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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

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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

When the World Comes to You

It was over a year ago when Elizabeth Jones contacted me. She had been reading and interacting with Communicating Across Boundaries for a while at that point, always affirming and entering into discussion in meaningful ways. I am delighted to have Elizabeth guest post today! Elizabeth watched the world come to her through her work as a chaplain in a busy, diverse, city hospital. 

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Caring, Capable and Conscientious

Caring, capable and conscientious. That’s what I wrote on the fliers several years ago, advertising piano lessons I could teach from my home when my children were small. When I turned 40 and my mother died after several years of uncertain health, I went to seminary with the money I received from her small estate. As I formulated my new, chaplain’s resume, I turned to the same phrase—caring, capable and conscientious.

I enjoyed chaplain internship! I dug right into learning about different faith traditions. This was a natural progression for me, in learning more of how to accompany diverse people in crisis, critical care, trauma and end of life. It sounds rather odd, talking about my years of intensive learning and stressful internship in this way, but I very much appreciated every experience I had: both in the classroom, as well as on the floors and units of the hospitals and care centers.

I no longer serve as a chaplain, since I am now a small church pastor in the Chicago suburbs. But for almost ten years, in several hospitals and extended care centers in and around Chicago, I dealt with patients, their loved ones, and health care staff—on a regular, and sometimes daily, basis.

I appreciate Marilyn’s kind invitation to write a guest post. This blog ordinarily talks about the wide world, and how Marilyn and her friends and acquaintances navigate this world and cross visible and invisible boundaries and borders. Instead, I had the world come to me, in the hospital.

All three of the hospitals where I served were in the middle of multicultural areas, a crossroad of the multicultural communities of Chicago and the surrounding area. One of these hospitals has the distinction of sitting in one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the country. (The U.S. Census Bureau says so.) I never knew who was going to be in that next room I entered, or what situation I was going to encounter next.

People—when they become patients—are so often stripped of everything they have, everything they are. Especially in critical care, this hospitalization experience can be depersonalized. As a chaplain, I tried to bring some personal, pastoral care into each room I entered.

I have a big, friendly smile. It happens naturally. When I’d knock and enter a room, announcing myself as a chaplain, my smile would often automatically turn on. (It still does.) I’ve had people of all different faiths and all kinds of nationalities thank me for my smile and my genuine manner. “Your smile lights up the room. I really needed that,” one older woman told me.

I have sat with an aged senior in Cardiac Care, holding her hand with the chipping nail polish, as her life softly ebbed away. She was a nursing home patient and had no other relatives. I remember an Asian family in critical care, as their loved one had just died—complete silence and intense sadness greeted me as I came into the room. I entered the packed ICU cubicle—wall to wall with a Pentecostal Latino family, who wanted me to pray their brother (and uncle) across the River Jordan. (The waves of grief were palpable…I vividly remember.) And the couple who had just delivered a stillborn, full-term baby. Their first. The husband looked so lost, so alone. My heart still goes out to them both as I see them in my memory.

It wasn’t all end of life. I remember being asked to pray the Rosary with a Filipino family around their ill auntie, lying in the hospital bed. Then, talking haltingly in my schoolroom German with a grumpy old man who just spoke Russian—and Yiddish! (He was disgruntled that few could understand him. But with my cheerful efforts, I believe I made a difference.) The situation with an older Muslim patient, and the 20-something relative wearing hijab and very conservative dress; she earnestly asked me to pray. Of course I did! (And, I talked with her for a good long while afterward, since her loved one in the bed was non-verbal.)

Happy occasions happened, too. Often I would see patients get better, and get released. Also, I loved seeing all the babies. Bless the babies, and their families, as well.

Caring. Capable. Conscientious — The words continued to guide me as I tried my best to be warm and nurturing. I would strive to help, to serve, to come alongside of whoever needed me, or paged me, or stopped me in the hall. Just as I do now, in the suburb where my church is located. Multicultural Morton Grove, Illinois.

