"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. . . " Part II

  “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

There was a unique building directly across the street from o’Bagelo’s with an interesting history and an odd appearance.  It was a stand alone building that had three streets and an entrance ramp to the inner loop as its borders. One of those, Front Street, is a street of old legends for the Rochester area. It had a flea market aura by day and was full of debauchery by sunset. A place you told your kids to stay away from at all hours of the day, your husbands too, but neither listened. 

          The building has four floors with an open parking lot underneath.  Commonly known as the building on stilts, the parking lot was recessed and extended well on to the edges of the property. There is a walking bridge from State Street that crosses the lot giving it the appearance of a moat.  Certainly a urban planners nightmare in today’s pedestrian friendly city models.  Originally built and owned by IBM, the design was a replica of their Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters.  The CEO at the time had ordered the copy built (on a smaller scale) for the Rochester office.  Not a genius move for the weather in this region, as the open base of the building caused the first two floors to ice over during the first winters.  This type of executive decision certainly does not bode well for the current Wall Street practice of paying CEO’s ungodly amounts of money to “stay competitive”.  

Not without merit, the building was covered in reflective glass and often gave those on the sidewalk a nice view of the surrounding cityscape.  The reflection from my storefront included the floors above my building and a cross on the church steeple behind our row of buildings.  The apex of the cross was high enough to clear the four stories of our building and seemed to hover in those windows most every day. 

The church was The Downtown United Presbyterian Church - or DUPC-, and had it’s own wonderful ongoing history during my years.  It was the center of a lawsuit and constant argument within the church concerning open and gay ministers, and gay marriage.  Dr. Reverend Jane Spahr (Janie, as she liked to be called) was on the forefront of all that is current on that issue for the church and she was a frequent visitor to o’Bagelo’s (Chicken Salad, always).  Based in California, she is a charismatic leader and a strong woman, worth googling, if you haven’t already. It was a pleasure to have her visit and and to hear the updates from her and the others at the church.  

The Presbyterian Church as a whole was not on board with Reverend Spahr and the local congregation at DUPC. The regional organization voted against their position, as you might expect suburban churches to do.  The California based Redwoods Presbytery brought a legal action against “Janie” in the late 2000’s and it continued into 2012.  All this was over gay marriage.  And our little downtown ministry was behind her all the way, flying in the face of the bigger organization.

The minister of record for DUPC was Gail Ricuitti. She was responsible for bringing The Dr. into the store and we had become friends over the years.  This might be a good time to quickly summarize my own religious beliefs as a reference point. I was raised Roman Catholic. I do not practice any particular faith, but I enjoy studying all the religions.  It is of particular interest to me how each was conceived and developed throughout history and all that has been done in the names of their deities (both positive and negative).

Gail and the church represent a few happy moments over the years for me.  One of which was the wedding she performed in the store for one of my employees.  But before I tell that wonderful story (in another post) there is a different story I would like to offer.  It was late one Saturday afternoon, and Gail came in for a quick something before we closed.  The place was empty except for the two of us and I was getting the place ready for lockdown.  For about 7 years I kept the place open 7 days a week, and this was during that time.  Gail and I had a habit of entering into deeper conversations than I think she anticipated when she first wandered into the bagel shop, and when time allowed, she was always happy to oblige me.  

On this Saturday, she was working on a sermon, a little late for her as I had come to learn. Her face had the look of someone crossed with uncertainty, a hurdle, and time constraints.  She gave me a quick overview of the issue and the topic at hand while I made her usual and continued cleaning.  I can’t recall what crazy crap was coming out of my mouth that day, but I do remember the topic; Predestination vs. Freewill.  I had done some reading on the topic years ago in a philosophy class and it remained with me, as I found it engaging in it’s religious context. 

So Gail and I were chatting. She was eating, I was cleaning, and it just seemed like another day at o’Bagelo’s.  That was until the next morning. Sunday’s at the store were full of church customers, both before services and after.  DUPC leased out their space to an organization called Spiritus Christi for the early morning service.  A little history of Spiritus Christi first.

Spiritus was an offshoot of Corpus Christi, a Roman Catholic church that decided to challenge the rules of accepting members of the LGBT community, blessing their unions, and allowing a female lay pastor, Mary Ramerman (also a frequent customer), to stand next to the priest on the alter during services.   All of this caused a ruckus in the local diocese and they began a systematic process of dismantling the organization of Corpus Christi. 

What the Catholic church refused to acknowledge was the large numbers of young people attending services and the growing enjoyment they were experiencing of returning to a church that was more in line with their community beliefs. This was all in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and as is often the case, there were going to be some sacrificial lambs when old incumbent hierarchies get challenged. I see large movements of younger people, with or without their families, moving to churches that are providing more modern parameters to live by, and less antiquated experiences in the Sunday service.

