A Black Girl, A White Girl, and a Lemonade Stand

mineral-water-1532300_1920

My subway stop in Cambridge is Central Square. I’ve written a bit about Central Square before, but the truth is, it’s difficult to describe this area. While Harvard Square boasts history and sophistication and Kendall Square hosts Massachusetts Institute of Technology and nerdy innovation, Central Square is a cacophony of chaos. The community of homeless are many and loud, challenging anyone who would demean them through pity. The smell of curry from a couple of Indian restaurants is strong on hot summer days, and there is always some sort of crisis that involves police presence.

It is dirtier and grittier than other areas of Cambridge, with a cross-section of people who defy any stereotype. Recent and older immigrants speaking everything from Amharic and Arabic to Portuguese and Punjabi; every age from infants in strollers to the elderly heading to a community center or the library around the corner; and the sassiest and saltiest homeless people you will ever meet – all of these converge in Central Square.

Central Square is a colorful box of crayons that I get to walk through every day.

Diversity is lived out on these streets. You don’t think about it, it’s just there. But on Tuesday as I was walking home, I happened on a scene that has stayed with me. Just outside a blue house on Magazine Street, two mini entrepreneurs were selling lemonade. They had a couple of large pitchers that were sweating in the heat, and big glasses. At fifty cents their price was excellent and below the going rate.

Their voices were loud as they shouted to everyone who passed by – “Lemonade for sale. Come get your ice-cold lemonade!” And so I did, and it was the best lemonade I’ve ever had from a lemonade stand.

One little girl was black, one little girl was white. Why do I mention that? There’s nothing strange about the fact that a black girl and a white girl are together in this neighborhood, but in the current climate in the United States it felt way more important than just two kids selling lemonade. It felt like a glimpse of the future; a future that repents of wrongs and seizes opportunities to bridge racial and ethnic divisions. A future that fights injustice and seeks opportunities to work together providing sweet, refreshing lemonade.

There’s a lot to be depressed about in our world these days. It’s rare to find people who can disagree in civil ways, each giving respect to the other. Fractured relationships are everywhere and we are in deep need of healing – as individuals, as families, and as communities.

But then I meet two little girls on a summer day right in my neighborhood selling lemonade, and I know that all is not lost.

There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven. . . .Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

 

A Morning Walk and Being a Flâneur

A few years ago, Rachel Pieh Jones did a blog series called Let’s Go Flaneuring. The series was based on a French word flâneura word that was popular in nineteenth century France, particularly among writers. Essentially a flâneur was someone who walked (or rather – strolled). As the flâneur strolled, they observed. So they strolled and observed, and then they strolled and observed some more, and often they took notes or recorded their observations in their heads. But basically, it seems like a writing technique based on strolling and observing.

As I read more about the flâneur, I was fascinated by this idea of strolling in the familiar and in doing so, being able to craft stories from the commonplace. To take a step away from glorifying busy lives and instead embracing the idea of a slow and thoughtful stroll seemed not only delightful, but also wise.


I think about this today – a Wednesday morning. Usually I have one thing on my mind as I walk to work, and that is coffee. Coffee is my morning medicine, my adrenaline push, and my comfort in a cup. But I’m approaching a birthday, and suddenly I want life to slow down.

The sky is beginning to lighten as I get off the subway at Park Street and step out into Boston Common. Though the sun has not yet risen over the Atlantic Ocean I know by the light in the sky that it will be a bright, sunny January day.  I stop and look around. To my left is the State House, it’s gold dome already reflecting the morning light. In back of me, the Boston Common stretches toward the Public Gardens with tall buildings looming large in the distance. In front of me is the steeple of Park Street Church, a historic church that spoke out against slavery in the early days of the abolitionist movement.

I begin strolling from Boston Common up Tremont Street. I pass the famous Granary Burying Ground, Boston’s third oldest cemetary where the likes of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams are laid to rest. As I reach School Street, a florist delivery drops off its morning boquets at the Omni Parker Hotel – cherry blossoms and light pink tulips. They are stunning, a sign that sometime down the road the bright and beautiful colors of spring will come. A woman nods at me, as though she knows what this flâneur is thinking.

I turn at School Street and head down to Washington Street. At the corner of Washington and School Streets, the bronze statues commemorating the Irish famine look at me in mournful memory. I smile. My family could tell you a story about my misunderstanding of these statues, but that’s for another day.

My office is a half block shy of the Old State House but instead of my usual “pick up the pace, there’s coffee in sight” I slow down.

Today I am a flâneur, and I don’t want it to end too soon.

