Commuting in America

One of my favorite parts of my week is the walk I take every Wednesday from the church where I am working at 13th and G Street to the church where I have a  midday rehearsal at 20th and G Street. That would seem like a pretty straight shot along seven blocks of a single street, but nothing is quite so simple when you travel around the city of Washington D.C.

My route is bisected diagonally by Pennsylvania Avenue, and that takes me past the house at 1600 every week. Being a veteran Washingtonian of more than 30 years now, I am too cool, of course, to gawk at The White House, but the house itself is the least interesting thing along my commute. That long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, with Lafayette Square on one side, and a wide swath of pavement that was blocked off from cars more than a decade ago, beckons people from every state and continent. Musicians playing everything from rock guitar to smooth saxophone to mountain tunes on the harmonica.  Camera-wielding tourists, families, and people in wheelchairs. Evangelists for their own brand of God’s good news, and protestors of causes I didn’t even know existed. People who have created memorials for those lost at war or for lives wasted by gun violence. Men in well-pressed suits zipping by on scooters, briefcases in hand, weaving around strollers and the very obvious security guards, who stand seemingly at ease, but clearly attuned to everything and everyone around them.

Of all that I’ve seen on my Wednesday pedestrian commutes, the best so far has been a group of men in robes and large white hats. From a distance I feared a gathering of the KKK, but getting closer I saw that these were dark-skinned men who held signs proclaiming themselves to be Moors. It wasn’t clear what they were protesting, but if their goal was to let the world know that the Moors still live, they succeeded with me. Did you know there are still people who identify as Moors today?

There are always lessons to be learned, and I love my few minutes every week of seeing the world gathered, sometimes to gawk and sometimes to proclaim. We can’t know if the residents of The White House are observing anything that happens outside their windows, but I find hope in what I see – community, curiosity, diversity…and street musicians! As we look forward to Thanksgiving next week I am grateful to witness America on that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s colorful and messy and so very beautiful in its openness to all sorts and conditions.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson and T.S. Eliot, among many others, have quotes attributed to them about the journey mattering more than the destination. They remind us that transient moments have value and enrich our lives. That the journey itself can bring happiness. I certainly feel that on Wednesday afternoons.

Reaching a destination suggests an ending, but as every musician knows, the journey is all we have. We will never reach a musical destination because we know that something could always be better – a phrase more beautifully shaped, an emotion more clearly expressed, or a technical passage more perfectly executed. I think that’s probably true for every part of our lives. We’re all works in progress, so why not appreciate the commute as a welcome part of life.


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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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The Moment to Decide

Thou that hast given so much to me
give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
as if Thy blessings had spare days —
but such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

from “Gratefulness” by George Herbert

Cultivating, expressing, and living a life of gratitude are decisions we each make for ourselves. Feeling grateful can come from a place of abundance in our lives, but I have a feeling it comes more often from a place of scarcity, or even despair. Those moments when we are stripped down to a basic level of survival – be that emotional or physical survival – and we somehow summon gratitude for another day, a kindness shown, or even just an awareness that our pain is a sign that we have loved and been loved. These are clear connections with God in a way that lifts us from scarcity to abundance.

Think of all that you are blessed with.  A loving family? Educational opportunities? The chance to travel the world? Material wealth? Good health? Sincere friendships?  Resilience?  Charisma? The possibilities are many.  The best gifts are given without expectation of anything in return, but blessings? Those put us in God’s debt and we do owe something back to the world for our blessings.

President Kennedy, echoing words from Luke 12:48, reminded a prosperous America in 1961: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

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Three people in the past week or so have individually mentioned the same hymn to me. Coincidence?  Holy Spirit?  It comes from The Hymnal 1940, and though I know the tune well (the wonderfully sturdy Welsh tune, supposedly found in a bottle on its rugged coastline…Ton-y-botel), the words were less familiar to me.  I suppose the editorial committee for The Hymnal 1982 couldn’t imagine us singing these words into the 21st century and so it didn’t make the cut:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

From a poem written to protest the Mexican War and the increased territory for slavery which that war portended, the hymn’s text continues:

Then the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied (v. 2), and …toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth (v. 3) and in the final verse…Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong.  

You will find the text in its entirety here. Do you agree that these words have relevance for us in 2017, occasional masculine language notwithstanding? New CalvariesGod’s new Messiah…new occasions teach new duties…new forms of human cruelty and deception, new reasons to strengthen our resolve for truth and justice.

This is bold language, words to shake us from complacency.  Perhaps too directive though, too black and white? But aren’t some things simply wrong? Is every problem shaded in gray? If a simple question were to be asked of any action – does it create more goodwill and love in the world? – would that pull us out of some of life’s gray areas?

Each of us has abundant blessings of one kind or another. Our obligation in turn is to see each decision – even seemingly insignificant ones – as moments to decide ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

With a grateful heart,