Again, the world is coming to me. I hope always to have my heart and arms open wide.

How has the world come to you? Please share your stories through the comments! 

More about the author:

ElizajonesElizabeth has been involved:

– as a pastor at St. Luke’s Christian Community Church, Morton Grove, Illinois

– in various ministry and prayer-related activities

– as a commissioned member in the Federation of Christian Ministries

She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a Certificate in Alcohol and Drug Counseling in Illinois (IAODAPCA). You can find her blogging at matterofprayerblog.wordpress.com

These are the People in My Neighborhood

Our street is a short, one-way street, four blocks from the Charles River. It’s lined with three-family homes, built at the turn of the century as industrial housing for people who worked at factories and needed places to live. The street gets mostly local traffic and even long-time residents of Cambridge don’t always know where it is.

I love this street. There are families and single people, older couples and students. There are Greeks and Chinese and white Americans and more Greeks and more Chinese and then there are even more Greeks. There are those we’ve secretly adopted as grand children, and there’s an Ethiopian family around the corner with the cutest twins I’ve ever seen. We keep on trying to meet them but always end up too far away when they walk by. But one day….one day, we will accost them and find out their story. There is Maria, Carla, Peter, little Peter, Christopher, So, and the uppity couple on the corner.

My Chinese neighbor across the street will wander over to make sure I’ve picked mint in her postage stamp garden; my Greek neighbor will shout out “hello’s” and make sure that I pull close enough to other cars when I parallel park, admonishing me: “We all have to leave space for each other in the city!”

If you head down the street and make a left turn, then a right turn, you may run across Billy Davis. Billy Davis was born on that street and he’s now retired, in his late seventies or early eighties we think. He’ll tell you all about Cambridge in the old days. He’ll talk about how everyone got along: the Irish, the Italians, the Portuguese, all the immigrant families. He’ll tell you how he couldn’t misbehave because there were so many watching mamas on his street and they all had eyes on the kids in the neighborhood. He may do something wrong, but the minute he walked in his own house, his mom would say “Hey, what were you doing down at the park?” and it was all over. His stories need telling and we are eager listeners.

Walk over a block and you reach our neighborhood mechanic, Phil. He’s the best mechanic in all Cambridge and will give you fair prices and honest assessments of what’s wrong with your car. He’ll even make a house call if you really need it.

Walk the other way to Central Square and you’ll come across the Village Grill, run by Theo and Helen. It’s a small, local neighborhood restaurant with an extensive menu. Biting into a piping hot gyros or Greek Salad with grilled chicken, you will find it is worth every penny. You don’t just pay for food, you pay for conversation and it is always interesting. Theo and Helen are Greek as well, so the conversation occasionally turns theological, which means it turns Greek.

I walk out of the house on this Monday morning, and smile at my neighborhood. It’s going to be a hot humid day, and tonight will see many of us on porches, observing each other through porch railings and potted plants.

Because these are the people in our neighborhood. 

Who are the people in your neighborhood? I would love to hear!

The Bus Driver Who Waits

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I stand and wait for the 64 bus. It’s early in the day, and though the weather people promise a hot one, in this hour a cool breeze and bright sky makes for a beautiful morning.

In cities all over the world, people rely on public transportation. Throughout the day they wait for the buses, trains, ferries, or other modes of transportation that will take them to jobs around the city.

And none of us think much about the drivers, until something happens to make you think about them. The bus squeaks to a stop at my corner and the driver presses a button to open the door. I step inside and I immediately remember this bus driver.

This driver is the one who waits. He is the one who takes the time to look down the street. If he sees someone running, he will wait. Others leave without a thought. After all, they need to keep to their schedule. But this driver is different. He waits. I first met him in the winter, when massive snow piles covered the sidewalk, making walking almost impossible. He saw someone running. Running in that cold, icy, weather. And he waited. The bus was packed, but he still fit one more person in.

I thought it was just about the cold. But then, a month later there he was again, and someone else was running. And he waited. By this time, the sidewalks were clear and snow was beginning to melt.

