Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Hell Is a Wal-Mart Check-Out Line

I pulled up to the superstore around 11:15 on a steamy Louisiana evening to get a few grocery items for my wife. As I drove into the parking lot I wasn’t sure if this mega-mart, once known for being open 24 hours a day, would be open after 11 in this post-Katrina world I’ve been living in for the past eleven months. To my surprise it wasn’t only open but teeming with tired construction workers, bored teenagers, weary retailers, and a few folks like myself under the illusion that they could get in and get out with their groceries in a timely manner.

So I grabbed the few items my wife had requested and made my way to the check out line. As I pushed my buggy up to the line, I arrived about the same time as a middle-aged woman who, coming from behind a cracker display, didn’t see me. I motioned to her to go ahead of me in line. “But you only have 3 items” she said. I replied, “you only have 4, go on.” I figured one more person in a line that long wouldn’t hold things up much longer than it would otherwise take.

I try my best to never go to Wal-Mart. It’s not that I am protesting Wal-Mart’s lack of care for their employees, their disregard for the environment or how they run the mom and pop markets out of business in small, rural communities, I just don’t like standing in line.

On this particular night shoppers greatly outnumbered checkout clerks. I stood about seventh in line and tried to get as comfortable as I could because I figured I was going to be there a while. The check out isle was a mess of discarded items folks decided they didn’t want to purchase when they got to the counter and the typical fare of impulse buys, tabloids and beauty magazines.

There I stood leaning on my cart under pasty fluorescent lights, the incessant beeping of registers swirling round in the background, trying not to look at the cover of Cosmo for the latest helping of boobs and “sex tips to make him crazy!” The line was slow-moving as expected - a couple feet every couple of minutes. Something about the experience was really disturbing to me. It occurred to me that my fellow shoppers and I were cattle here being herded into a stall. Something within me wanted to cry “MOOOOO!” I think I even said “mooo” under my breathe. I was reminded of why I hate going to Wal-Mart and reminded further of what concerns me about how commercialism and convenience are eroding away at the soul of cities all around the country.

I was recently driving through the suburban sprawl around Houston. I was reminded of old cartoons where the animation backgrounds would loop a repeated scene behind Yogi Bear or Tom and Jerry as the cartoon characters ran after or away from one another.

Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Applebees, Home Depot, TGI Fridays… Repeat

The sad thing is that I could have been driving in the suburbs of Atlanta, Denver, or Kansas City. Our big cities are all starting to look the same. Our cities are loosing their uniqueness, their character - their soul. As I look at and take part in the rebuilding of the New Orleans area after Katrina I am very concerned that this once very soulful city could end up looking like every other city in the country.

When I first returned to the New Orleans area after Katrina I remember feeling so small in the midst of the vast destruction all around. As a musician I felt inadequate to use my best gifts to help in relief work. I thought to myself, “what place does music have in this storm-ravaged area?” Sure at that time the most appropriate thing was not to pick up a guitar and sing but to pick up a hammer and start ripping out sheet-rock. Besides what could I even sing about? However as the immediate relief effort has given way to the rebuilding, I am now beginning to sense how much music is needed, not just music though but art, dancing, architecture, and local cuisine – the intangible but irreplaceable essence of a community. These are some of the things that make up the “soul” of a city. For all of its problems New Orleans is a city with soul. To paraphrase and contextualize the words of Jesus, “what would it profit a city to gain all of the mega marts, trendy coffee shops, and restaurant franchises at the expense of its soul.” The challenge of artists, musicians, architects, painters, photographers, and even restaurateurs is to help get the soul of the city back lest it be lost to the forces at work in every suburban area in the country. We need to be reminded that life is more that commerce and convenience. Life is, at its highest points, realized in community, shared meals, singing, dancing, beauty and music.

In the past few months I have found myself down on Magazine street in New Orleans eating at the local restaurants, drinking coffee at the local coffee shops, and enjoying the charm and simplicity, the local flavor and color of this soulful city. I would hate to see this place replaced and repopulated by Wal-Marts and McDonalds. Sure it’s already happened to a certain extent but much of the city’s destiny is still up in the air. My prayer is that New Orleans just might emerge better of than before, full of soul and just maybe without as much corruption, poverty, and want. We need not trust our future to corporations and developers. As artists we must remind and give a vision of what a city can be.

When commercialism reigns, art is replaced by advertising, photos and music become ways of pushing buttons and seducing money out of the wallet, and architecture becomes homogenized and functional. An air-brushed, squeaky-clean image is dangled in front of us that makes us less human as we chase after it. The uniqueness and diversity of our communities are in turn swallowed up by the bland and mediocre, convenience-peddling giants of corporate America.

