a bag?”
Or how difficult it is to steer a train of 7 shopping carts in driving rain while dodging quickly reversing SUVs piloted by people on cellphones.
Or how many D-list holidays require groceries and impatient huffs while you wait on the card reader to load (seriously, it’s Presidents Day, WHERE DO YOU HAVE TO BE IN SUCH A RUSH?!).
Or how much it means for someone to acknowledge my humanness even though we’re out of red lentils.
Or how breathtaking it is to watch a fellow coworker painstakingly construct a display featuring a sale on refried beans not because he gets paid more for doing a good job, but because he loves what he does, and he’s damn good at it.
Or how heartbreaking it is to watch a fellow coworker skewered on the altar of someone else’s frenetic anxiety because we’re out of red lentils.
Or how much I would sometimes hate it.
Or, finally, how nostalgic I'd feel now that it’s wrapping up.
As a pastor, I used to complain about how folks didn’t “get” what I was trying to do for them, or trying to say to them, or trying to bring about with them. I would grow dissatisfied, and anxious, and frustrated. Occasionally, this unresolved energy would leak out all over people who had nothing at all to do with my existential crisis. Like the people bagging my milk, or idling in front of me in traffic, or ignoring my work on the Internet (HOW DARE YOU!). It’s like, for years, I had this unflagging belief that the world owed me something for my efforts, and my education, and my clever turns of phrase (you're welcome), and when it didn’t reward me with all the things I expected it to when I was plotting out my existence in professional Christian graduate school, I became despondent and incoherently angry.
At my family
At my job
At the divine
At 20 year olds bashing into one another in front of 102,000 fans each Saturday
Because it seemed as if, based on the rather tepid reception I was receiving, that life had lost my credentials and talents in the mail, leaving me shouting "BUT I HAD AN APPOINTMENT!" at the heavens.
In his landmark text, Generation to Generation, Rabbi and therapist Edwin H. Friedman introduces the idea that individuals, particularly individuals in leadership capacities (whatever they may be), have two possible postures towards the universe. The first, is what he terms an “anxious non-self,” and it describes a person whose identity is so rootless and ill-formed that she restlessly seeks out who she is and where she fits by using and abusing everyone in proximity to her.
Maybe you’ve met this person before.
Maybe they raised you.
Maybe they are you.
Like locusts, anxious non-selves have a way of moving from experience to experience, sucking the air and life out of whatever room they’re in at the time.
The second posture, is what he terms a “non-anxious self,” and it describes a person whose identity is so concretely established, that no matter the trials besieging a person, she remains steadfast in the surety of who she is and the work to which she has been called.
Maybe you’ve met this person before.
Maybe they raised you.
Maybe they are you.
Like trees, non-anxious selves have a way of converting desperation and fear into light and space and air in whatever room they’re occupying at the time.
For months, my time as a grocery clerk only served to reveal (in technicolor no less) all the ways an identity solely rooted in what I can do, how much I can earn, and how many people are listening to me, only works to cheapen the life and relationships around me. When you’re lost at sea (occupationally, relationally, spiritually), believe me, you will claw at anything and anyone to keep your head above the waves. So I haphazardly applied for jobs I didn’t want, I leveraged relationships to see if I could "fix" my situation, I ignored people I care about, I embittered myself towards customers and coworkers (while smiling of course, I’m not a monster), I nervously stared at my dwindling bank account, and I bemoaned a God who rewards platitude spewing, v-necked suburban pastors with 16,000 square foot mansions while reserving the dairy cooler for only God’s most trusted servants.
All the while, claiming (on this very site, no less) that any and every spirituality beginning with an attempt to leverage God for meaning, worth, wealth, and eternal security is ALWAYS wrong and hilariously misguided.
Which, it is, I just happened to still believe in it all the same.
Kind of like you do about checking Facebook on your phone at a nice restaurant, or reading gossip magazines at the grocery store without paying for them. However, over time, my job began showing (as opposed to telling) me that the world is always far more complex and nuanced and strange and beautiful and confusing and painful than I ever realized it could be from the comfortable confines of professional Christianity. People aren’t always the tidy product of their choices, and they almost never respond according to our expectations about how they (as someone in their current station) should.
Sometimes the person working your register graduated from an Ivy League school.
Or just lost their mom to cancer.
Or is going back to school at night after sending his son off to college.
Or stayed late cleaning the night before because he is profoundly grateful for the work.
Or worked in the corporate world for years and quit because she missed her kids.
Or just had a baby and is pumping on her break.
Or teaches community college courses in between shifts.
Or used to be a pastor.
But probably not that last one.
I know this probably seems obvious, as most of you likely realize employees with name tags are actual humans and not just soulless automatons in ill-fitting khaki pants, but that sure doesn't stop you from complaining about having to buy groceries for an upcoming pool party (GASP!) while we dutifully ring you up because we're at work on Memorial Day weekend.
So, as my time stocking shelves and mopping that wet place in front of the toilet where people apparently thought to themselves: “ehhh, close enough” draws to a close, I want to make sure I remember at least one counterintuitive truth:
Namely, that things spending the lion’s share of their time explaining to us how meaningful they are, oftentimes aren’t, no matter how hard they try; while things all of us are quite content to believe have little to no meaning, are oozing with sacredness, it’s just that we have to develop eyes to see them and ears to hear them (as one now famous rabbi put it).
I also strangely discovered, in maybe the most unlikely of places, that whether I sometimes like it or not, I still believe in God.
And, that I’ll probably always be a pastor (albeit a limping one).
And, that a Christianity spending less of its time concerned about the election cycle, the bathroom behaviors of fellow citizens, and where everyone we hate goes after they die, and more of its time listening, loving, serving, giving, dying, working, and paying attention to all the ways God is bubbling up in the most unlikely of people and places,
can still blow the doors off of the universe.
That is, only if we remember to occasionally put a little air in the tires.
For me, that meant quitting my "meaningful" job because I started to find life meaningless, and working a "meaningless" job in order to find life meaningful again.
For you, that might mean simply leaving the door cracked to whether or not God’s got anything new left to say to you, or about you, even if you don’t believe in God, and maybe more especially, even if you do.
Whatever it is, I feel fairly confident that whether you travel to the bottom of your life or the top of it, the only thing you’ll find is more life, until one day you don’t. If what you believe in doesn’t help you bring grace and peace concretely to the world greeting you each and every day, it isn’t very worthwhile or important or interesting, even if everyone says otherwise.
But if it does, then it is, even if everyone says otherwise.
*photo courtesy of Kevin Lau, Creative Commons