I have the privilege of taking a lot of our newcomers to the church out for coffee, and this time of year I am meeting with a lot of students who are just starting school in the city. Many of our new students are coming from places very different from New York City (Of course, there is no place like NYC!), and they are getting adjusted to things like being car-less, the lack of reciprocated smiles on the street, and walking A LOT.
I am reminded of the first time I ventured out from my small town in Missouri for college. I headed off for my first big city experience in Chicago. For the most part, I couldn’t wait to get rid of my parents and get on with my great Mary Tyler Moore adventure in independence.
But a part of me was terrified. I had never lived away from my parents and friends. I knew no one. I had never ridden a subway. And I didn’t know WHAT to do with a scarf (I learned that one pretty quickly in the Windy City.). Everything in my life was about to be different.
But I have this memory of one day walking around this new, unfamiliar campus with my new backpack and my new books. It felt like everything was new and unfamiliar–including myself and what I was becoming. But, as I walked, for some reason I happened to look up. And I noticed the sky, with its blue color and its big puffy white clouds and its warming sun, and I just remember feeling like I was suddenly in the presence of an old friend. The feeling of familiarity kind of surprised me. That blue had been my companion when I used to sneak out onto the roof of our house to read books. Along with the smell of cattle and insect repellent, those clouds used to hang around when Mom and I would visit Grandpa’s farm. And that warm sun was so often waiting to greet me in the afternoons when my hormonal adolescence would walk out the front doors of my high school with girlfriends and potential boyfriends.
I remember that looking up at that familiar sky my first week of college was a spiritual moment for me. Since I was a kid, I have always associated the sky with God and my spiritual center. And, at a time when everything in my life was changing, including a lot of things about me, when I was being exposed for the first time to drugs, Karl Marx, and urban poverty—when all things stable were coming unhinged—I was reminded that there was something that would always be with me and in me, whether I noticed it or not: God’s love and claim on my life. When I take time to remember it, notice it, acknowledge it, I always feel centered again in a reality that grounds me.
When I ask people why they started to come to church when they moved to New York, so many say that it is because church reminds them of who they are in the midst of the craziness of this city. Our spiritual practice is what keeps us from getting too caught up in the day-to-day extraneous of life: wanting desperately to succeed and to please others, feeling bad about things we have done or left undone, getting too caught up in our scarcity or in our riches.
So, as you go about your daily routine today, take a moment to remember who you are and to whom your life belongs. Remember the frailty and impermanence of most of the things we struggle for each day. And just notice God’s presence around you—in the strangers on the street, in the coworker who drives you nuts, in the stuffy air on the subway.
You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a shudder.
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.
We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow. For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.
Looking for a spiritual center in the city? Join us any Sunday morning at 10:30am.