And when it happened a third time, I knew that this driver was different. He is the bus driver who waits.

It’s a small thing, but it’s huge to the person who is running, the person who he waits for. It makes all the difference, for if they don’t make their bus then a domino effect goes into play. They arrive late to work, they have their pay docked, they flounder.

In my faith tradition, we talk a lot about we humans being made in the image of God. We hearken back to those beautiful Latin words – Imago Dei. Sometimes just the words take my breath away – they are so big. But they aren’t mere words, they are a theological truth, they are a concept to live by. When we see humans as made in the image of God, then they are worth waiting for. We care about what happens to them, whether we know them or not. And we do what we can to connect, to offer hope, to walk with them on their journeys. We don’t condescend to their every whim, but we do make our relationships count in light of eternity. Because we believe that we are made in the image of the God of that eternity.

This bus driver? Does he believe we are made in the image of God? I have no idea. But I know he waits. He’s the bus driver who waits, and it is a gift.

Someday I may be the one running, and I will get to thank him for being the one who waits. Until then, I ask myself – am I one who is willing to wait?

Re-Engaged

Sunflower and blue door with quote

In a city, one street over may be the difference between safety and danger; between keeping your possessions and getting robbed; between walking freely and running in fear.

Sometimes its even one side of the street that is less safe. Like where I get off the subway. A while ago I talked about how I crossed to the other side. I didn’t want to face what I was facing, it was too hard and I felt too helpless. And when I didn’t feel helpless I felt judgmental, angry at those sitting on the sidewalk with their paper cups designated for money and their raucous laughter and dysfunctional yet amazing community of the homeless. What I haven’t talked about is how I’ve stayed on the other side.

It’s so much easier. I get off the subway, I walk up the stairs and there I am out in the open on the other side of the street. It’s the side with the famous graveyard where Mother Goose, Paul Revere, and five victims of the Boston Massacre are buried. The graveyard that has been there for over 350 years and sits solid, well cared for, and silent on these city streets. No one in the graveyard is asking me for anything.

This side of the street I don’t have to face the homeless. This side of the street I can be in my own world. This side of the street I can walk in freedom. But this side of the street has become boring. Because I find my thoughts and my self singularly uninteresting day after day. So today I crossed back over to the harder side.

I said hi to Valerie – it’s been so long since I’ve had a conversation with her. I exchanged banter with two younger homeless men, I stopped and talked to Mary who sells the Boston Herald, that terrible excuse for journalism. I re-engaged after being disconnected for a long time. 

In the big scheme of things perhaps this is nothing, but for me it is something. It is a concrete action. It may sound foolish but it’s a small step in being faithful. Because I’ve been trying to figure out what being faithful is all about. And in this moment I know, being faithful is re-engaging with the world around me.

A pastor friend who is much younger than me said one time “If you hate the people that God has placed you among, if you hate the place where God has put you – then you need to repent or move.*” Those words are strong words but I think they are true. If I hate the people around me, if I despise the streets I walk and the faces and spaces that I interact with every day, there is something desperately wrong. And I admit, I’ve had my times of begging God to move me, of feeling there was no way the hate would ever go away. One time he did move me and I was so happy. 

I arrived in my new place in 122 degree heat in the middle of July. As I stepped outside of the airport, met by the desert heat, palm trees and Bougainvillea, I breathed a sigh of freedom. I no longer had to try anymore. My chains were gone and I could embrace the start of a new life.

But then he moved me back. So I’m in a place where I need to re-engage. Because for me re-engaging is about repenting, and moving forward. Re-engaging is about being faithful to the God I love.

How about you? Do you love the people God has placed you among?  Do you need to re-engage or do you need to move? 

*I first heard this from Chris Gonzalez, Pastor of Missio Dei in Tempe, Arizona

Grow Up Boston!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a rant. After an experience yesterday with a woman on the street, in tears because of how she was treated by this ‘city on a hill’ I wrote this. It may sound harsh but I mean every word of it!