The priest, Jim Callan, was removed from Corpus Christi and sent to Elmira. One of the outer limits of the region.  Other members were replaced or fired, and the congregation was not happy.  This spurned the creation of Spiritus Christi, and frankly a stronger conversation in the Catholic church about old vs. new values.  Jim joined the new congregation at a service and was then was excommunicated from the Catholic church (a real excommunication).  He was then asked to join Spiritus, and they are still active in our community to this day.    

It seems pretty obvious that these two organizations would find each other and become allies in their prospective challenges of man-made authority. Interestingly, Corpus was located a few blocks away from DUPC, and o’Bagelo’s stood between them. 
       Back to that Sunday morning.  Spiritus Christi had their Sunday service early at DUPC, and Gail and her presbyterian  congregation had services later in the morning.  After the first rush of customers, we had a little break before the next penitents.  Right before the second wave, a woman rushed into the store, someone that looked familiar but not from o’Bagelo’s.  She identified herself as a teacher from my high school.  I was an easy student to remember as my father was the principal there for many years, including the years I attended.  She was all smiles and told me that she had just come from the DUPC service. The look on her face was one of “I know something you don’t, and I want to tell you.” So she did.  She told me that Gail had just given a sermon that described the conversation we had on the previous Saturday.  I was mentioned by name and that it was a very positive reference.  I asked because frankly, I was very concerned.  As I have stated, even I can’t believe what comes out my own mouth at times.

I was quite surprised to hear all of this and now there were other customers coming in from the service who were verifying her report and it certainly piqued my interest.  I have included a copy of the sermon below as Gail was happy to email it to me (I once had an audio copy on cassette that I have since lost, and wouldn’t know what to do with if I hadn’t).

I will not go into detail of the sermon as you can read it for yourself. A few things did go through my head after hearing her voice on that cassette.  First, I was concerned that I should be more careful about the things I spout out during my time behind the counter, even though It probably didn’t happen.  Second, having a group of people listen to the line “And the bagel-man said to me. . . “ in a church, had me worried about old testament backlash from any one (or several) of the deities that may have been listening in that day. 
I have titled this part “The Good” but my church customers were not all “Wine and Wafers”. I had plenty of run-ins with a few of them.  After about 7 years of pushing my limits of work and customers pushing my limits of patience, I decided to close the store on Sundays.  This was not an easy decision as any business owner will tell you.  I had spent quite a bit of time developing the Sunday traffic, but it was still the day generating the least amount of revenue. I needed a break, and it was time. 
There was also an incident that was the tipping point for this decision. In an effort to boost business, I used to buy the Sunday New York Times to add to the local Sunday paper for customers to read.  I had always bought papers for customer use and the protocol was fairly well understood. The papers were mine, and I shared. Don’t take it with you; try to violate it, and if you had any decent upbringing, return the paper to the pile for others. And most importantly; Never, Ever, Ever mess with my crossword puzzle, unless you have been invited to do so. 
       One Sunday, I noticed the NY Times was missing. No where to be found on the premises.  Believe me, I searched. I was the only one working that day, and I knew who had been in the store that morning.  I was not happy. And my discontent lasted for three weeks.  I stopped buying the New York Times for my customers and posted a sign stating my concerns and the expected resolve.  Return the paper, or fess up, and all will be forgiven. Like a good christian on Sunday. 
Well, it didn’t happen.  And on the fourth week I added a sign explaining that I would be closing the store on Sundays, as I could no longer look at all these good people knowing one of them was a chicken shit thief. Or something like that.  I had a pretty good idea who the paper poacher was, but I had no proof.  And that was my last Sunday open to the public.  And I still know who you are! And I have a good memory. And I’m patient. 
 These two organizations coming together, helping each other out with their shared beliefs concerning the LGBT community was part of the "Good" I am referring to.  All this in my neighborhood.  Presbyterians challenging long held tenants of their church; Catholics revolting over the removal of those acting on the wishes of the congregation; creating a new church to welcome all those previously being shunned; national and local lawsuits trying to stop the blessings of weddings among same sex couples.  I half expected to see a man or woman nailing a theses on the door of the Catholic or Presbyterian church somewhere close. And maybe they did.  

At the time all of this religious upheaval was happening in our little neighborhood it never really occurred to me that it was all that big of a deal.  Writing about it years later has given me a different perspective. The importance of the actions of those in our neighborhood was going to be a part of large needed change in this country. Small important battles that will ripple through society.  Isn’t that what Thoreau was talking about (see a previous post).  It’s no wonder I liked these people (well, most of them).

Looking at the cross in the reflection of that building on stilts made me feel good about where I was and the decisions I had made.  Inexplicably,  the image put me more at ease than if it were the cross itself I was eyeing. In the midst of the all the vice, it was a reminder of life’s unavoidable dualities. Not too bad for an old 19th century set of masonry buildings holding onto to life in a iron and steel world.   That cross was a  calming force in my world and I felt that it’s importance to our block could not be minimized. That force is the basis for the final part of this three part dialogue.  

