Value to be Gained

I was reading a story that has been in the making for a while. The topic was the bankruptcy of Sears, an originally Chicago company that has a more than century-long history. I’ve read a number of stories and articles about Sears over the years. Something about its demise illuminates the ways in which iconic institutions transform themselves and, even still, diminish and die. There’s something in that ending arc that’s worth respecting.

In my reading of stories, and this recent one in particular, I have remembered KMart commercials. I’ve recalled flipping through thick catalogues as a boy, searching the pages for stuff my mother wouldn’t and couldn’t buy. I thought about the time seven years ago I went into the Sears on 79th Street, near Stony Island, just because it was still open and how I shopped for vacuum bags and then went into a sister’s store where she sold fragrant oils and African cloth.

I have slowly reviewed the ways Sears could be the huge business it was, sell so many things, and, as slowly, crack into forgetfulness. I’ve watched Sears linger. I’ve grieved, in a way, at the death of a business so meaningful. And even without knowing why I’ve felt so endeared toward the store.

I’ve thought about all the years and all the people who have worked there, made careers there, been given first jobs there and about how very little is written about those folks. I’ve thought about the highlights from the cratering of Sears centering on the named executives. I’ve been disappointed that after one hundred plus years, the stories last told are about the high-level figures who made the most money and seldom, if ever, about the people who sold washing machines and light bulbs and winter clothing.

Even with my slow thinking about this store’s end, I don’t have many memories of the place. We shopped at Everblack–also called Evergreen Plaza–where Montgomery Ward held premium real estate. My big brother took me into Oaktree for a black suit, a peach shirt, and tie with images of something like grapes. Mama took me and Mark to McDonalds sometimes in the pavilion where they’d later play live music on the weekends. I bought a girl I liked a gold bracelet at Chain Reaction one Christmas, and the Original Cookie Company knew me for several of those splendid pizza-sized chocolate chip cookies. But I didn’t really sit with the decline of the Plaza. I drove by as they demolished it, but I don’t remember thinking through that change. Perhaps it was in the driving by, in the re-viewing, in the re-visiting that I grieved in a stretched out way for Everblack.

Now though, I’m sitting with the death of Sears and what it means. I don’t live near a Sears. It takes too much effort to pass by the 79th Street location just to witness that old building sitting like a shell  and to see this storied company’s death. Death is not a legal term. The company couldn’t compete, couldn’t maintain or re-engineer itself for the times, despite new leadership, changed strategies, effective-for-a-time consultations and re-organizations. Sears had to die.

I’m sad about it. Sad in a way that I can’t quite articulate. Sad, perhaps, because it’s one of those institutions that predated me that is now dying prior to me. And I hope to live a long time! Sad, perhaps, because it is something that was born before me that will not outlive me. Sad, perhaps, because I shop at the places that have contributed to the death of this store and company. Then, again, as the story said, Sears could return:

It may be that we haven’t seen the last of Sears. But insomuch as we may be losing a storied brand that holds some cultural value, there is value to be gained back in the form of insight.

Endings gift us with insight. Losing grants us space to mourn. Sometimes we notice and use that space. Sometimes we pass by it as we scroll down the day’s newsfeed, acting as if that title didn’t connect with an unwanted loss. So I keep considering where my grief begins.

I know the name and role of Julius Rosenwald is a part of my adult reflections on Sears. Rosenwald’s support of historically Black schools and centers of learning have developed in me profound respect. I used to walk around the corner to see his old home, to “pay my respects,” and to keep the appreciation for what he did alive in me. It may be there that my grief begins. Not that Rosenwald was single-handedly responsible for the success of Sears as we knew it. That may be attributed to him, but there is no such thing as single hands in business or anything else, is there?

My grief is related to Rosenwald but I’m sure that’s not the length of it. And I also don’t yet know the “value to be gained.” I’m not sure of this loss’s insight. I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to see. I do know that I have lost before. I know that all losses have eventually brought me something, even something small, and, in that offering, has been generous to me.

This loss–and all my losses–can be trusted for that. They are brutal, losses, and some of them intend to wipe away the easy comfort a person has with the world. Losing a job or closing a company or ending anything may mean changing the trust you have in your footing. You lose trust, but you still can trust that something else is coming. It may be insight. It may be grace. It may be a lesson. It may be a quality. Loss will take something from you, no doubt, but taking is never all that loss does.

In the meantime, you wait and when you can, you wait with hope. I’m right there waiting too.