Grow Up Boston!

Every day I walk your streets, ride your buses and subways, go to your stores. Every day I am a part of the fabric, a thread in the tapestry that is Boston. Every day I work in your buildings, shop in your stores, interact with your homeless.

I am a part of you and you in turn have become a part of me.

And in so many ways I love you. You have so much potential, so much personality, so much fun.

But Boston — I’m tired. I’m tired of having immigrants come up to me on the street, complete strangers, and cry. I’m tired of the Boston stink-eye, I’m tired of the general meanness. I’m tired of crowded subways where the blind and lame are regularly jostled, pushed, and frowned upon. I’m tired of your arrogance.

Boston — you need to grow up. You need to realize — it’s not all about you.

Did you hear that? It’s not all about you.

Public Gardens and View of Newbury Street through a store window

When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon the nation wept for you, the world cried. There was support from around the globe, from the young and old, the small town and the big city. When you have a tragedy the world weeps with you, but you don’t weep with the world. Ever. Because, like a toddler, so egocentric in her development, you only think about yourself.

You boast so much: history, beauty, an ocean, a river, world-famous educational institutions, great food, amazing medical facilities, and more grey cells than we could count. You are Boston Strong with sports teams, and stamina, and guts. But you also boast grumpy people, arrogance, intolerance made more galling because it’s by those who consider themselves so tolerant.

You are creating a culture that despises the old, the feeble, the blind, the refugee, the immigrant. A culture that sits back and does nothing when a disabled, man in a wheelchair falls down and is mocked by a group of high school students. You cater so well to the student, to the ‘twenty something’ yet you have made them so all-important that they fail to understand the bigger picture of life and they are mean right along with you. You are creating a culture of ‘me first’ and ‘no one else matters.’ A culture where no one is given the benefit of the doubt. A culture where immigrants cry to total strangers on street corners, so lonely and attacked they feel.

“I’ve lived other places” they say “Nowhere is it so mean!” There’s always an excuse for why they’re mean — it’s morning, it’s cold, it’s rainy, it’s hot. Well it’s rainy and hot in other places too and they aren’t like this.” “I’m so lonely I could weep.” “I’ve lived here 12 years and still I wonder — will I ever belong? Will I ever feel like people are okay with me?” These are real words Boston, spoken by real people who live in your city and walk on your streets.

You have a hard heart Boston and it needs to soften. You are immature and you need to grow up.

You are so proud of your achievements — first in the nation to have health care access, first to have gay marriage. You are so proud, but you forget the basics — like kindness, honor, respect, and compassion.

Will you stay a toddler forever? Proud of your baby steps but never realizing there are other steps to take, a bigger world to learn, or will you grow up to be the adult, the adult who makes a difference in the world?

Will you ever, can you ever really be the proverbial “city on the hill?”

Tomorrow I will again walk your streets and love your beauty. And I will hope again that someday you will see the other side, the side that we who are ‘other’ see.

On Lovers’ Quarrels, Crazy People & Early Morning Grace

homeless sometimes in the city

The following was written at the end of March.

The wind almost blew me down the street. It was bitter cold and came with a force. The proverbial March lion was not going out as a lamb, instead it continued to roar with sub degree temperatures and cold winds.

Hopping off the subway at my early morning hour I came across a lovers’ quarrel. Voices were raised in accusation, frustration, and anger. Like many couples, one was trying to hush the other, embarrassed for the scene.

And like many quarrels, it wasn’t working. Instead, the arguments grew louder and more forceful.

The world – it doesn’t get easier. My senses are alert to pain and brokenness; to lover’s quarrels and severed relationships.

It’s these moments in the city — the moments when lover’s quarrels, homeless veterans, and broken people remind me that I need grace. Every day. Every minute. It is these moments when Valerie asks for money instead of coffee, because she wants to buy black pants and a white shirt – her “interview uniform” she calls it. It’s these moments where I look at the faces surrounding me and every one of them has a furrowed brow. We are the people of the furrowed brows.