“The ugly. . . “ next post on Foodnstories.com

Taking a Chance on God: A Life Without Coincidence
Sermon by Gail Ricuitti, DUPC.

May 15, 1994 Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26
Text: ". . . one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." . . . and the lot fell on Matthias . . .
I stopped in for a very late lunch yesterday just before mid-afternoon closing time, and mentioned over the counter that I had 36 more hours to get a sermon on paper. John the Bagel Man asked me what I was preaching about. Well, I said, my main thesis is that in this life there are no accidents. Nothing is really coincidence. I told him about the story in Acts of finding a replacement for Judas [so that one would "become a witness" to the resurrection], and how I'd been thinking about this and working on this all week but as yet didn't have anything written. The ensuing conversation was lively and fascinating, and made me wish profoundly that I could just haul the Bagel Man into church this morning to have another go at it with me. That was the real sermon, 2:30 yesterday afternoon, but you had to be there.
He told me how an accident that wasn't really coincidence happened to him once, while he struggled to put together a bagel business while finishing up his MBA. Nothing was working out. Finally in desperation he applied for a short-term job he didn't want, as a courrier delivering computer equipment to local corporations for IBM. The day after he was hired on, he broke his thumb--the only bone he had ever broken--in the last soccer game of the league season. Since the insurance company wouldn't allow him to carry heavy items for six weeks, IBM said they couldn't give him the job after all. Shortly thereafter, everything suddenly fell into place, opening the way [freeing him] to open the bagel shop of his dreams after all.
As he talked, I thought how every one of us has a story like that: those insight-yielding experiences in life that appear to be accidental. One of mine concerns the date and time of my birth. Seven hours later, and I would have been the oldest child in my class instead of the youngest when I entered school. Anthony would have graduated and left Princeton seminary three months before I entered . . . and I would never have ended up, with him, first in Ohio and then in western New York; would never have heard of the Downtown Church; and so on and so on and so on. The coincidence of just seven hours would have made my life significantly, if not entirely, different. But is there any coincidence?
Perhaps Matthias asked himself that same question; he certainly had occasion to! "Lord, you know everyone's heart," the believers prayed. "Show us which one . . . you have chosen to take the share in this ministry. . . " and they cast lots-- showing either a profound desperation or a profound trust in God's intention and attention. The Hebrew word for "lot", goral, has the additional meaning of "destiny" in many texts (and in the Dead Sea scrolls, came to mean "fate.") "And so they cast fate . . ."
There is a curious contrast between the disciples' need to control by making the standards
Acts 1:22, 26
rigorous; and their leaving it to God in the drawing of lots . . ."Leadership in this new community is based both on qualification (vv. 21-22), and on divine choice (v. 24)."1
Since there exists no description in biblical texts of the actual procedures involved or the nature of the instrument(s) used, it has been an easy matter for moderns to rationalize the act, as does Johannes Munck in The Anchor Bible Commentary:
The expression in vs. 26 . . . can be understood as voting by ballot so that it need not be a question of the drawing of lots.2
Father John McNeill, the gay Jesuit priest who spoke at the Downtown Church three or four years ago, believes that the statements "Taking a Chance on Love" and :"Taking a Chance on God" "are at some deep level identical . . ." and so he entitled one of his books after a lovely ballad from the musical Cabin in the Sky:
I thought love's game was over, lady luck had gone away.
I laid my cards on the table, unable to play.
Then I heard good fortune say,
"They’re dealing you a new hand today!"
Oh, here I go again,
I hear those trumpets blow again, all aglow again,
taking a chance on love. . .
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1 William H. Willimon, Acts. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988, p. 24.
2 Anchor Bible, page 10.
What sounds to some of us like some New Age fantasy at best, or some superstitious divination at worst, is not only deeply authentic to biblical faith but an honored way of life among peoples often labelled "primitive" but who are much more spiritually developed than the analytic mind of the western world.
The American physician Marlo Morgan, a woman well equipped with honors and degrees, writes in her startling and fascinating book Mutant Message, of the most valuable education she ever received: it took place during an unexpected four-month walkabout, barefoot, in the blazing desert of Australia where she had been summoned and was taught by a nomad tribe of Aborigines called the Real People. The story of the spiritual depths of a people who still inhabit this planet, who communicate among themselves primarily by mental telepathy, is such a remarkable one that you should read it for yourself. But one of the understandings of these aboriginal peoples came to mind again and again as I contemplated the biblical account of the early Jesus community's selection of Matthias to complete the number of the Twelve.
The aborigines pray each morning, "If it is in my highest good and the highest good for all of life everywhere, let me learn."
"These people believe everything exists on the planet for a reason. Everything has a purpose. There are no freaks, misfits, or accidents. There are only misunderstandings and mysteries not yet revealed to mortal [people]."3
