I'm writing today from a Starbucks on 42nd Street in the heart of Times Square. The center of everything. Where the worlds of a "kind-of sort-of" Iron Man and a "maybe if I squint a little" Hello Kitty intersect. I'm sitting by a window watching the world go by and I must say the people watching is exquisite. There are people rolling suitcases, just off the bus at Port Authority ready to start their big NYC weekend adventure. They marvel as they walk by the biggest Chevy's they have ever seen and vow to return there for dinner tonight for a $23 quesadilla and a frozen margarita the size of their mid-size sedan back home. There are women in business attire and sneakers, having changed out of their high heels to haul ass to the train in hopes of getting to the pair of sweatpants and bottle of Merlot that await them at home ASAP. It's been a long day, and the only thing that will make it better is Netflix, a feeling I know all too well. There is even a man wearing a utility vest and cowboy hat, covered in multi-colored rats. I'm not kidding. There is a blue one on his head, and purple, green, and yellow rats on his shoulders. I think his story tells itself, and it's the stuff of my nightmares so moving right along.
This city truly is a meeting place for the world's most diverse characters, but something that the vast majority of them all have in common is that they are plugged in. I timed it, and in any given 60 second period, upwards of 20 people with headphones in their ears can walk by listening to their own personal soundtrack. The soundtrack of New York City. Once upon a time it was "the rumble of the subway train, the rattle of the taxi, the daffodils who entertain at Angelo's and Maxi's." Then it became yelling... just yelling. "EY I'M WALKIN 'ERE" was tame among the standard string of profanities you might hear on a daily basis. But now, it can be whatever we want. By simply plugging into "our little machines" as my father calls them, we can drown out the city and all it's unpleasantries with our soundtrack of choice. For some this means jamming to the low key tunes of Mumford & Sons, anything to keep their pulse down while navigating this often stressful city. For others this means heavy metal rock, fighting chaos with chaos and prevailing. For me, it's The Shuffle Sermon. My taste in music varies so much that I find it impossible to ever limit myself to just one artist or one album. So I hit "Shuffle", leaving it up to my little machine, and somehow I always get what I need. It's like I always say:
"Shuffle is like a good preacher. It makes you feel like it's been following you around all week and knows exactly what you need to hear."
Let me explain.
Growing up in a church-going Presbyterian family, I have heard MANY a sermon from many a pastor in my 25 years on this earth. That's a lot of Advent Seasons, a lot of Christmas Eve's, a lot of Lenten reflections, a lot of Easter Sunday's, and probably too many Doubting Thomas anecdotes. But what I've learned from the many incarnations of these stories I have heard over the years is that, at the end of the day, The Word is The Word. Just as I like to say of Stephen Sondheim's iconic song "Agony" from his musical "Into the Woods", the source material is bullet proof. No matter how unexperienced the actor or preacher may be, the material is going to do most of the work.
But that doesn't mean all preachers are made equal. What separates the "men from the boys", so to speak, is one's interpretation of the age old text. My mother has always said that the mark of a good preacher is when you leave the church feeling like they've been following you around all week and knew exactly what you needed to hear. This is a lot less creepy than it sounds. You see, a good preacher knows their congregation inside and out and will write a sermon that speaks directly to their shared human experience, allowing everyone to take something special from it no matter where they are in their journey. A preacher like this is special and often hard to come by, but I've been lucky enough to know four.
My childhood church was Bel Air Presbyterian, sitting a top a hill looking out over the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. It is truly an incredibly place, I mean look at that rainbow! You can't buy that kind of production value. Rev. Michael Wenning was senior pastor at Bel Air for most of my youth, and his smooth, South African accent felt like a hug as he preached (he was also Ronald and Nancy Reagan's pastor - casual), but my family pastor was and still is to this day Rev. Care Crawford. She taught me how to spell "I am a Christian" in sign language when I was eight, and gave a sermon titled "The Gospel According to Nordstrom" that will go down in history as one of the most spectacular sermons on kindness there's ever been. It was about how a woman shopping around the store who was obviously down on her luck was still treated with kindness and respect by the salesperson. They knew good and well the woman wouldn't be spending any money, but in accordance to store policy were kind regardless, which sounds pretty Christ-like to me. I mean, a woman who can weave shopping into my weekly dose of The Word is truly divine.