An Upward Cycle

I was reading Seth Godin’s post the other week and he was, as usual, encouraging me to look through a longer lens. He said that there is “an upward cycle, a slow one, a journey worth going on.” And in that comment, he captured so many things.

An image that came to mind was of bicycling. I used to do it. Haven’t for years because being a parent of small children meant, among other things, having some facility to arrive to the neighborhood more quickly than a 1.5 hour cycle commute allowed.

Chicago is flat but there is a hill or two on Lake Shore Drive’s bike path. I thought about that hill every time I headed to the path. I anticipated it, dreaded it. I looked forward to moving down that hill because it brought wind and speed. I hated the, for me, slow climb of going upward.

Consider the areas of your life. Where have you succeeded? And as importantly, where have you failed? Think about what you’re up to currently. Which journeys proved to be the ones worth going on? They were probably the slow ones, the ones that built your strength even when they didn’t seem to build your patience.

I think that the moments in life that build strength inevitably build patience. And it is cyclic. It’s upward and cyclic. Keep going upward, even if you’re moving slowly.

Read Seth’s post here.

Given the History of Misunderstandings

Friday I read an article about the President-elect’s conversations with world leaders and how they were, consistent with his earlier manner, clear departures from the way diplomatic leaders and ambassadors think he should participate in such conversations.

Mark Landler’s NYT article quoted a former Pakistani ambassador who said that in his country history and details matter most. He said that his country and our country has between them many misread signals. I thought: given the “history of misunderstandings” some conversations need more than a leader’s reactivity.

I don’t know that the President-elect’s conversation was reactive. But I do know that some conversations require patience and consideration. In other words, a considered approach is a more thorough one given the history between your conversation partners. Wisdom seems to be in knowing which conversations require us to dispense with history and tradition and which require pronounced appreciation for them.

In which relationships do I need to pay attention to what’s happened before? I think most relationships call for that. I can’t think of any situation where knowing and respecting what happened before you arrived at the next seminal isn’t important. Then, you choose according to your wisdom.

My Blog: Open for Surprises

The day may not go as you planned, and that can be a great gift. Surprises abound when you loosen your hand around your schedule, your time, your to-do list, your hopes. You don’t know what you’ll get, and you can approach that unknowing with anticipation rather than fear, curiosity not apprehension.

Someone once asked me what happened to my pastoral care when I couldn’t control things. It was a rich question. It helped me think about the essential way any pastoral practice is unknown, how it’s an act of faith to serve people as a minister.

The question also helped me remember to pray for surprises in my work. To ask God to open me to surprises. To make me sensitive, like some of my best teachers of ministry have, to the interruptions.

The surprises are the ways I keep wondering into a world of faith and excitement. How poor I’d be if everything went the way I thought–or even hoped–it would. I hope you can embrace the surprises today.

My Blog: While Sleep-Deprived

I was groggy, unrested, and driving the other day. It had been a wearying night that ended an even longer few days.

I attempted to change lanes on my way to work and upon hearing a car honking, I swerved to my original lane. No one was hurt. No accident happened. It was my reaction time that was suspect.

The horn was from another car in an entirely different lane. But I reacted, thinking I veered. Of course, then, I did veer. Afterward, I kept thinking that there are things to refrain from when you’re sleep deprived. There are things to do more slowly when you’re sleep deprived.

When I’m unrested, I’m subject to reacting. When I’m tired, I’m subject to the short terseness that doesn’t help. If I want to help, if I want to be kind, I need to rest so that I’m not flinching and jerking at horns even when they come from people in my face.

Slow But Productive Work

Have you ever thought about how long it takes to accomplish what you spend your days doing?  I met with a media PR person and an architect the other day.  He’s in a supervisory role at work and he is new to parenting.  His wife, new to parenting as well, works to promote the events of a film center in Chicago.   Both of them spend a lot of time with their son and in their jobs.

And it occurs to me that people like my meeting friends–including me–have work we’re doing that takes a while to complete.  Does that make sense?  Whether planning for an event, reviewing building plans, or mentoring a staff person, these things take more than one moment.  They take a series of moments, meetings, and interactions.  It’s slow work.

Writing, teaching, ministry, cleaning, fathering–these are all slow jobs.  And slow work takes time to complete and time to appreciate.

I read this in an email newsletter from Preaching Today, and it feels right for preachers and appropriate for people doing other slow work too:

Last week I talked to a pastor who nearly quit during his fifth year at Church ABC. He wanted to quit, the church wanted him to quit, but for some reason he hung in there. Now he’s in his 18th year at the same church and his preaching ministry has finally hit a sweet spot.

