Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thrift Store Destiny

I’ve always enjoyed the thrift store. The smell isn’t always wonderful, the workers are usually um… different at best. Weird at worst. But the feeling of walking into a thrift store, especially one that I’ve never been to before, is exhilarating. When I lived in Atlanta working at an inner city church, I had a ritual on my off day. I would wake up around 10 o’clock, shower and dress, then go to Church’s Chicken and have a cheap delicious fried chicken lunch. Then I would get into my vehicle and do some thriftin’. We lived on the south side of Atlanta, right behind the federal penitentiary for those familiar with the landscape of the ATL. I had a route of 4 or 5 thrift stores I would go to - the Value Village was a personal favorite of mine – so I would begin my trek through the various neighborhoods of Atlanta in a quest to find the perfect store on the perfect day.

When I walked into those stores, that familiar musty smell would fill my nostrils. It's the smell that you wouldn't want as your cologne, but you don't mind because it brings back a certain nostalgia, like the leather of an old baseball glove or the paint and wood of Dad's old workshop. You always had your typical customers there on any given day… The kids rummaging through the toys while the mother kept an eye on them as she piled her cart with clothes and shoes. The old women who frequented the shops as much as I did, always scouring the aisles for the newer items that came in from the truck that week. The indie kids with their tight jeans and band t-shirts with hair in their face looking for something different and funny they could impress their friends with later. And then there was me, the 6 foot 3 giant wandering around trying not to run into anybody. There was an etiquette in thrift store shopping… if you are looking at the same rack of clothes as someone else, you have to stare intently at the clothes you are looking at as you approach the other person. Then, just as you are about to run into them, either you or them have to take a step back and allow the other to pass in front of you. If you step back, you allow the other person to check out the merchandise you’re looking at before you do. It becomes a game of chicken – the first one who flinches allows the other the opportunity to snatch something you haven’t checked out yet. It’s an intense game…. Not for the weak at heart.

The first place I would go in the wonderland of value was the t-shirt aisles. The Value Village usual had an exceptional crop of shirts. Now, understand that I currently own about 500 t-shirts – 2 dressers full in my room and several boxes in the garage that I cycle through about every 6 months. T-shirts for me are like personal billboards. You can express how you feel about life, society, love, or anything else without saying a word. Finding a shirt that is perfect for a specific occasion is especially exciting. I’ll give you an example. About 5 years ago I bought a shirt in Atlanta. It was a long sleeve t-shirt with the phrase “Mets Suck” on it. Now, I don’t have anything against the Mets. I’m a Cincinnati Reds fan and have never liked or disliked the famous Big Apple team. I just thought it was interesting that someone out there had enough distaste for the Mets that they took the time to create this shirt and wear it. Then, at some point, they went through their clothes, stumbled upon it, and decided they had no more use for it, so they took it to the local thrift store because someone else would probably get some good wear out of it. The problem with the shirt, however, is as a youth pastor, this isn’t a shirt I can typically wear on a day to day basis because the word “suck” usually has a negative and dirty connotation to it. So I rarely wore it, usually just as an undershirt. But this past year, as is tradition amongst a couple of my friends, we went to the Reds Opening Day. This year was a particularly cold year for a baseball game, but we decided to keep the tradition alive and attended the game. Me and my friends are pretty avid fans of our beloved Redlegs… so much so that one particular game I wore a red dress with a “C” spray painted on the front. I know… how awesome am I? But this particular year, the stars aligned in the 7th quadrant and the moon and sun were in congruent with Orion’s belt, and the Reds were playing the New York Mets for Opening Day. As I sifted through my shirts looking for a Reds jersey or the old red dress to wear to the game, the skies parted as I found the glorious “Mets Suck” shirt. For 5 years that shirt had waited for this day, knowing that from the day I purchased it that it was here on this earth for such a time as this. I put it on and looked in the mirror as a single tear melted from my eye, down my cheek, and made a small unnoticeable stain on the shirt that would once again remind me that there is a God in heaven, and he loves us. As I entered the gates of Great American Ballpark and made my way to our seats, I was overwhelmed with comments and high fives as people truly appreciated and honored my shirt. It was a journey that had begun 5 years earlier, and for one day… I was king.

