God’s Pew

March 10, 2012

I’m not sure in which pew God sits in church, but I’ve experienced the sovereignty of His presence while sitting under a tree, cloistered within the woods. I’ve heard his rapturous voice within a piece of music and seen his written word upon the page. He is in the face of a stranger, a child, or the hug of a friend just as much as he is the artist’s palette and hands.

Church or fellowship has its place as well, at least for me. Sometimes when the world gets to me, when I can feel the internal tentacles of resentment or anger begin to intrude upon and poison my sense of peace, that one-hour of music and praise within those four walls called ‘church’, becomes a mighty antidote. That being said, I was in church a few months back, dealing with myself there in the pew: sitting, listening, wondering, praying, digging at my darkness; hoping to loosen the topsoil so the seeds of gratitude could more easily take root. I was having little success.

A bit of winter lingered in the air and so most of the people seated there still had their coats on.  I looked about the room as the music played and saw a young man seated in the back, wearing only a heavy sweater. He was new to the church and the tattoos that encircled his neck like murals were clearly visible from where I sat.  More tattoos were emblazoned upon the backs of his hands and a small ring punctured his left nostril. He looked like ‘trouble’. This is where I say I had an immediate attraction to him, not for this reason, but because he was an anomaly here. And I am attracted to anomalies, the fringe dwellers, the thoughtlessly marginalized.

I don’t remember what the sermon was. I was too involved with my own internal processes to give note, now. I do remember scribbling some scriptures upon the program to research later. Then it was time for the inevitable offering; for the missionaries, for the pastor’s salaries, for the heat that was keeping us all semi-warmed. I opened my wallet, took out the bills and curled them within my hand as we prayed that the money would be put to good use and multiplied. I wished I had more to give. I always wish this, not as much for myself but to have more in order to give more here and everywhere. I want to be able to bestow. It’s a dream of mine.

Now, we don’t pass the collection plate up and down each aisle as most churches do; instead, everyone walks up to the front of the church and places whatever they have into the baskets. Then we hug and chat and say things to each other like “Good to see you!” as we meander back to our seats. Just as I sat down, my tattooed anomaly of a man arose from his seat and approached the front of the church.  Standing with his back to the congregation, he began to pull his sweater up and over his head, the T-shirt underneath also rising with his sweater and revealing bare skin. The room went silent. I thought, ‘Oh No! He’s stripping naked right in front of everyone!” Then I thought, “Oh no, he has a gun buried under his sweater and now that he is in the front of the room, he is going to turn around and shoot us all, just like at Columbine!” Then I thought I should leave my seat and try to get away as soon as possible. Then I thought, maybe I should stay right where I was and hide under the pews while I called the police, my voiced hushed and trembling. Maybe I should call my children to say my last goodbye’s. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

The room was uncomfortably silent; watching, waiting. After he removed his sweater, he pulled his T-shirt back down over his exposed skin and then placed his sweater in the offering basket. There were gasps in the congregation, gasps of surprise and astonished reverence. He had no money to give, only this. And so this is what he gave. Then he walked back to his seat amid the humbled silences. Awed by his act and just as relieved, I stood up and clapped for him. Shortly, the others joined in with me.

He left before the service was over, before I could thank him for this lesson in humility. Just when you don’t think you have enough to give, someone else literally gives the shirt off their back. He was a living demonstration of this overly used cliche.

And now, because of him,  I think I know the pew where God sits. And those seeds of gratitude began to grow and peek their heads through the darkened soil.

Infiltrating the Casino

February 22, 2012

Some take trips to Aruba, dye their hair, find other employment or try a new diet in order to integrate some change into their lives and deviate even in some small way from the mundane grooves they carve into their existence.  I don’t mind change in the least but four simple truths regarding it, persist in my life: Aruba is expensive, I like my job, my hair is staying its three shades of mousy brown mixed with gray, and diets stench of self-sacrifice and deprivation. There was only one thing left to provide the change for which my soul was lamenting: take the bus to Foxwoods Casino for $27.00. The bus leaves at 7:15 a.m. to begin the two and a half hour journey to its destination. And I would be on it. Change, here I come!