And then there are those early morning moments where I pass someone and immediately think “God, be with the crazy people.” and then I immediately follow it by the Jesus Prayer because I know there is such a fine line between the crazy people and me.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me.

And in these early morning moments it’s so clear we can’t do this without grace. I can’t do this without grace.

This world overwhelms, Jesus offers the only solution.

Heaven meets earth on a Sunday morning and the body and the blood offer grace. Earth meets Heaven on a Monday morning, begging for restoration. Sunday will transition to Monday until the end of time. But the one who gifts us with time will ever offer grace.

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Did you ever think about how muffins can be such grace? This morning it hit me — Stacy’s creativity is grace for me every Monday. She says this about today’s muffins This week’s muffin is going to be a variation on the British traditional Easter simnel cake, made into muffins and decorated with marzipan balls to represent the apostles.” Head here to get the recipe for Easter Simnel Muffins

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Apples and Mondays

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Mondays are not easy for me.

For some, Mondays are a new start — kids go back to school, the counter is wiped clean, there is space and time.

For others, Mondays are perhaps like mine. They are a reminder of my disparate existence, a reminder that even as I cocoon myself in a home with warmth and white lights there is a world out there that can’t be ignored. A world where I smell pot at 6:45 in the morning as I come out of the subway. A world where Mary warns me yet again to “Be careful up there!” A world where I can smell the alcohol from 10 feet away on the breath of someone I regularly communicate with.

And that’s how this Monday began. Except for an apple. A bright, red, beautiful apple.

A man who couldn’t have been older than 25 dressed in business clothes was seated next to a woman who had all her household goods in a shopping cart. Only her face and eyes peeked out from a coat that was too big for her. The man was white and the woman was black. The contrast between privilege and poverty was stark. And then he reached into his bag and brought out an apple and he gave it to her. There was no drama. I was the only one sitting across from them and I doubt anyone saw the act except me. As they made eye contact, she smiled her gratitude through dark brown eyes and they exchanged greetings. A conversation started that was over almost as soon as it began – but at least it started.

It was so small but it felt so big.

I know there are those who would be cynical about this. A young, white man with everything takes pity on a black woman with nothing. But it didn’t feel like that. It seemed redemptive for both, certainly for me.

Much is written on privilege and recognizing privilege. In this, the act of giving an apple, it felt like a young man who knows his own privilege wanted to reach over that division into the life of someone who would be easy to ignore, easy to dismiss. It seemed thoughtful and without guile.

So an apple and a Monday help me to reach across the Sunday – Monday division believing that redemption happens in small ways all around me.

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Stacy’s recipe this Monday combines my all-time favorite liqueur with one of my all-time favorite foods. This combo is called Stacy’s Bailey’s Irish Cream Muffins. (Actually, I added the ‘Stacy’s’ to the title.) I cannot wait to try these! May the Irish among us rejoice!

Rules for Using Boston’s Transit System

MBTA_Boston_subway_map

Rules for Using Boston’s Transit System by one who knows.

Welcome to our fair city! There are a couple of things you need to know should you decide to utilize our ‘world-class‘ transit system.

1. Always sit in the handicapped space. Otherwise it’s just going to sit there empty and who really cares if someone who is handicapped gets on. It’s not your fault! So yes, sit in that space and don’t move, no matter who gets on the train or bus!

2. Do not smile. Just don’t. If you do people will think that:

  • You are crazy
  • You are a tourist
  • You have something wrong with your facial muscles. So just don’t do it.

3. Don’t talk. Just don’t. To show such enthusiasm for life is just plain not done. If you have to say something, whisper it quietly.

4. Do not shoulder surf. Shoulder surfing can be defined as looking over the shoulder of the person you are sitting beside to read whatever they’re reading. This is not allowed. If you do it, then your seat mate will clutch their newspaper or book close to their heart and give you a look. You don’t want the look.

