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I recently moved to a new community. The neighborhood I work in has a bustling downtown. Cabot Street features restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that invite people to browse and visit. Often I cross paths with people I know, sometimes we offer a quick wave, often we stop and talk. One of the things I enjoy most about my neighborhood are the people I’m getting to know as friends.
Within the downtown are those less visible. They are our neighbors who are homeless. It is not uncommon for people to walk past the homeless as if they weren’t there. Perhaps we walk past because we think that their story is so different from our own? Perhaps we walk past because they remind us of our own vulnerability?
The church I serve has long been seen as a hospitable place for our neighbors on the street. We serve three meals per week for guests who are homeless or live on the margins. This past week we partnered with another church to house three families with ten children. Soon the winter weather will come and our most fragile friends will come seeking warmth,to use the restrooms or plug in a cell phone.
Providing hospitality isn’t easy. Some guests are active in their addiction or struggle with mental health issues. Sometimes we have to set boundaries for appropriate behavior.
Some churches lock their doors and see assistance as enabling. Some cities seek to criminalize the most vulnerable and force them into jails or to the next community.
I’m grateful for churches and communities that strive to provide a warm welcome and practical assistance. Gradually I’m getting to know the names and stories of my new neighbors on the street. I’m reminded that our stories have much in common.
Jesus in Matthew 25 says, ‘whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me’. Jesus identifies with the most vulnerable at the deepest of levels and invites us to do the same.
Recognizing one another as a neighbor has all sorts of implications. As we get to know and care about each other, we begin to see the complex issues that bring someone to the streets. We begin to explore what social services are necessary for a healthy community to provide, so that all our neighbors are treated with dignity. But it all begins by simply knowing each other’s name.
Several years ago I climbed into a rickety 1946 de Havilland Float Plane for a two-hour flight from Petersburg, Alaska for Tebenkoff Bay in the Tongass Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska. I was dropped off at an island with ten other people I’d never met. The rain was falling in sheets. We would be kayaking from island to island and camping.
Our guide brought us together on the beach as the rain fell. He said: “You are dressed for the rain. This rain will be your constant companion for most of the next week. It is up to each of you how you view this reality. You can complain or you can embrace it. The choice is yours.”
We chose to embrace the rain. For the next week we would kayak from island to island with rain as our constant companion. We had a great time.
I was thinking of that experience yesterday as I kayaked with my wife Tricia and friends on Chebacco Lake in Massachusetts. It was October and the colors were in their New England glory if muted somewhat by a steady rain.
Having been on that lake in the summer with water ski boats racing past us, this day it was just our little group. Apparently most people prefer the sun. The gift of rain brought us quiet.
Slowly we paddled the circumference of that lake. Our only companions were ducks, ravens, hawks, occasionally a rising fish and of course the sound of rain.
In our busy lives where our schedules guide us and our minds race, it was a healthy antidote to be on the water. Our group’s age range was mid 30’s to mid 70’s. Gliding on the water any age difference fell away and we were simply fellow paddlers embracing the rain and the sounds that come with silence.
3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah said: “Listen and your soul will live.” All we need do is slow down and listen. There is no better place to listen than being on the water in the rain.
After 30 plus years I recently returned to the land of my birth. Anyone who has lived far from home understands that a piece of oneself remains in that place where ones identity was shaped and formed.
Growing up in New England, Rhode Island specifically, I realized in my early 20’s that I needed to move away. I realized that I needed to stretch myself without the parameters of that which was familiar. I’m glad I left.
For the next 30 plus years I lived in Montana, California, Ohio and for the last 20 years in Oregon. Each place I have enjoyed and learned and received much. Oregon in particular is a wonderful place to be.
Yet as I got older I realized that there was a deep call from within me calling me home. I felt like a salmon being compelled to swim back to the tributary that gave it birth.
Now back in New England I find myself settling into the comfortable rhythm of the region. Last night I attended Fenway Park and sipped ‘clam chowda’ from Legal Seafood as I watched my Red Sox. How cool to have good chowder within the sights and sounds of Fenway!
This past weekend I was installed as a member of the pastoral team at the new church I now call home. During the ritual I looked out at the faces of those I am still getting to know. The church seemed so new to me and at the same time very familiar, as if we’d known each other for a longtime.
Several family members joined my wife and me at church. My Mom, Millie at age 91, my Aunt Evelyn in her mid 90’s, both wonderfully engaged with life, my cousin Tom and his wife Doreen who are family but also good friends.
That afternoon, after the ritual of installation, I sat with my family around the table in our new (old) home-built in 1806. We talked over dessert and marveled that after being away for so long that we were back together.
I’m glad I left. I wouldn’t have become who I am without that time away. Yet it is good to be back. Many years ago in California I was feeling homesick. A church musician sang me a song entitled ‘He came along with me’. The song reminds us that wherever we go God goes with us.
The Good News is that whether we stay or go, that wherever we are, our God accompanies us. It is humbling and reassuring to know that God was and is in Rhode Island, Montana, California, Ohio, Oregon, Massachusetts and everywhere else.
Now I am back in New England the region of my birth. But I know that I’ve always been at home with that Holy Source that brought me/us into being and to whom I/we will all one day return. As surely as the salmon swims home.
This morning I drove by a park. I pulled to the curb to savor the pure joy of several adults celebrating life. They were a mix of disabled and able bodied adults enjoying a day of warm weather and blue skies. The parachute accentuated their joyful whoops and laughter.
Their witness was in contrast to the news on my car radio that morning (the expanding war on terrorism, the 13th anniversary of 9/11 etc.) along with the worries I carry with me.
Tim Hansel in his book ‘You Gotta Keep Dancing’, speaks of his journey with chronic pain. He writes that joy is different than happiness. Happiness is circumstancial. It is dependent upon ‘good things’ happening to us. If like sucks (such as chronic pain) we are unhappy, if things are good we are happy.
Joy he offers is different, it is a choice. It is based on the deep seated belief ‘that whatever happens, God is with us.’ ‘Joy is a gift’ says Hansel, that comes as we choose to be hopeful.
As I watched these adults ‘play’ in the park. I found that my own perspective began to change. I began to feel and embrace their joy in that park. I was reminded that while life can be difficul,t that I too can choose to be joyful.
As a person of faith, I can choose to believe ‘that whatever happens, God is with me.’Who knows, if I truly believe this… you may find me tossing a colored parachute into the air!