There are times when I don’t know why I come here to try to write, to Starbucks that is. It’s noisy out here in in this slightly grimy outdoor seating area on Mission and Garnet. I feel a little like St. Francis, with a dozen or so starlings perched on the chairs next to me, looking for some crumbs. I don’t have any, just a strong coffee, a laptop, and the hope that a coherent thought will come to me soon.
So, why do I come here – this place of 70 something men in lycra shorts and expensive bikes, this place of homeless twenty-somethings who eye me with some suspicion, this place of men making deals on their cell phones, women making their way yoga mats in hand? Why here to look for a good word to share? I come here because here is a crossroads. Here I can see the world pass by. People here are busy and they are bored; they have no time to spare and they have a whole day to kill; they are filled with purpose and they have lost all memory of what a purpose-filled life could feel like.
Isn’t the gospel, good news for the world, something that a person should be able to smell, to touch, to taste, to feel, as well as to hear? Isn’t it something that the whole of a person should be able to experience all over their being? I imagine that that is how John the Baptizer might have felt all over his being, camel hair scratching his skin, wild creatures his food, wild thoughts his companions: ‘make straight the way of the Lord’. Did he say that just once, or did he say it again and again, turning it over and over in his mouth, so that when the time came and he saw his Savior face to face, he could know that he was ready?
There is a man who lives on the street near here known as ‘Chuckles’. He has been given the name by other fellow street dwellers mostly because roaming the allies as he does day in day out, he can be seen talking to himself, over and over, and then every so often chuckling over something he has said. Roald Dahl’s character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka, says that talking to oneself is the only sure guarantee of intelligent conversation. I don’t know what Chuckles would say about that, and who could ever know what John the Baptist would think of such a thing, but my guess is that the wilderness is a pretty lonely place. Like vacant alleyways where the only people who you see do not want to see you back, the wilderness is not a path to make straight if you are faint of heart. If seeing is believing, then it is fair to say that the wilderness dwellers of this world have a long time waiting to believe.
What is it like, do you suppose, to walk the wildernesses of Syria today? For Syrian Christians, what thought must there be of Isaiah’s prophetic hope that the oppressed will be freed, and the captives released? What is it like, do you suppose, to walk such a wilderness way as a black person in Ferguson, Missouri, or as a gay person in Uganda, or as a political dissident in Mexico or China or for the millions on countless other wilderness ways? If our good news, our hope in the wilderness, is not real there, if that news is not good there, then can we be sure it is good at all, unless of course our good news is only good for the fortunate, for the affluent, for the few not the many?
I look up from my keyboard. A dog of the homeless twenty-something couple is chewing a bone. A bird perches on the table next to my coffee cup. She turns her head one way and then the other. And then the man who often comes into the church office to use the phone, and who is always wearing a Chargers jersey, wanders slowly by, almost mournfully. We exchange a look and a nod, and I am reminded that John the Baptist was not Elijah – not the one whom the Levites and priests hoped would come to settle their disputes and sort out the clean from the unclean, and put this world in order before the messiah might come – he was a wild wilderness man who testified to another kind of light. And the light, the one John proclaimed the coming of was not a king as such, but the child of an impoverished young couple who also pounded the pavements in search of a place to stay. And so, I recall, once again, why I am here, at Starbucks: because hope can be found in the wilderness, we just have to be patient enough to notice its form.
To sit in the not so pleasant outdoor seating at the Starbucks at a busy Pacific Beach crossroads, wearing a priest’s collar just a few blocks from our church is not only a reminder that the world around us provides a good word to be shared; it is also to remind that world as it passes by, whether by informing the hungry that we have a breakfast and a dinner here every week or simply by sitting here typing, that the Church has a good word to say in return.
There is hope in the wilderness, just as there is hope in the green valleys of our abundance. And such a hope is like a year of the Lord’s favor, a jubilee, where like a second exodus, the bonds of oppression are broken, and the devastation of many generations, as Isaiah puts it, will be repaired. Yet this hope does not change with the same speed that we have become accustomed to through our daily and weekly processions in and out of department stores who no sooner have urged us to decorate our hearth and home like turkeys, then urge us to make the way straight for Santa and Spongebob, and then before we can blink, it is the turn of St Valentine, and then St Patrick, and then the red, white and blue of Presidents and Memorial Days and Fourth of July parades and before we know it the beaches are crowded, the churches are empty and Chuckles still wanders the alley looking for hope in the wilderness. Yet hope is here. Our light, Jesus, is coming; he has come. It is just that real hope – that which we might really set our life upon – is a gentle spirit. He came to his own, yet his own did not recognize him.
I wonder, where is your Starbucks?