Cokesbury, Redux

UPDATE: Note in the comments there is a link to a Change.org petition, protesting the store closures. Thanks, Lauren!

Usually, I wait a day or two after big news hits to sort out my thoughts before posting on this blog.  This practice helps me to speak with more charity and thoughtfulness.  But yesterday, the news about Cokesbury closing all of its “bricks and mortar” stores – including the seminary stores – hit me so hard that I could not wait.  The result was a post entitled Protesting the Cokesbury Closures.  I imagine I was not the only one who was upset by the news: I haven’t seen this much traffic on a single post in 24 hours since I wrote The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children.

All the same, there are a couple of things that I would have changed about that post.

I wish that I had not slipped in the paranoid insinuation that the news had been withheld until the last possible minute.  There is no evidence whatsoever for that.  I do not know the decision makers involved, and have no basis from which to cast aspersions of that kind on their characters.  Furthermore, if I did have any reason to believe that, I still ought not to type it.  It lacks charitable imagination.

I wish that I had not encouraged Mr. Alexander and the board to pray over the decision, insofar as writing that implied that they had not already done so.  My experience with every person working for a general board or agency of the UMC, from the highest level down to – yes, I’m going there – the clerks at the Cokesbury retail outlets has been that they are people of great faith who act on their convictions that they are in ministry.  Have I encountered individuals with foibles, with different theologies than mine, with outright self-serving behavior? Of course.  ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  But anyone who is working for the church is not likely to need some blogger they don’t know reminding them that they are in ministry.

That said, there are some things that I wish that I had added to that piece.

For instance: when going to a Cokesbury store with my father, we always ran into friends of his.  It would become a reunion of sorts.  He would introduce me, and they would catch up on the past years of ministry, and compare notes.  As I grew older and would go to Cokesbury on my own, I often either made connections with new people or reconnected with old friends. You don’t meet people in an online bookstore, generally.

For instance: I learned about my new favorite prayer method from a book that I picked up when browsing at a Cokesbury store: Praying in Color.  I was in the store looking for something else, but because I had 15 minutes, and because I love book browsing, I worked my way through the aisles.  I don’t think I would have found that book online – because you generally find only what you are looking for and “related items” when searching online.  This is my argument against internet dictionaries as well, incidentally.  They are helpful on a smart phone when reading a book in a cafe and you really need to know the meaning of that book RIGHT NOW, but overall, they are inferior.  I have learned so many new words – and explored new ideas – when browsing through a (made out of paper) dictionary, on my way to finding the word I was originally looking for.

For instance: when I first became a preacher on a two point charge (no office staff, naturally), and a parishioner died in my first couple of weeks on the job, and I discovered that there were no funeral bulletins in the paper cabinet, I was able to drive 50 miles to the Cokesbury store to pick some up.  (I know 50 miles sounds like a lot, but when you live in the country, you are routinely driving that far to visit parishioners in the hospital, or to find a movie theater for that matter.)  Funerals are not exactly planned a week in advance.  Order them?  They wouldn’t have gotten there in time without rush shipping – and I would have been a nervous wreck wondering if they would make it.

I remember, too, buying my first Book of Common Prayer in the seminary Cokesbury bookstore.  It was the end of semester / holiday sale, and there were about 40 of us crammed into a truly tiny space with our arms filled with books by our professors, and commentaries we especially wanted, and books we were speculating might be on the reading lists for the next semester.  I noticed that a number of my United Methodist friends had Books of Common Prayer, and I asked one of them why.  She told me that she was picking hers up for an order of personal daily prayer – and she showed me the daily lectionary.  I didn’t even have to hop out of line – I just reached out to the shelf as I passed it and picked one up.  I was praying with it the next morning.

And then there is an anecdote not about Cokesbury, but about bookstores in general.  I worked as a clerk, and later as a special orders coordinator for a Barnes and Noble in the late 1990s.  Amazon was starting to demonstrate that it was going to become a major player.  All too often, people would come into our store, flip through the books, decide on which one they definitely wanted, and then go back to their home or dorm room to order it on Amazon.  Because Amazon was cheaper.  Here’s the thing, though — they still wanted to get to see the book.  Keeping the lights on and knowledgable employees on staff – and those books on the shelves – cost money.  I remember one of my supervisors shaking his head saying, “One of these days, they are going to come looking for us so that they can see the book, and we won’t be here.  And they will be angry, because seeing the book first matters, and now they won’t be able to.  But it will be their own fault.”

Sure, I shop online sometimes.  I did it more often when my daughter was younger, and her napping schedule made it more difficult for me to run errands.  Now that she is in kindergarten, I save internet shopping for items that I can’t find in a store.  Because I actually care about whether or not I get to see the item.

