Monday, March 26, 2018

God in the Checkout Line

ESR MDiv student Keelin Anderson prepared the following essay for the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference  coming up June 6-10, 2018, in Canby Grove, Oregon: 

            I am currently staying for a few months in a small town called Richmond in rural Indiana. Unlike my neighborhood in Portland, OR, there is no Whole Foods here, no organic kale, no unbleached toilet paper, no vegan deli, and few who could afford these things if they were available. The local grocery store does a find job, but they do not have the staff to rush to open a new cash register when the line gets longer than two customers.

            I was recently approaching the check-out area at a time when there was one register available with a line of six to eight folks waiting. Just as I arrived, a store employee opened the express lane where I was standing. I looked over to the long line to see who was next and waved that gentleman through in front of me. He signed thank you (one of the few signs I know) and went ahead with his cart. I wondered if he was hearing impaired. He was stooped over, weathered. The next man in line came over but waved me in ahead of him, indicating that I only had one item.
            The cashier checked and bagged the first man’s items. She asked him if he had their loyalty card. He was slowly getting out his payment card, concentrating on the debit machine. He did not react to her. I mentioned that he may be hearing impaired. She asked a few more times more loudly, then stopped. He took a long time to manage the payment machine. He brought his face close to read the screen. I glanced at the people in line behind me. Their faces looked resigned.
            I felt grateful that I was not in a hurry. I felt an opening and outpouring from my heart for this man as a fellow human being. This was not so much a mental activity as a complete body feeling. I felt tenderness for how all of us are shuffling along here, getting in each other’s way, living our lives the best we can with our physical limitations, life conditions, injustices. I felt grateful that I was personally in a mental, physical, and emotional moment where joy and patience were available to me. I felt grateful to God for this moment of awareness and opening.
            The man finally finished his payment and moved his bags to his cart. I felt the release of tension in the folks around me. He went to move on then paused, reaching for his pocket. He pulled out an empty pack of cigarettes. He pointed to it, looking at the cashier. Her expression was helpful, attentive. I felt she was doing well to try to attend him though she had other customers waiting. They both proceeded together to the wall where the cigarettes were apparently stored in a locked case. When they came back to their respective places, the cashier held up three types of the same brand, asking with her movements which type he wanted. He pointed and impatiently gestured with two fingers for two. The cashier went back to the wall to the locked case. Gently amused, I wondered if we were going to do the long debit machine thing again.
            At that moment the man turned to me with a look of irritation, rolling his eyes clearly as if to say that the service here was terrible, as if the delay and the communication problems were all the clerk’s fault. I felt my defenses momentarily shift into place and my heart start to close against this man where a moment before I had felt open and joyful. I got a glimpse of his personality and I did not like him. I wanted to side with the clerk. This man did not deserve my love and generosity of heart. He was further delaying us all for his nicotine habit.
            Right then I had another opening. God asked me what it would be like to be this man in the world. How would I feel to speak a different language than what most others around me speak: to have to take extra time to communicate with everyone; to negotiate public places not set up in my language; to feel other’s embarrassment and irritation; to feel the shame of being different than what our society constructs as normal; to be judged for being poor, a smoker, disabled, slow. Would I not have defenses?
            And were not my own small fears of being hurt by this man’s attitude triggering my own defenses in this moment? I was judging him to protect myself. I felt a wave of forgiveness for both of us together, myself for judging him, and him for his attitude. Again I felt the opening of Christ’s tenderness for us ordinary human beings. My heart opened again in empathy and joy with this man as I (with some small relief) saw him take out cash for his cigarettes. We both had defenses in action to cover our fear of being hurt. We were both actively working to escape the shame of having our tender real selves exposed to the public. We were both being human and we were both held in the awe-full compassion of Jesus Christ.
            George Fox asks us in a 1656 letter from prison to “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”
            This story illustrates what this quote means to me at this time. It is my commitment as a Quaker to do all I can in my own awareness to be available to the openings of God. This means I am available to Christ making me a pattern and example of God’s Grace in the world such that my “carriage,” how I carry myself, reflects Christ’s compassion and forgiveness. This means that I realize as much as possible that I am a fallible human being like everyone else. And, that I forgive myself with God’s Grace for my moments of cowardice and failing as I forgive others for theirs. In radical compassion and forgiveness for self and others, with my eyes on God, I am able to “walk cheerfully” because when all my little resentments and discomforts, not to mention my big pain and sorrows, are held in love, what is left is a joy in which to hold others.

Keelin Anderson joined ESR as an MDiv Access student in the spring of 2016. She is spending the spring 2018 semester on campus as a residential student. Keelin lives in Portland, OR, where she attends Multnomah Monthly Meeting (North Pacific Yearly Meeting). She holds a BA from Reed College and a BS from Oregon Health Sciences University. 

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