>A Lesson at Starbucks

>After having coffee with a friend on the patio at Starbucks this morning, I went inside to work on some revisions I’m making on the prologue and first chapter of my book. But I was distracted by the conversation I had just had with my friend. And by the words of my Father Confessor after my confession on Saturday night. And by one of the employees of the coffee shop.

My friend and I had been discussing what it means to struggle. To deny yourself and live a disciplined life, especially during Great Lent. My struggle is pretty basic: I have become a Lenten passivist, in some areas. So, rather than struggle (and therefore, in my pessimistic view, fail) daily against certain passions, I’ve just chosen not to engage. Like an anti-war protester. But at the center of this non-struggle is something baser than fear of failure… it’s just plain old-fashioned self-centeredness. I don’t want to suffer. Not even the pain of dealing with things in life that are hard, physically or emotionally, without a buffer…. be it alcohol, or food, or other comforts.

At my confession, my priest encouraged me to read this scripture verse and ask God to show me what it means for me, especially in regards to this struggle. Or non-struggle. Here’s the verse:

“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8:35, also in Matthew 16)

I had just read that, on the Sunday of the Cross, so I continued reading the next verses:

“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (verses. 35-37)

So, I asked God to show me what this means for me, right now, today. Yes, I prayed that prayer sitting in Starbucks. And then I saw him. This older man, a Starbucks employee, who was cleaning the tables and chairs in the coffee shop. Now, all the employees working behind the bar were young, all under 30, I would guess. And this man looked to be around 70. But he was on his knees, with a bucket of soapy water, carefully cleaning every leg of every chair, every seat we customers sat in, every table top we spilled our drinks on. It was so humbling, and so beautiful, that I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and I gave in to the temptation to capture him on my cell phone.

Why was he doing that? What had the last seventy years of his life been like, that brought him to this place of cleaning tables and chairs on his hands and knees in a coffee shop? I couldn’t write, so I got up to leave, and as I passed by him, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Thank you so much for doing this.”

He smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”

“It really makes this a nice place for us to come to.”

He just nodded and went back to work.

When I got home I got out the Orthodox Study Bible (the old one, actually) to read the comments about these verses. They spoke to my heart:

To save one’s life means to base one’s earthly life on self. This is the opposite of self-denial, and ultimately results in the loss of eternal life. To lose one’s life is to accept suffering and sacrifice for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom, which ultimately brings salvation. Discipleship is costly: it requires giving up all claim to everything the world holds dear.

I wonder if the man at Starbucks had given up that claim willingly, or if it had been taken from him.

Soul (in Greek, psyche) can refer to our spiritual nature or the whole human being. Nothing is more valuable to us than our souls.

As I pondered on my soul, a phrase suddenly came to me, and I Googled it:

How Much Does a Soul Weigh?

And I found that a woman, Dorie McCubbrey, had written a book with a similar title: How Much Does Your Soul Weigh? It was about her life-long struggle with body-image, weight gain and loss, and eating disorders. A brave book. You can read excerpts from it here.

And then I picked up the little book my friend Madeleine gave me for my birthday with quotes by various women, and came across this one, by author and motivational speaker, Linda Henley:

So many of us define ourselves by what we have, what we wear, what kind of house we live in and what kind of car we drive…. If you think of yourself as the woman in the Cartier watch and the Hermes scarf, a house fire will destroy not only your possessions but your self.

I’m as attached to material stuff as anyone I know. I love certain clothes, houses, cars, jewelry, etc. So I get this about losing my self to these things. But I’m more attached to food and drink…. “And what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Well, I have traded my soul for a cup of coffee on Sunday morning more than once, preventing me from receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus in Holy Communion. (In the Orthodox Church we fast before communion, from all food and drink.) And most afternoons, I want that glass of wine more than life itself, so I guess in those cases I trade my soul for temporary pleasure, or comfort, or just numbness.

But I’m going to try to keep the image of that dear man on his knees at Starbucks before me as approach the remaining days of the Fast. And the words of Jesus from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. And my fellow strugglers, Dorie McCubbrey and Linda Henley. When I read their books, it gives me courage to write my own, and hope that my words might someday help someone else who struggles.

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