For that matter, I still rent videos in a video store from a real person, because once my husband went there and said, “My wife is in the hospital, and I want to take her a movie for us to watch together.  So I’d like for it to be uplifting in ways.  But not in a big Hollywood romance kind of way.  We recently watched ____ and ____ and liked them.  Something like that, if you have it.  But not like ____, which we didn’t like very much.”  And Jason directed my husband to The Visitor.  You don’t get that kind of service from a Red Box.  Or Netflix.  Or Hulu.

Maybe that is enough of a reason for news of the Cokesbury closures to strike me as – I believe I said “appalling” in the last post.  But it has not escaped my attention that it is November, between the dual Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2), and three interlinked days of mourning for me:  Veteran’s day, and my father’s birth and death days  (November 11, 12, and 15.)  Rather inauspicious timing for the announcement that this valued and valuable resource is disappearing.  Cokesbury has been at once a connection to the communion of saints for me, and a connection with my father.  I know that the loss of an icon does not entail the loss of the thing itself.  But it brings fresh grief at an unwelcome time.

So, “like a dog with an old rag,” as I can still hear my father saying, I am still not giving up.  And I am giving you all yet another option for contacting the United Methodist Publishing House about this decision:

Email CokesburyNext@cokesbury.com

Protesting the Cokesbury closures

UPDATE:

There is a petition on Change.org urging Cokesbury not to close all of their stores.

Also, I have written a second post, Cokesbury Redux, on this same issue, offering a more even-handed response to the news, while adding more details about my personal experiences at the Cokesbury stores.

ORIGINAL STORY, as published 5 November:

Today, the United Methodist Publishing House released news to the United Methodist Reporter that it will be closing all of the brick and mortar Cokesbury stores.  By April.  Mr. Neil Alexander and the board sure took their time about telling everyone.  I have to wonder if it is because they knew what an outcry there would be, and they wanted to be able to say that it was too late to change their minds.

I certainly hope that it is not too late.

Right now, my Facebook is lit up with people who are sad about this decision.  Sad is for facing the inevitable. I will not accept that it is too late to save Cokesbury.  This situation calls for outrage.

This is a poor decision.  If anything has proven to be a failure over the past several years, it is the Cokesbury website, which has been bug-ridden and difficult to navigate.  I cannot think of another more consistently bad online shopping experience.  And yet Mr. Alexander claims that he is simply giving the people what they want: online only shopping.  One can only hope that their promise to improve the website will be one they can keep.

In the meantime, hundreds of people are soon to be out of living wage retail jobs.

Not only are they getting rid of the regular Cokesbury stores, but their seminary stores as well.  These stores are not just a guaranteed money maker (selling the books for all of the classes, not to mention many other interesting selections), but a hub of seminary life.  Seminarians and clergy are notorious bookhounds — clergy’s moving expenses are disproportionately attributable to the stacks of boxes that they haul from one parish to another.  Many of these books were bought at their seminary bookstore – often a Cokesbury.

But the biggest blow is a theological one.  Mr. Alexander et al have apparently lost sight of the reality that Cokesbury is not a business, but a ministry.  One of the most essential aspects of that ministry: witnessing to a different way of being Christian than is being sold by Lifeway, Family Christian Bookstores, and the rest of the evangelical booksellers.  By abandoning the brick and mortar bookstore business, Cokesbury is guaranteeing that many books will never see a retail bookshelf, will never be picked up by an idle browser.  Secular stores carry few religious titles, and as for the conservative evangelical stores, one only has to witness the recent kerfuffle over Rachel Held Evans’ recent book (Lifeway refused to carry it) to see how narrow their selection can be.  And just try to find a New Revised Standard Version Bible in there!

As someone who is just starting out as a Christian writer, I had envisioned seeing my books on the shelves of Cokesbury stores.  I had envisioned people picking up my book, thinking that my name sounded familiar to them, and leafing through it — maybe putting it back on the shelf after eyeing their already full basket, or maybe carrying it up to the counter with them — reading it between classes, or at a coffee shop on their day off.

I’m not ready to let go of that dream.  I am not ready to let go of the store that sells books by Matthew Fox and John Shelby Spong alongside books by Tony Campolo and N.T. Wright.  I am not ready to let go of the the store that hands checks to annual conferences every year – checks that fund ministries to retired pastors and that supplements the pay of pastors in developing countries.

Mr. Neil Alexander – was this really the best decision you and the board could make?  Pray hard and think again.

Here’s what you can do:

Go to the United Methodist Reporter article and leave a comment

Call the United Methodist Publishing House:  615-749-6000

Snail mail! Mr. Neil Alexander, The United Methodist Publishing House, P.O. Box 801, Nashville, TN, 37202

Born and raised in the Briar Patch

I am beginning to understand that worship planning is my briar patch.

