This one actually happened about a year ago and it’s taken me this long to post it without actually getting my friend’s permission. Let me add that the friend in reference served in the military and if this blog disappears after publication, don’t send a search party. They won’t come back either.
We were heading to a small young adult retreat in Maine last November. I was doing some teaching and he was going because it’s one of the many brilliant things that he does.
The retreat went really well. Good worship together, great fellowship and an incredibly cold but blessed outreach ministry in Portland on Saturday when we gave out coffee and hot chocolate to passers-by. Some of these were suited up with briefcases, others were out shopping, but many were homeless from a shelter around the corner.
The morning after the retreat, as is Chuck’s way, we went to a coffee shop before we left for home. A real one. Nothing against the chains out there, whether you like the green logo or the letters, but in my opinion, the best coffee in the world comes out of these little one-off brick and mortars. And so we walked into The Gorham Grind and a modern Western unfolded.
The doors swung open and the hero, Chuck, entered. The vested barista stopped his absent wiping of the counter when the bells above the door jingled. (It wouldn’t be “true” to say that Chuck swaggered in, but it’s not a modern Western if I don’t.)
I kid you not, there was a silent nod from the barista to Chuck. Each of the few patrons in the shop stopped in their conversations and looked towards the door. Chuck looked left and I looked right, making eye contact with them and the murmurs resumed. Our iPhones in holsters would make the story better, but we were both checking in on Facebook and I was going to look up Yelp reviews before ordering.
After the briefest of pauses so the door could close behind us, Chuck headed straight towards the counter. The Barista picked up the white cloth and stood straight up. I followed Chuck and it would be a complete lie for me to say that the Barista looked at Chuck and said a single word, “Whad’llyahave?”
It was probably closer to “What can I get for you?” But again, the truth interferes with the Western narrative we’ve got going here, so let’s just all pretend together that there was a honky-tonk piano near the bar and a sketchy, smoky poker game in the corner. That’s what it felt like, anyway.
Chuck sidled up to the counter and something just happened. A real conversation started. Not small talk. Not wasted words. A full-on, as-if-they-were-friends, #wheredidthatcomefrom conversation. That lasted minutes. More than minutes, I think.
I was still in line behind Chuck when I realized I remained empty-handed and started paying attention to their conversation again. They were talking about the classes the Barista was taking at a local university.
Of course, I said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
I got my cup, self-served from the drip coffee bar at the end of the counter and made it the way I like it. Too sweet and too light for a real cowboy, but we weren’t actually cowboys, so that was ok.
I sat down at a nearby table, thankful for a little introvert time after being an extrovert for the retreat. Chuck stood at the counter and talked to the Barista for a while.
Ultimately, he sat down with me and we finished our drinks, got some refills and left, but that’s not the point of the story. It’s not a filling station story about that takes place on the way to something else. Even though the journey hadn’t even really begin, it’s a destination story. I didn’t get it, not even while I was in it.
I can wax poetic all I want about the modern western and how sandals are the hipster version of spurs. I can suggest there were swinging half doors and rolling tumbleweed for the fun of it, but there was something real and visceral in those moments.
Later in the car, I asked Chuck in the car if he knew the Barista. He’s been here before. It’s entirely possibly they’ve met. That would explain the instant rapport.
“No. I don’t think so.” And then a classic Chuck chuckle. If you know him, you know it.
He didn’t know him. But that didn’t stop him from connecting with him. Instantly. Upon walking into the establishment, Chuck made a connection with another human being that he had never met before. They talked. For a while. About a lot of things. Chuck truly appreciated this guy while I simply accepted the service he chose to provide. Chuck opened himself to a total stranger with the sole common ground being the space they simultaneously occupied. Chuck made a friend while I made a Dark Follies “light & sweet.”
This isn’t to degrade my experience or to diminish myself next to Chuck. In a way, I missed an opportunity, but if I can be completely honest, I needed my moments and my silence more than I needed anything else right then, except for maybe the coffee.
No, it’s not about me making different or better choices. It’s about honoring the moments that my friend chose and that I became an honored spectator of.
To simply seek a connection is courageous. Maybe the most courageous thing a person can do among strangers, though I wonder if anybody in a coffee shop is a stranger to Chuck. To simply engage another human being with no agenda, with no plan and with no expectations is an intimate act, almost foreign except that maybe it’s actually quite easy and that we need it so much.
We so often search for common grounds (pun absolutely intended) and when we don’t sense them immediately, our defensive mechanisms put us back into consumer mode (if we were ever in any other mode at all, that is.) We so often seek out subtle hints that we will be accepted, or at the very least not rejected, before we invest in even the most basic of conversations that don’t begin with the word “grande” or “medium.” We must know, on some level, that our investment will be returned before we make it. It’s social protection syndrome. Why spend feelings on something that won’t matter? Why waste time, be it mine or theirs? (And both are lies.)
And this transactional interplay may be exactly why we fail in friendship, in marriage, in leadership, in everything relational.
Look at Who we’re supposed to look at. No transactions. No give “and” take. It was all give with little take. Unconditional. Let’s maybe stop using Him as the reason we can’t live up to the standard since His life was actually all about setting the standard. It’s not hard to love somebody. It’s hard to die for somebody. It’s not hard to reach out. It is hard to truly sacrifice. It’s not hard to fall for the system. It’s hard to resist it. To do better than it. It’s not hard to talk. It’s hard to forgive. It’s not hard to connect with another person. It’s hard to lift them up, to carry them. If only we would bother…
So thanks for the modern Western, Chuck. Thanks for a spontaneous relationship that taught me something. Thanks for reminding me of the Holy intersections that so often pop up in our lives. Thanks for showing me the value of a few moments and a few words. Thanks for blessing the Barista.
And for the record, I’m pretty sure that Chuck’s cup of coffee was better than mine.