The scripture readings are: Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20 and Hebrews 11: 1-3,8-16
These are my stories.
First. I use the term “shopgirl” to describe my life somewhat facetiously. It downplays what is my life’s work and what, I believe, is my calling. But to understand that, you should know that most of my Biblical grounding is in the early chapters of Genesis. I’m still stuck on the Creation. To my mind, creating is a fundamental expression of God’s love. Whether we garden, paint, sing, connect people, build places, in our own little ways, we create the stars and the seas, we create light where once there was nothing. I am endlessly grateful for this gift from God. As I see it, our obligation is to express our own creativity and to facilitate it in others; to encourage them to tap into that divine process and experience the satisfaction that comes from being a creator.
This is my offering to God.
Such an offering could be contrasted to the offerings rejected in Isaiah. God asks:
“Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me? I have had more than enough of the sheep you burn as sacrifices and of the fat of your fine animals.”
These were not trivial offerings in the material sense and yet they are a far cry from the offerings of one’s time and energy and passion, offerings grounded in the spirit of a Creator God.
I am reminded of the passage from Mark:
“Pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God.”
God, in my limited understanding IS creation, so it makes perfect sense that God would reject our limited offerings based on fear and desire to appease, our false sense of property and wealth.
In a more poetic way, Nan Merill rewrites Psalm 50:
“Shall I accept your proud and boasting hearts, the oppression, the injustices brought about through your fearful deeds? Never shall I accept such burnt offerings! Rather, offer to the Beloved a gift of thanksgiving with grateful hearts; for what other return can you make for all that Love offers to you?”
And so the idea of our shop was born. But just like the first few verses of Genesis, before the light and creation, there was something formless and desolate, engulfed in total darkness. Ok, I exaggerate, but only a little.
Second: In the beginning..... I had been working my way up the retail ladder at Little Luxuries since 1999. I expected to eventually be store owner, a plan reinforced by my boss moving to Minnesota. And then, in 2007, she returned to Madison. “Nothing is going to change, I’m happy with the way you are running the store,” were the first words spoken on the subject. These were followed by: “why are you doing it that way?” That was the month of March.
So began a time of crisis in my life. I questioned the path I had been following, I doubted my worth and ability. I felt there was no place for me in the place that I used to consider my own. I was still stuck on my expectation that I would be store owner of Little Luxuries. Since that option seemed closed off, I felt closed off from my own possibility.
So I began updating my resume and planning to find some sort of job, anything, just to get away from the place I was being exiled from. That was the month of October.
Now, honestly, when people talk about faith, I am challenged. There’s that saying – whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger? I hate that saying. Because when you are in the midst of something? sometimes all you feel is that it IS going to kill you. Faith in the process and the pain? I can see why it is such a test. During that time, I can’t really say that I had faith in the process. I am thankful that I had people around me who had faith in ME, who saw value in me even when I felt devalued. It is only in hindsight that I can say those difficulties were setting the stage; that I had to go through that time in order for any other risk to seem small compared to the risk of staying where I was.
Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge when you read passages such as Hebrews. How DO they have such assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen? For me, the evidence for such faith has accumulated in little things that end up being all right despite a multitude of worrisome scenarios, in unexpected gifts in the midst of pain and loss, in ways that sudden beauty and joy make themselves known. Those are the little things that might not make it into Hebrews 11. They are the little things that I tend to forget when I am in the middle of the big things, wondering if THIS will be the one that kills me. Yet remembering those little things brings me to faith, not so much in specific paths, but in ways that things DO work, in ways that beauty and love and God are there, even when there is darkness and pain and sorrow.
Third. And then there was light. Specifically, around 6 am the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when I awoke with an illuminated mind: My sister and I would open a store! It was so clear. Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion; perhaps my friends were just humoring me as we debated what skirt to wear for interviews. Perhaps there is no way for me to adequately convey how deeply I had connected being a shop owner to being at Little Luxuries, and how I had almost given up on being a shop owner simply because that particular path was closed to me.
At this time, I found the passage printed on the cover of today’s bulletin.
"I don't know how long I can do this, he said. I think the universe has different plans for me & we sat there in silence & I thought to myself that this is the thing we all come to & this is the thing we all fight & if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again & I sat there silent because that is not something that can be said.”
This passage resonated with me because I felt like most of the year had been a battle with trying to keep myself at Little Luxuries and when I gave up on that idea, suddenly a whole new path opened up to me and my life became beautiful with mystery once again.
And so began the actual work of owning our own business. Life might have been beautiful with mystery but it was also really stressful and filled with long hours, hard work, low pay and a tremendous sense of risk. Yet I came to see that the flip side of that risk is the reward and satisfaction in even the smallest success. It is amazing how selling even just a note card becomes an affirmation of my work and taste. Though my tax bill brought me to tears, I was on a constant high that first year, making sales and overhearing customers’ enjoyment of the shop.Yes, it was scary, and not just because of the money. When so much time and energy goes into something, even the slightest lack of interest can lead to self-doubt; the person who stands in the doorway and then turns away makes me feel like running after them – wait! give me a chance! you might like me!