I wonder how many of you remember the stories of Br’er Rabbit – a trickster figure in the stories of African Americans in the southern United States, Br’er Rabbit stories are rooted in the storytelling traditions both of the Creek (Native American) and African peoples.  In one of the most famous stories, Br’er Rabbit is captured by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, who are tired of his trickster ways.  Br’er Rabbit begs them, “Whatever you do, PLEASE don’t throw me in the briar patch.”  Naturally, that is just what the two larger animals do, and Br’er Rabbit squeals so loudly that they are sure they have killed him – until they realize that he is not squealing in pain from the thick tangle of thorns, nor from fear at being lost in the darkness under a dense maze of branches – instead he is squealing from laughter!  Br’er Rabbit finally manages to gasp, “I was born and raised in the briar patch!”

Like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, worship planning seems to have little (but necessity) to recommend it to many pastors.  The task can seem overwhelming!  Simply writing a sermon that stays on message, bears some obvious connection to the selected scripture passage, and fits in the allotted time can be daunting.  Now let’s see if we can keep that sermon free from heretical error, avoid unintentionally snarky references to parish business, and avoid embarrassing our spouses or children with a story that is too personal.  While we are at it, it would be great if we could preach something that is easily digested by  a newcomer, without being boring for a long-timer.  Now we just have to select the hymns, write the call to worship, select or write a few prayers… Oh no!  The children’s sermon!  We forgot the children’s sermon.  And a baby threw up on our alb last week and we forgot to take it to the cleaners.

Phew!  Now all we have to do is go up and lead this thing for an hour without any mistakes, or at least to make our mistakes gracefully. Don’t get shaken up when that kid on the sixth row screams during the sermon, waking the guy in the pew in front of him.  Can we locate the encouraging faces of the few smiling nodding parishioners? Great!  As for the rest, let’s find that point just over the tops of the heads of the majority who will be frowning in hopefully deep thought.  Uh-oh, we looked one if them in the eye.  Are they angry?  Maybe they are just misunderstanding.  And now we are just rambling from the pulpit until that one person finally nodded and released us – thank you Jesus!  And now we are running late again.  The organist will want us to cut a verse from the last hymn.  It doesn’t save more than a minute or two, but it makes a big psychological difference – it helps the congregation understand that we do notice that they are disapprovingly aware of the time.

But above all, we must be open to the movement of the Spirit!  If we can somehow dial back the volume on those other 30 concerns that are swirling through our heads.  Such as forgetting to announce whatever that very important announcement was that was told to us just before we walked down the aisle.

Worship planning!  Sermon writing!  Sunday mornings in the pulpit!!! The dread!  The horror!

So why is it I squealed with delight when I opened up the lectionary in order to list all of the Psalms that didn’t make it in, in order to find ways to include them at other parts of the year?  Picking hymns – and finding a way to lift phrases and themes from each hymn in order to more clearly tie them to my sermon – that weekly activity was like play!  And children’s sermons?  Don’t get me started!  I loved doing those so much that I even did them at a church that had no children!

I was born and raised in that briar patch.  My Dad, a United Methodist pastor, brought worship to the Sunday dinner table, asking us to think through how it had gone:  what was the sermon about?  What did we like?  What didn’t we understand?  How were the hymns related – or not? How were the scriptures related – or not?  Worship criticism (in the style of literary criticism) formed the main part of our conversation after church on Sundays.

Dad and I would go to other worship services together from time to time, and then would dissect them together afterwards, figuring out what made them tick.  Starting when I was about six.  And earlier than that, Dad would consult me when he was working on his sermons:  he would read me a bit of scripture or lay out a theological problem and ask me what I thought.   As I grew older and began to play piano, Dad would ask me to play the melody of a hymn he was unfamiliar with when he was planning worship – so that he could decide if he could pick it up easily enough to lead the congregation, or if it he would go find another hymn with words he liked slightly less well.  He would already have checked to see if it could be switched to a more familiar tune with the same meter – which is part of why I knew about the hymnal’s metrical index in elementary school.  Its existence was clearly a revelation to many of my seminary classmates, when it was pointed out by our worship professor.

I want to apologize for my incredulity in that moment.  And also for the time when I responded to a student pastor who was asking “when do pastors get their Sabbath?” with the insensitive remark that leading worship was not work, but the culmination of our work, in which we too were worshipping God.  Yeah, not so much for her.  I was wrong to judge.  I also owe an apology to those students that I implied were unprofessional in wanting to use pre-written prayers, instead of writing their own collects for each service.  I didn’t understand how – unusual I am.

Most pastors were not born and raised in the briar patch.  It is pretty uncomfortable to be thrown into a dark and tangled thicket filled with blood-drawing thorns when it is not your natural habitat.  I take my hat off to you pastors who wrestle each week with your worship preparation in spite of all the fear one or more elements of it inspire in you.  You are martyrs in the best sense of the word: you witness to your conviction that God loves you and your congregation and all the world – and that this love is so great that your very legitimate misgivings about worship preparation (this is, after all, very serious stuff!) are not worth comparing to your deep need to share this love.  Thank you for continuing to toil in the briar patch.