Since moving away, I have found church homes both in New York and in Mississippi as well. Rev. Dr. Michael Brown at Marble Church on 5th Ave. gives incredibly current and insightful sermons about how The Word applies specifically to living as a Christian here in New York, and 9 times out of 10 I will be left crying either sitting there in the balcony or lying in my bed streaming the sermon on my computer (Jesus understands that we're all just doing the best we can, y'all). And Rev. John Semmes at First Presbyterian Church in Oxford MS is a pastor for the future. He is progressive, thoughtful, and throws out antiquated dogmas choosing instead to preach kindness, respect, and love above all things. It takes a special man indeed to make the dreaded Stewardship Sermon that comes around every fall speak to the heart. He referenced a passage from Luke:
"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Luke 12:34
The truth shall set you free, friends. And my truth is evidenced by my monthly bank statement, where I see that the majority of my treasure goes to Chipotle, which is most certainly where my heart is. John was very glad his sermon could help justify my burrito bowl habit... his sense of humor being another thing that makes him such a good preacher.
But what about the rest of the week? We need inspiration Monday-Saturday too don't we? Yes we do, friends. Enter The Shuffle Sermon. If you're like me, then music makes you feel. Joy, pain, nostalgia, confidence, peace, strength, melancholy... depending on the song I can feel a range of any or all of these things. I can feel silly listening to Vampire Weekend or sexy listening to Michael Buble. I can feel powerful listening to Florence and The Machine or vulnerable listening to Damien Rice. All of these feelings are what make up the human experience, and I think music is a great aid in accessing them because, if we're honest, we don't always welcome these feelings. Somedays I just want to strut down Madison Ave. to Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel", but The Shuffle Sermon has other plans and gives me "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell instead, leaving me feeling ALL the feels I'd been ignoring that week. Then there are days when I'm feeling unnecessarily sorry for myself and want to sulk to the dulcet tones of Bon Iver all day long, but The Shuffle Sermon says "buck up buttercup" and throws me "You Make My Dreams" by Hall & Oats instead - a song you can't help but smile upon hearing - or "Whistle for the Choir" by The Fratellis - that one song a boy once said was mine forever and makes me feel beautiful and appreciated right from the first chord.
I'm not sure how Shuffle does it, but it seems to constantly know me better than I know myself. How is that? I suppose it's possible that Big Brother actually did start watching us back in 1984 just as George Orwell predicted, and that my phone knows based upon my sent emails, text messages, and internet activity what I've been thinking and feeling on any given day and plays music accordingly. I honestly would not be surprised. The Cloud knows all, y'all. So I could believe that Apple is just one step closer to ruling the world, but I choose instead to believe that just as The Lord speaks to me through my pastors, giving me exactly what comfort, encouragement, or kick in the ass I might need on any given Sunday morning, The Lord speaks to me through The Shuffle Sermon too. He guides me through my day, knowing just what I need every step of the way. As the Good Book says:
"The steps of a man are established by the LORD, And He delights in his way."
- Psalm 37:23 (NIV)
"In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps."
- Proverbs 16:9 (NIV)
For those of you who might not believe as I do I give you these alternatives: Fate, Serendipity, Providence, Karma. These words and God as an idea are similar in the most important of ways - you can't see them, but you can feel them working in your daily life. A chance meeting with an old friend. Finding that the Soup du Jour at your favorite restaurant is just what you hoped it would be (*cough* GAZPACHO *cough*). Or maybe something as simple as a song playing on your iPhone that makes getting through your day just a little easier. Coincidence? Maybe. Big Brother? Perhaps. But isn't it more fulfilling to believe that what most write off as happenstance actually means something more? I think so.
"Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."
Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
I choose faith. And I think it's important to note that The Hebrews were doing it LONG BEFORE those folks with "The Secret", y'all. The original is so much better, isn't it?
Have a great weekend, everyone. And have FAITH! We're all exactly where we're supposed to be, and have the soundtrack to prove it.
With Grace and Good Humor,