But it does end. I’ve reached my office and the Starbucks right next door. It’s the end of this stroll. Work is calling, and I don’t get paid to flâneur. 


The problems of the city are not lost on me. Homeless still huddle in doorways. There is always an argument going on, even at early hours. Garbage is still wadded together, made mushy by the recent rain. City grime is ever-present.  But what better way to confront these and seek the welfare of the city than by taking a step back, turning my quick steps into a slow stroll, and learning to observe.

In the the middle of my morning prayers, there is a longer prayer about being raised up from sleep and despair by God’s compassion “that at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty.” Taking a step away from busy and entering into the stroll of the flâneur gives me time to sing the glories of God’s majesty in the midst of Boston’s city streets.

A Baby and the Cold Slush of Winter

city-2561014_1280

I slog my way through dirty, melting snow as I walk to work. The pristine fluffy white of one week ago is replaced by the dirt and grime of the city, coupled with slush caused by rising temperatures.

It is Thursday, my last day of the work week, and I am tired. In winter everything takes longer. It takes longer to get ready in the morning, longer to walk to the subway, longer for the subway to arrive, longer to get groceries.

Everything is longer. Everything is harder. It’s more difficult to see grace; more difficult to give grace.

Yesterday I visited a friend who has just had a baby girl. I held her little body in my arms, marveling at her perfection, struck by how this little miracle came to be.

In the midst of the cold slosh of winter, I got to hold this wonder in my arms. Outside may feel cold and heartless, but inside is warm with wonder and grace.

Outside the world is raging, unaware that inside is a six pound wonder. Outside people argue and push, morosely facing winter’s worst. Across the country fires and floods change people’s lives in moments.

But inside there is a baby, perfectly formed and known by a God who still believes that this world is worthy of being redeemed. She is entrusted to, and loved by, an imperfect family and friends; people who will hold her and teach her, love her and cry with her.

And as I hold her I am in awe – in awe of baby soft skin and six pounds of perfectly formed fingers and toes, in awe of the strength and fragility of life, in awe of my friend who waited so long and wanted this baby so very much. Mostly in awe that somehow God believes that we in our human frailty, born as helpless babes who grow to be imperfect children and adults, are worth redeeming.

It’s Thursday and I’m tired. But then I remember – there’s a baby and it’s all okay.

Soul Care and the Reconstruction Process

bridge-286884_1280

When you live in a city you cannot avoid the ever-present construction/reconstruction process. Cranes, detours, iconic orange cones, and construction workers with yellow hard hats and vests are a part of the city landscape.

Healthy cities know that to continue to serve both residents and visitors, they need to repair, construct, and reconstruct. City planning has to allow for growth and change, and sometimes change comes through reconstruction.

The Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston has been under reconstruction for the past three years. It’s a lengthy process. The work takes place steel rod by steel rod and plank by plank with skilled workers supervising and doing the work. When the work is complete, it will be ready to sustain the heavy traffic of cars, trucks, and trains.

Ultimately, the work won’t be noticeable to any lay people. We will just use the bridge and remember back to the time when it was being fixed, and perhaps inconvenient to our travel plans. While cities try to minimize the inconvenience, they know that not doing the needed reconstruction will ultimately prove far more inconvenient.

Sometimes the only way to make things better is to fix them, to reconstruct them.

And so it is with our souls. There are times when our souls need to be under construction and reconstruction, when that is the only way for them to withstand the constant force of life in all its uncertainty.

I heard once at a conference that our “churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal”. This is part of the reconstruction process — realizing that your soul needs to heal and the wisest thing to do is to allow time for the reconstruction and healing process to take place.

our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to healTweet: our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal

A number of years ago my husband and I went through an extended period of healing, an extended reconstruction period. It lasted over six years. During that time we did nothing beyond attending church and getting together with safe friends. We didn’t take part in any Bible Studies, we were not involved in any ‘ministry’, we did no service. We went through a season of healing and it was invaluable.

Besides achieving the desired result of healing and reconstructing, we learned several things.

1. We learned that we were far more use to God as people willing to be healed than we would have been had we tried to maintain a façade. The Psalmist David in a prayer of repentance says: “A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” He speaks to the mercy of God, his loving kindness, the bones that God has broken. God has never, and will never, despise a broken and contrite heart. It’s the heart of the proud and the deceitful that concerns him far more.

2. We learned that our worth was not, and never will be, in what we do. Church service, ‘ministry’, getting involved – none of that is wrong. In fact, when done out of love for God it is a gift to be used for his glory. But it does not constitute our worth. Our worth is in this: That we are made in the image of God, his creation, his love. Distorted theology about our worth, thinking it is about what we do rather than who we are, is far more dangerous to the soul than taking time out for healing.