5. Don’t sit beside someone if there is anyway you can avoid it. Head to the seat with a space beside it. If you sit down and have an empty seat beside you, make sure that you put your big, fat bag or briefcase down so that no one sits beside you. You do not want someone to sit beside you.

6. Do not make eye contact. You will regret it as soon as your pupils meet the pupils of another. If you do happen to make eye contact, look quickly away as though it never happened. This is best.

7. Do not help people. This is just stupid. You may find yourself a minute late for work and that is ridiculous. All for helping someone?? Don’t do it, just don’t help.

8. Make sure you push forward if there is someone lame or blind in front of you. It’s not your fault that they are lame or blind and besides, they need to just get out of your way already.

9. Do not thank people. This is just unnecessary.

10. Do not ask directions. There are signs for god’s sake! Just look at the signs. It’s not right to bother the rest of us with your silly questions when you could just look at the sign above you with all the squiggly lines and figure out where you are and where you’re going.

As always, thank you for riding public transportation and helping to reduce traffic congestion and pollution!

You’re welcome. 

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Learning to ‘Be’ Instead of ‘Do’

Learning to Be

In the spring I moved to a 4-day work week. Basically 40 hours in 4 days instead of 5. This is a good move for me as I needed the space a 3-day weekend provides.

But it also means that on Thursdays I’m tired. Really tired. I meander more than usual, I am unable to efficiently get dressed, get to the subway, get to work, and click control/alt/delete.

I’m finding that inefficiency is a gift.

I’ve found that in the inefficiency that is Thursday I stop and find out the names of those on the streets: those who curl up under the tall pillars of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral; those who cuddle concrete and brick walls close to ward off the cold; those who spoon together for physical comfort under tattered blankets, their hoodies pulled tight over their heads.

It’s on these days that I learn more about buying coffee instead of giving money; where I find out who needs surgery, who stole a wheelchair, why Sheryl is so thin.

I am not sure why this happens on Thursdays – maybe it’s because I’m tired and with my tiredness, more relatable. But I think it’s more that I give myself permission to be more than a machine, I realize how I live the ‘now’ is important, realize getting to work a few minutes late because I stopped to get someone a coffee is somehow worth it. It’s these moments I will remember when I can no longer work, not the efficient minutes in my grey cubicle.

There is a stark contrast of this Boston to the Red Sox Boston, to the Celtics Boston, to the Harvard, MIT Boston, to the Robert McCloskey Make Way for Ducklings Boston. And yet this is part of the fabric of the city and the people here don’t much care about that other Boston. Their lives are caught up in the crisis of today with its hunger, addictions, and relationship struggles.

I will never know how to “do” poverty; “do” homeless – and maybe that’s part of the problem. Before I’ve always thought of this as something to “do” and it is in the doing where I trip up. I alternate between guilt and pride, between true empathy and anger, between ignoring and connecting in a sickly sweet way that oozes pity instead of true concern. Maybe “doing” is all wrong – not what this is about.

Because on these days, where interacting is natural and comfortable, where there is no guilt, where I am tired, I learn what it is to just “be”. To relate human to human in the early morning fog of tired, steam rising from manholes, and the city in its pre-workday quiet.

Maybe it’s about “being” instead of “doing”. Maybe in being I learn to bear witness to the human story that gets lost in the doing. Maybe.

Image credit: wrangel / 123RF Stock Photo

I Love the City Until…..

Boston from Federal Reserve Bank Building

Last night someone broke into our car. I foolishly left the windows down – just one inch, forgot to lock the doors, and didn’t alarm the car. It was a, what do you call it? A sitting duck? Open game?

Whatever the idiom, there was nothing to prevent someone from trying to get in.

We keep little in our car. Some coins for parking meters – a city ‘must-have’, Kleenex, and Altoids. Altoids were strewn across the passenger seat. Quarters and dimes were gone, the thief randomly leaving nickles. My husband found the car this way well past midnight as he went to pick up one of our kids from the airport.