"This says to me that nothing in life is coincidental," I said to the Bagel Man. "So what you're talking about goes back to predestination," he said. "Well, basically. But the longer I've thought about it, the more questions it opens up-- questions that don't fit, questions that can't be minimized or ignored. They're the `Sara Anne Wood questions':
Sara Anne Wood, and mass killers like hers Holocaust
why evil operates
why innocence suffers and dies before its time
I can't say that these things aren't accidental, that somehow they're part of God's purpose for a life."
Bagel Man: "Can't say it to the folks you're preaching to, or can't say it yourself?"
Me: "Can't say it because I don't believe it! So I'm thinking about something I'm calling `In the breach' theology:
3 Marlo Morgan, Mutant Message. Lees Summit, Missouri: MM Company, 1991. p. 54.
With insight always come unanswered questions. The breaches or mysteries opened up thereby, that have no logical or systematic answers, have to be filled by foundational truths instead: all we can say is that "God is love" - and for the rest, there is not a construct to fill the breach.
"The problem is that the human mind and thought process expects a systematic theology (we even study this in seminary, whole courses devoted to `systematics'): perhaps there is nothing more ludicrous that we could expect in the field of spiritual understanding than `systematics.' We need to shake loose our either-or/ dualistic thinking: so maybe it takes a different kind of thinking: a certain predestination, yes, but at the same time an affirmation of our freedom."
I thought then about Roger von Oech's "Creative Whacks," drawn from his book A Whack on the Side of the Head:
It's not the ideas we don't have that prevent us from being creative, but rather the ideas we do have that imprison our thinking. . .
Two men went to court to settle a dispute. After the plaintiff made her case, the judge said, "You're right." Then the defendant made his case and again the judge said, "You're right." At this, the clerk of court said, "They both can't be right!" The judge replied, "You're right." 4
But the Bagel Man shot back, "You're refuting your own point, if you say that predestination and free will are both true...People go to church to get some solid answers, not to be told there aren't any answers-- only questions!"
I thought about that a lot in the 36 hours I had left to get the thoughts from brain-wave to word. I went back to Donald McKim's Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, and Jack Rogers' Presbyterian Creeds (darn that Bagel Man and his MBA! I went in for lunch, and came out with extra assignments!)
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4 from Creative Whacks: 50 Ways to enhance your Creative Abilities. ©1989.
Predestination (or doctrine of election) refers to our salvation in Christ, not to every incident that happens to us in life. At best, predestination is simply another way of saying "grace alone"-- that God has done what we cannot do, and what God has done in mercy we cannot undo.5 It is not that we have chosen God, but that God has chosen us and has sent us into the world...
But I am not addressing predestination here. If you want a taste of why, and of how complex the arguments over the ages, you too can look it all up: supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, double decreee, voluntary necessity, double predestination, reprobation. (About now, I hope you're feeling very grateful to me for not going into it all!)
Any teaching of predestination as sole, absolute truth is a false doctrine.6 You see, we neglect to see the holiness of life when we write off so much as coincidence that has led ultimately to our good... Our mistake is trying to force spiritual understandings into "a neat, humanly logical package."7
At the Ontario Science Museum in Toronto some years ago, Anthony and I witnessed an exhibition of a most amazing art: Chinese silk embroidery. One artisan, a woman, was embroidering a delicate village scene in the mountains. Mirrors were positioned in such a way that only the onlookers could also see the design taking form on the underside of the fabric--a beautifully detailed, prowling tiger . . . done simultaneously by the same needle, with the same stitching, on a single piece of silk.
5 with gratitude for simplifying this understanding, to Jack Rogers in Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985.
6 "We are independent, morally responsible persons. We are free.
"Reformed theology means to say the same thing about God's fore-choice
and our free moral responsibility. It is not a case of either/or but of both/and. . . If we trust and believe, God will always receive us. That is a genuinely biblical promise. And when we know ourselves to be so received, then we realize it was because of God's grace, not because of our own virtue or action. That is equally true.
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7 Ibid., p. 89.
Rogers, p. 91.
In the same way, neither is God's work in our lives accidental. But from our side of the tapestry, what looks like a game of chance is actually the revealing of a purpose deftly designed on the other side.
My salt bagel with veggie cream cheese was history by now, busily replacing the calories my brain was busy using up; and the coffee I'd been toping was only a lukewarm quarter-inch left in the bottom of the mug. "You may show up in this sermon tomorrow morning," I threatened.
"Glad if we could be of assistance," he said.
Then, as I walked towards the door I asked over my shoulder, "Well, do you think I can get it written? I've been thinking about this all week, but there's nothing on paper."

And the Bagel Man replied, "If you don't, I guess it won't be an accident, will it?!"

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