3. We came to realize that when you go through a season of healing, God brings people into your life who are broken and need to hear that there is redemption, there is healing. Even in the midst of the hardest parts of healing, we would meet people who needed to know there was hope, needed to know we were also walking the long, arduous path called ‘healing’. Perhaps broken seeks out broken? I like to think that the broken intuitively sense that they can learn best from those also willing to go through the reconstruction process.

4. We learned that the words ‘ministry’ will never be synonymous with ‘God’, and when we make it so, we are in a state of serious delusion. If we are not careful, ‘ministry’ becomes God. The word itself is held up as the ideal, instead of God himself being the ideal and ministry the result of our love for him. Defined as ‘the one that serves’ we can see ministry for what it is – not an end in itself, simply a way to reflect a love of God.

5. Mostly we learned that God is close to the broken-hearted. He cared not about our lack of service, he cared about our souls. Deeply, urgently, consistently he worked in our souls to reconstruct them to His Glory. The cuts that we sustained by his hand during the healing process were cuts of a gifted surgeon, done only to rid us of what would harm. And oh how they hurt, how they smarted. But when all was done, when surgery ended, the dead tissue was gone, only the healthy remained.

While a major construction and healing period is over, we are still ever aware of our fragility and propensity to go out on our own, thinking our souls are fully fixed. But the reality is somewhat different. Just as the Longfellow Bridge will go through this extended reconstruction period and emerge stronger, it will always have its points of weakness, its need for inspections and regular upkeep.

Like the reconstruction of the bridge, the reconstruction of our souls may not be visible to the lay person. But we know, regardless of what the outsider may observe, that ultimately not being willing to have our souls reconstructed would bring damage beyond what the eye is capable of seeing.

As I pass the bridge today it is early morning and still dark. If I strain my eyes I can see that construction workers are already present, ready to continue this important work of keeping a bridge safe and useable.

It is early morning and still dark, but God is present, ready to continue this important work of keeping me safe and useable in this beautiful and continual work of reconstruction. 


Note: This post has been revised from a piece written four years ago.

Reflections on Morning and Evening Prayers

 

neighborhood sunflowers

It’s early morning. The day is waking to summer in all its blue-skyed glory. Birds sing and chirp loud in chorus  – a liturgical chant to welcome the day.

I am standing at our icon corner, the place in our home where we say our morning and evening prayers. It is here where I try to begin the day. It is here where I take a few moments from the frantic busyness that can take hold if I’m not careful; here where I thank God for the morning, for a new day. I shake my head in wonder as I read the words “at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty” – this is what life is to be.


It is less than an hour later when my morning peace is challenged, where I shake my head in frustration at someone who jostled me on the subway, where I hold my breath because the smell of urine is so strong in the Park Street T stop.

This is my life. Perhaps it is yours as well – peace and contemplation forgotten as we face everyday life wherever we are. My everyday life is the city, where homeless find shelter in door ways and tourists meander, their faces hidden by maps and sun hats. My everyday life is data mixed with stories, real people who need cancer screenings, real communities that face various difficulties.

I stop for a moment and think of the words of Frederick Buechner: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. 


It’s at the end of the day when I hold out my hands in a physical gesture of surrender. We are doing our evening prayers, a discipline we began three years ago. We stand with our faces lifted toward icons: The Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos, and our particular saints – St. Sophia, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Isaac the Syrian. A tall, thin beeswax candle made by nuns at a monastery is our only light, but it is enough.

There is something about this evening prayer time, something about this physical opening of my hands in release. Those things that I have worried about and held tight, the backpack full of burdens, even the pain in my body is held out to God. It’s during evening prayers that I fully accept what I know to be true – I can’t do it alone. This thing called life is too much for me. There is too much hurt, too much sadness, too much pain. I cannot go to bed with all this – I must release it.

So I do.

With hands lifted up, I give it all to God. I pray the words “Visit and heal our infirmities for thy name’s sake.”

For those few moments, all that matters is this time where earth drifts away and Heaven seems a bit closer.

Still 10,000 Reasons

boston-1775871_1280

I wake up refreshed this morning. My husband and I were invited to a young adult retreat this weekend and were honored to have the opportunity to speak to a group of around 50 college students and young adults. The topic was hospitality, and we watched this topic modeled well for us by an Orthodox Parish that fed us amazing meals, gave us comfortable beds to sleep on, and offered up lavish generosity in every area. The entire weekend was a gift that nourished our souls.