We live in the city, and I love the city. I love the bustle. I love being able to walk to get coffee, walk to get groceries, walk to the subway that takes me just three stops to my place of work in downtown Boston.

I used to sing with gusto the song “You’re the God of this City” by Chris Tomlin. I sang these words and I thought I meant them:

You’re the God of this city.You’re the King of these people. You’re the Lord of this nation. You’re the light in this darkness.You’re the hope to the hopeless. You’re the peace to the restless.

Greater things have yet to come, And greater things are still to be done in this city.

And then I’d repeat. And the second time I sang it was with even more emphasis, sometimes a tear catching in my eye.

I love the city – until the city turns on me. I love the city until I find out we were robbed and every cupboard and every door and every closet is open, the thief frantically searching for valuables.

I love this city until someone tries to steal my car. I love this city until my neighbors wake me at 2:30 in the morning, their dog bouncing a fake bone across the wooden floor.

I love this city – until I don’t love it.

I love this city when it’s good to me, when I feel safe and alive.

And when I don’t – I hate it. I hate everything about it.

My love for the city is completely conditional.

And in this early morning, as I work through how I feel, and I’m tired, and all I want is to move far away I realize how much my love for God resembles my love for the city.

I love God when He’s good to me, when I feel safe and alive.

I love God – until I don’t love Him. Until I question everything about Him and shake my fist in His Almighty face, forgetting that He is the maker of the universe, He is the God of this city.

So I sit, face to face with all my ugly, with all my fickle, conditional, capricious love.

And as I sit I know without doubt that, unlike the city, God hears my cry, listens to my anger, and continues to pour forth unconditional love on my soul.

Early Morning Warnings

I get off the subway early. We, the early morning crowd, share a special bond. We nod to each other, though we don’t know each other’s names, places of work, or families. It’s the “We’re up with the birds” look, a “knowing” look. A “we’re up while everyone else is still asleep waiting for their alarms to ring” look.

I pass by people who I see almost everyday, say hello to Mary who sells the Boston Herald. And today Mary says to me, as she periodically does: “Watch your bag honey”. And I nod and thank her.

And so I watch my bag. Because Mary knows this area well. While I think I know it well, I’ve only been walking this route for a few years. She has lived and worked this area for many more. and she knows the various characters that live life on these streets. She knows who you can trust, and who you need to watch. She knows that poverty and homelessness does not mean you are automatically a good person who has fallen into hard times, does not mean you are automatically trustworthy. She is an astute observer of human nature and knows that the mean come in all sizes and income levels.  The sly and the underhanded, the mocking and disrespectful – these are not just categories that the middle-class and rich fall into.

It’s an interesting dilemma for me as a white privileged woman. I observe many white middle-class Americans, I read their essays on the poor and I wish they would talk to Mary. Because their subtext is that the rich are bad and the poor are good, the rich deceptive and the poor honest, the rich rude and the poor kind. But if we’re honest we know that’s not the case.

I have met wealthy people who give graciously and responsively, aware that every penny is from God. I have met poor people who would (and did) kill their last chicken to show you hospitality. I have met rich people who wear arrogance around their necks with their latest Gucci scarves, and poor who mock and yell and rant at all those who pass by.

And so Mary periodically tells me to watch my bag. She tells me who to give to and who not to give to, she tells me who to watch out for and when I should cross the street and go to the other side. And I listen – because Mary knows these streets.

Picture 188These early morning warnings teach me a couple of life lessons. One is that the worst and the best of humanity are represented in all spheres of society; the second is that in life we need our “Marys” – those people who know where we walk and can help us discern true and false, can help us walk in the ‘good’ way, the wise way.

Mary’s early morning warning made me think of one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It’s a verse that gives instruction from the prophet Jeremiah:

Stand at the crossroads and look; Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is – and walk in it.~ Jeremiah 6:16a 

So on this early morning, just as I chose to watch my bag, I will choose to ask where the good way is – and walk in it. 

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