My point is not that you should always stick it out. My point is that deep, effective, Spirit-anointed preaching is slow work. It takes time to build trust. It takes time to hone your craft. It takes time to study a biblical text. It takes time to know your people and your cultural context. So, preacher, I urge you to accept this slow work of God. Don’t be in a hurry to change the world with one amazing sermon or one flashy sermon series. Learn the art of slow preaching, long-haul preaching, week after week preaching. It will bear more fruit than you could ever imagine.

I hope you get a glimpse that your work, whatever it is, is fruitful.  Not pointless but productive.  And I hope you do it as well as you can.

Thurman on Stages to Maturity

The immediate reaction of the child is clear and precise: varying forms of protest from the sustained whisper to the roaring scream (these two words are used together quite advisedly).  Sometimes it is a battle of nerves between the baby and the mother.

At this point the baby is having his initial encounter with spiritual discipline.  A pattern of life has been interrupted.  In the presence of an expanding time interval between wish and fulfillment the child is forced to make adjustment, to make room in the tight circle of his life for something new, different, and therefore threatening.  The baby begins to learn how to wait, how to postpone fulfillment.  He thus finds his way into community within the family circle.

…If the response of the parents or others continues to be available on demand, the conscious or unconscious intent being to keep the time interval at zero between wish and fulfillment, the baby begins to get a false conditioning about the world and his place in it.  For if he grows up expecting and regarding as his due that to wish is to have his wish fulfilled, then he is apt to become a permanent cripple.  There are many adults who for various reasons have escaped this essential discipline of their spirit.  True, in terms of physical and intellectual development they have continued to grow.  Their bodies and minds have moved through all the intervening stages to maturity, but they have remained essentially babies in what they expect of life.  They have a distorted conception of their own lives in particular and of life in general.

Rushing Through Parenting And Everything Else

We were eating breakfast yesterday when I noticed something Dawn told me a couple weeks ago.  I said to her back then that I was trying to get the boy’s breakfast done.  She asked if I was going somewhere.  I wasn’t.

That small exchange reminded me of something that came back yesterday morning.  The boy teaches me, in small and big ways, to slow down, to resist rushing.

We were eating again.  There’s something about eating that speeds me up or, in this case, slows me down.  The morning routine is routine.  We get up.  I complain and grumble and mutter for an hour or so until I can find my words.  At the same time, the boy runs around.  He sings.  He runs one of his trucks down the small hallway.  He pushes that mower thing and I say stop.  Then we get dressed.  Sometimes that means the boy showers with me.  Most times he’s already been bathed the night before and simply needs to change clothes.  He’ll run to me when my shower stops.  We’ll finish our father and son routine.  After we’re dressed, he’ll ask for breakfast.  I’ll get things together, explaining how much quicker things would go if he were able to help.  He looks at me in that confusing-but-knowing way.

Breakfast is on the table.  I start with helping him pick up his spoon.  We transition to him eating himself.  I’m eating my food; he’s eating his.  His spoons are filled with smaller heaps of oatmeal.  I’m almost done with mine.  At one point I thought about my wife’s comment.  Where are you going?  What do you have to do?

I read Parker Palmer last summer.  I think it was The Active Life.  It may have been Hidden Wholeness.  I read both of them in preparation for a class, and I bleed the memory together of both books.  But there was a part where he was describing contemplation.  If memory’s right, contemplation has to do with being present.  With living in the present.  Often you get at contemplation by solitude or by practicing something like silence—which no parent can conceivably do.  He said that contemplation could be anything, that it could be any activity, not just sitting.  It wasn’t a particular type of activity or inactivity.  Living contemplatively looked differently and it looked like a lot of things potentially.

I’ve thought about being a contemplative parent.  I’ve thought about living with an awareness of myself and my son and my family.  I don’t want to rush through life or through the stages of life with the boy.  And then there’s breakfast.

Breakfast pulls me into the routine and the schedule.  It pushes me to the familiar, and the familiar isn’t contemplation.  I can learn contemplation and practice it, but it’s work.  It’s hard to not rush through breakfast.  It’s hard to not rush through everything else.  It’s tempting to move through it all without being aware or being present.  But yesterday when I thought about Dawn’s question, I slowed down.  I gave the boy back his spoon.  I took a deep breath and watched him eat.  I watched him turn his head and talk about nothing I could understand.  I let the boy rule that part of the meal.  And it was slow.  And it was everything I needed, even if I didn’t want it.