It’s stories like these that keep me going back to the thrift store. To continue the search for the perfect shirt for the perfect occasion. See, my problem is that I hate wearing the same thing as someone else. It has only happened on a few occasions, but those scenarios are terrifying for me. What I noticed in high school was that everyone did their Christmas shopping on Black Friday in November or during the sales of early December. Moms would go to the mall and shop at Old Navy or American Eagle and buy the cool, hip new trends and give it to their children on Christmas morning, and those kids would be so excited, because they would be able to wear their new threads to school and impress their friends with how stylish and awesome they were… the girls would swoon and the guys would fume with jealousy as everyone would admire my new Abercrombie pullover, my new Aeropostale polo. But the problem was that all these moms would shop at the same stores and get the same awesome clothes for their kids, so the first day back from Christmas break, you have 20 kids wearing the same shirt. And that, for me, is one of my biggest fears. To look the same as everyone else. This past year I went a 2 day prayer meeting service for our denomination at Cornerstone Church of God. All the pastors were there, decked out in their suits and slicked hair, rubbing elbows with the bigwigs, trying to impress everyone with their style and snazziness. I wore a suit jacket too… with my Pink Floyd t-shirt underneath. Now, I don’t LOVE Pink Floyd. There are those out there who do, and I commend you for that. I like Pink Floyd, and listen to them from time to time as the mood dictates, but I don’t like them enough to consider myself a fan. Yet, I wore the shirt there to make a statement: One, I’m not gonna put on a tie and cufflinks to impress anyone at these functions. If God can love me in my pajamas, He surely doesn’t need me to bust out my daddy’s suit to impress the hotshots in the church. Two, it’s hilarious to see people’s reaction. Some people literally stared at me, wondering who on earth would wear my outfit to such a function. It reminds me of when we attended “Teen Talent,” where different youth groups competed against each other in different categories to see who had the best dramas, choirs, and other various talents. I love my kids to death, but I was pretty sure we weren’t going to win. And, a competition to discover who artistically portrays the Gospel the best seems kinda foolish to me. So I had someone make a shirt for me with a picture of a couple guys from my youth group that said “My Youth Group can beat up your Youth Group.” Because at the time, if there was a competition in fighting, I really think my guys coulda taken the gold. But the reactions were priceless… Some youth pastors made some snide comments to me, one said he didn’t think we actually could beat up his youth group. Which makes me wonder if a Christian Fight Club would be a good tool for evangelism in the future. But I digress…

I guess I can be a little bit of a non-conformist when it comes to the church. But for me, I look at it like I look at thrift stores. Some people want cool, flashy clothes that will impress people, thus allowing them to be accepted and perhaps even admired by their peers. And in churches, we want those perfect people who are well spoken and have good jobs that can give heartily in tithes and offering. If the people look good, they make our church look good. I can’t think that way though. Give me the castaways. Give me the people who others have stopped believing in. Give me the ones that no one else wants. Give me the ones who have troubled pasts, who’ve been to jail, who are homeless, who have given up on life. Those are the ones that make church interesting. Because when God moves in their lives, the evidence isn’t just internal, it’s external. Just like my “Mets Suck” shirt, I like to think that everyone has that perfect destiny, that perfect moment where everything works together and they realize they’ve had a purpose all along. I found that shirt for 2 dollars at the thrift store, but when I wore it to that game, that shirt became priceless. Throughout the Bible, God used the castaways, the vagrants, the ill reputed, to accomplish His will. And that gives me hope. It’s not about the price that man puts on us that makes us valuable, it’s about the price that God saw worthy to spend… His only Son. That makes us all valuable in His eyes.

So next time you're out shopping or just bored, stop by your local thrift store. Take the time to soak in the atmosphere, meet some of the regulars, and maybe you might stumble upon that perfect article of clothing that fulfills destiny…

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