The reality, of course, is that I don’t expect to please everyone, nor do I expect everyone to buy something or even “get” what it is our store is about. At the same time, by putting so much of myself into our shop, even the slightest positive response acts as an affirmation of my work and of my very self. This acceptance of self brings a deep sense of satisfaction and joy, and it comes only by taking the risk of sharing myself with others.
So like Abraham and Sarah, we venture out into the wilderness that is the world; we leave what is comfortable and familiar and we take risks. But that risk is grounded in the love of God, in the sacred and genuine offering of ourselves.
Fourth (and last). The year was 2011. I think it is safe to say that I had learned a big lesson about the rewards that accompany risk, that I had strengthened my faith and trust in process even if the outcome seemed unclear. Our business was continuing to grow and I could see the path ahead for us, selling papergoods and locally made crafts. But faith isn’t just something you earn once; it has to be tested and strengthened, over and over again, apparently.
Now, from the start of our business, our button maker was an unexpected asset even though I had to twist my sister’s arm to spend the $300. It turned out that other people liked making buttons too and making buttons became a feature of our shop. It was not uncommon to hear a kid walking by and saying: “there’s the button store!” “Out of the mouths of babes” is not so out of place in this case.
And so came that week in February. When the Governor first introduced his budget, I had a strong sense that it was wrong – it went against what I see as the role of government, it went against how I think Jesus wants us to be at work in the world. The notion of Wisconsin being “open for business” seemed very limiting and short-sighted. The world of the small business owner is fiercely independent and yet utterly dependent at the same time; I had a keen sense of our dependence on our customers, and the threat this budget presented to their lives. So we stood in solidarity. We went to the protests, we watched as people streamed by our shop on their way to the Capitol, we wrote on our sandwich board and hung signs in our windows, we stood as the firefighters went by with their bagpipes and cheered the “cops for labor” signs.
On Thursday of that week, a regular customer came in and said: “where are your buttons?” Now, honestly, most businesses try to adhere to some notion of impartiality, even if that is betrayed by lobbying, campaign donations and partisan issue ads from their trade organizations. After our customer asked us for buttons, we hesitated. Although I felt strongly that the budget would have reverberations on all of our lives and that it very much concerned our business, we were still unsure. There’s a fine balance to strike between being Capitalistic and being opportunistic.
But on Friday, an old school friend and union member commented: “You must be selling buttons like crazy! Union people love buttons!” I told her that we were still on the fence because we didn’t want to seem opportunistic. She said: “Make those buttons, girl!” Since that week in February, we have sold over 30,000 buttons.
There were plenty of times that I felt overwhelmed with anger and frustration, times when I worried about how our shop would grow when paychecks were shrinking, times when I feared for our state. But those are not the offerings that God wants from us. God wants us to take risks, to be daring in our expression of love and creation. Can you find a way to make an offering of your joy and love and creativity? Oddly enough, making buttons became my offering.
Though I was filled with the courage of my convictions, there was the risk that new customers would be offset by angry former customers, and we’ve all witnessed nastiness in the hyper-partisan world of the internet. But ultimately, what I objected to in others was the way they were letting their fear and anger set the tone for their lives. That is not the world I wanted to live.
So, yes, there was risk. But the rewards were great. I am filled with gratitude that we took that risk, that we participated in that moment. The button table was regularly surrounded by people, laughing, sharing their stories and pains; it was like a non-stop dinner party. To give you a taste, I’ve brought my offering of buttons to you today. I hope you’ll gather at the table after worship and pick out one out for yourself.
Big Union Men came in for buttons; sweet teachers near tears thanked us for our presence. So many people came to us who had never stepped in our store before. There was a strong sense that we were all overcoming feelings of being alone and being powerless. I grew and so did the store. We forged new connections to people and businesses; there was a lasting sense of togetherness and power. To my great joy, I witnessed a burst of creativity that jumped up to meet the challenge of the anger and turmoil. There was screenprinting, hilarious signs, chalk writing, decorated cars, t-shirt making, singing and songwriting... and yes, buttons. It made me proud to be a Wisconsinite, to be among Creators, and to be a child of God.
So, those are my stories. Like the texts we read today, like your own lives, there is faith and risk, there is doubt and fear, but above all there is love and creation and the offering of the very best I have to give to God.
May YOU find your buttons.
May you take risks and not be content with burnt offerings.
May you listen for God’s call to a more creative life.
And may you find your way to offer yourself to the world and God.
I promise. GOD promises. The risk will be worth it. The rewards will be great.