The timing could not have been better. In the United States we are ending a divisive and angry political campaign. There has been an absence of character and virtue all around and it has had a domino effect across relationships, both close and distant.

As I walk to the subway, my friend from El Salvador rushes to catch up with me. We haven’t seen each other for some time. We hug and begin catching up on life. She has been to El Salvador, I have had a grandchild. Before long, she asks me if I have voted yet. I shake my head no, but tomorrow I will. She shakes her head as well and we sigh at the same time. She will vote tomorrow as well. She whispers to me that she doesn’t like either candidate, looking around furtively, not willing to offend. I sigh and nod. We wave goodbye to each other two stops later.

I walk to my office slowly as the city awakes, thinking about the weekend, about my friend, and about how there are still 10,000 reasons to get up every morning and trust God.

Every day, people scan the headlines, searching for their daily briefing. What is going on in the world? What do they need to know? What will affect them? But the headlines only tell a portion of the story. Headlines may tell us of Trump effigys being burned in England; of classified emails leaked; of millions of Afghan refugees going back to Afghanistan, uncertain of their future; of U.S backed militias helping to drive out ISIS in Syria — but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell of the many who give sacrificially to the poor, who tirelessly work toward justice, who pray daily for peace.

Above and beyond any headline is the story that God is telling.

And the story God is telling is not about a country. It is not the story of red and blue, of donkey and elephant, of Clinton and Trump. It is not an American story. The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. The story God is telling is far bigger than elections and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

I will only ever know a fraction of the story this side of Heaven. But I know enough to not despair. I know enough to know that God has not left us to drown in our own mess. Instead, he reaches through time and eternity to reorient us to his reality. He reminds us in countless ways that we are beloved; he convicts us that many who we despise are also beloved.

So I walk slowly, but purposefully. To my right, two homeless people are sleeping in the shelter of a doorway, heads covered with grey blankets to keep off the cold. To my left I see the glimpses of a new day dawning and I know there are still 10,000 reasons to trust a God whose definable stamp is on all creation.

The sun comes up
It’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass
And whatever lies before me
Let me be singing
When the evening comes*

*Matt Redman

In Memory of George

george

George was one of those guys that I saw early morning. As I would wander up Tremont Street from the Park Street T Station he would be setting up in front of the Granary Burying Ground. This cemetery is Boston’s third oldest cemetery and the final earthly resting place for the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

Outside of this historic cemetery, George would set up his earthly belongings. It was a perfect spot in many ways — never in the direct sunlight, but always in the line of visitors to Boston who might spare a dollar or two for the homeless.

So early morning I would walk by and we would greet each other. No matter how grey the day, George would smile. His personality showed through and as I would pass by he’d never fail to say “Have a good day Babe!” Maybe it’s because I’m daily growing older, but somehow I loved that he called me that. I never gave George money. We would just talk and then I would go on to work and he would continue on in his day.

It was the beginning of August that I realized I hadn’t seen George for a couple of days. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was too warm and he’d found another spot. Two days later as I passed by his place in front of the iron fence of the cemetery I stopped cold. Flowers adorned the fence and there hung a picture of George along with a typed story about him. I gasped aloud as I read it. The picture resembled a magazine cover with a banner over the top that read “Rest in Peace.” The bottom had these dates:

October 7th, 1972 – August 4th, 2016

George Dagraca, 43 years old, had died. 

I felt a sense of shock and sadness. I didn’t know George’s story, I had never heard it. We were early morning greeters and our conversations didn’t go deep. Turns out, he was a heroin addict, addicted to those highs that could temporarily remove him from some of the pain of his youth.

Along with the picture was a eulogy of sorts, by someone like me who met George on his daily walks.

We don’t fully know who we will meet in life, who we will touch and who will touch us. Many like me mourn his death and somehow that gives me hope. Because if we who barely knew him care about his death and mourn our short, daily connection, how much more so does the God who sees a sparrow fall?

My faith holds me tight in times like these. Earthly status means nothing to a Heavenly God. Whether our lives be small or great, he counts the hairs on our heads, the freckles on our noses. He cares about our habits, our diseases, and the addictions that sometimes kill us. This is the goodness of the Lord.

A favorite verse comes to mind many times when I walk on Tremont Street and I think of it today:

“I would have despaired, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage,  Wait, I say, for the Lord!”*

I walk up Tremont Street, a sky brightening over the Atlantic Ocean. Sparrows sit on the fence above George’s memorial.

In a sky brightening,in sparrows chirping, and in a homemade memorial I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And it is enough. 

You can read more of George’s story here. 

*Psalm 27:13-14