Smiling, I handed the bus driver two twenty-dollar bills to insure my seat. It was then that she impatiently enlightened me with a, “Correct change only…” I needed a ten-dollar bill, one five-dollar bill and two one-dollar bills or Foxwoods would seem as far away to me as Aruba.  I’ve pulled some fairly large rabbits out of some pretty small hats in my life, but this one had me stumped. None of this was mentioned in the advertisement. Maintaining my composure, I said nothing about their error of omission. Then, just as I was about to lose my composure by wrapping my disenchanted, trembling hands around her pretty-little-bus-driver-neck; she took my forty dollars, wrote down my name on a piece of paper she pulled from her shirt pocket and promised to get me my thirteen dollars change before we disembarked. This was good news. I breathed a sigh of relief, then sat down in the empty front seat to avoid that intimidating voyage down the aisle. This was my second mistake.  A handful of voices shrieked in unison, “You can’t sit there! That’s a handicapped seat! That’s why no one is sitting there!” There was no sign that said ‘Handicapped’, no symbol, no piece of paper plopped into the seat reserving it for anyone other than able-bodied me. I contritely mumbled my sorrys and headed toward the back of the bus where no one could find me, where I was close to the toilet, where the chances of me causing more trouble were greatly diminished. In my mind, I had planned a happy little bus trip, a soirée of sorts on wheels. Instead, I buried myself within a book and held it up to my face like a shield to deflect further msunderstandings. It occurred to me that I could have stayed home and dyed my hair green. And blue. And purple…

Once you arrive at the casino, this twenty-seven dollar bus ticket also buys you a ten-dollar all-you can-eat buffet and fifteen dollars worth of free slot play; in other words, the bus ride itself only cost two-dollars. What right did I have to complain, even in the face of such obvious rejection? A two-dollar bus ride is a two-dollar bus ride.  By now, I felt as if I was infiltrating a secret society where I didn’t know the rules. This is where Franco rescues me, begins to reveal the rules and even shows me where to go to turn my bus ticket into a buffet pass and free slot play. Unfortunately, this required a 30-minute wait in line talking to Franco who either didn’t know much English or who may have had a minor stroke that distorted his speech. I couldn’t tell which and was too embarrassed for him to ask.  I simply kept nodding my head and smiled as if I understood every muddled word that issued from his lips.  What I did understand was that he was a very nice man, whether I could decipher his speech or not. Things were looking up. I got my Wampum Card (yes, I said ‘wampum’) and amid stories of how much money was won by whom and when, Franco and I parted ways; me to the cashier and he to the slots. His parting garbled words to me were, “Be back bus by 4:4…”. I missed the last digit.

I headed to the Cashier window where I would get my pin number to activate my Wampum Card to get my free slot plays.  The lines were less long there but only one of the two cashiers appeared to be moving the line along. The other cashier was counting pennies…singularly…by hand. Two women were standing outside the cashier’s cage, holding two more large shopping bags full of pennies still waiting to be counted. At that rate, it would be hours before they were out on the floor, losing every penny counted to the slick ca-ching of the slot machines. The way I perceived it was the longer they stood in line, the less money they were losing. Good for them!

Foxwoods Casino and most of the casinos on the East Coast are owned by Indian Tribes. An Indian may have sold Manhattan for only $25.00. And us white folk may have done that race some dirty deeds in the past, but from the sounds of the slot machines and the number of people there releasing money from their wallets like confetti into the air, they are quickly redeeming themselves and even surpassing us, chip by chip. Good for them, too! I am happy to say that I, along with all the others on the bus, contributed to the tribal trust. I lost what little money I brought. There goes my new bathroom curtain.

One woman on the bus did win $600. She glowed telling her story, her face lit like a newly birthed universe. Maybe it’s hope that keeps them putting money in while fervently pushing buttons; hope for something more. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush that turbo charges that hope. Maybe it’s a little of both. While sitting on the bus ride home, this Emily Dickinson poem perched itself in my mind and wouldn’t be released:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me

Hope may not ask a crumb of us Ms. Dickinson, but it may, at times, require us to infiltrate a casino.

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