So when you find yourself in a mega mart in the middle of the night with the urge to “Mooo” remember you are not a cow, you are not a commodity, you are a human; a human meant to enjoy and engage love, and life, and laughter and tears, and song and dance. So why don’t you pass up that Applebees and go the funky, hole-in-the-wall taco shack. Trade the fluorescent lights and cattle stalls of the mega mart for home-grown produce from your farmers market. Turn off your radio and just start singing. Go out and listen to some live local music and remember what it is you like about life and what it is you like about your community and begin to enjoy it once again.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bungee Jumping Feels Like Suicide

God’s ways are so upside-down compared to our ways. This “upside-down” way was a characteristic of the ministry of Jesus as recorded throughout the gospels. He would say things like, “the first will be last and the last first”, or “turn the other cheek instead of fighting back”, or “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who spitefully use you…”

This kind of wisdom, the Jesus kind of wisdom, is so contrary to the wisdom of this world which seeks at all costs to get ahead, to profit, to fight, to seek pleasure, and to stockpile and horde.

I find that the more I follow Jesus, the more I have to face ways of thinking that are rooted in our world rather than his realm. One of the hardest things to face is my fear. It’s kind of ironic that I was reminded of the confrontation with fear several times on my vacation with my family last week.

To start off, just before my family went on vacation a week ago I spoke at my church’s weekend services and shared a few things from my personal struggle with internet pornography which I didn’t particularly care to share with a crowd that not only included men, but wives, and grandmothers as well (those wishing to hear the message can go to and listen to the MP3 titled “Set Up to be Set Free”). It may be the fear I had to confront in sharing my personal struggles that set the tone for the week, but for whatever reason confronting fear became the theme of our vacation.

Our whole vacation last week was filled with opportunities for my family to face fear in order to enjoy life whether it was my little boy’s fears of going down a water slide or my daughter facing the fear of swimming more than 10 feet in a lake or my wife jumping off of a cliff into the water. As a father I really enjoyed getting to walk my children through their fears so that they could more fully live and engage life. In the process I realized that my experience with my children was not too unlike what my heavenly father has done with me throughout my Christian walk.

Years ago I was in Indonesia on the island of Bali. One day the family that I was staying with offered to take me bungee jumping. I had always wanted to bungee jump but up to that point had never had the opportunity so I was really excited. There I stood up on top of the platform many stories above a swimming pool with the wind blowing my hair and butterflies in my gut. Though the personnel of the facility were very diligent in get me hooked up in the gear the right way and making sure they had just the right amount of chord, no amount of respect for their safety guidelines could relax me. It’s as if my physical body thought I was about to commit suicide and was revolting. Well after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, I jumped off. Immediately I was flooded with an intoxicating head-rush of adrenaline as I was dunked into the pool below only to be catapulted back into the sky and back again until the bungee cables returned to their original state. As soon as I realized I was alive and in one piece I let out the half-crazed shout of a madman. My fears had turned to exhilaration and joy. Instead of dying I felt more alive than ever.

There was a time years ago when I found myself in the midst of a struggle with internet porn. I really wanted God to help me deal with the stuff in a way that would be just me and God. I prayed alone to God for deliverance from this sin and I even read books on the subject privately hoping that I could find some formula for freedom. Whenever I would get someone to pray for me I’d be careful not to clue him in to what I was really struggling with. However I found that the sins that had taken root in my isolation could only be dealt with in the company of others, in community, in relationships with my fellow brothers in Christ. But confessing my sins to anyone felt like I was killing myself.

“If I let them know what I’m struggling with then they will reject me.”
“I’ll be ostracized from the church, I’ll be ridiculed, and belittled. “

What made it worse was the realization that coming clean meant that I not only had to admit my secret sin but that I wasn’t quite the Christian I pretended to be.

So when I opened my mouth to confess my sin it was like bungee jumping for the first time – butterflies in my stomach, a cold sweat, an anxious rapidly beating heart.

However I didn’t die.
I wasn’t ostracized.
I wasn’t even rejected the slightest bit from any of the ones I opened up to.

On the contrary I was loved, accepted, and even ministered to not as some unclean leper but as a brother, as a friend. In fact I found that there were others around me going through the same thing who were scared to death to get it out in the open.

So when I’m at a lake and I’m calling to my daughter to face her fears and jump to me I feel a little bit of the pleasure my heavenly father must have when I face my fears and jump into his arms. When I jump I find that I become more of the person he made me to be and less of that imposter I used to be. I become more fully alive, more real, more loving, more courageous, more of a man, more of a father, and more compassionate on those who struggle with the same things.