I love the city. I first fell in love with metropolitan life as a 20-something pastor in San Francisco. Now, years later, while I still retreat to the mountains or desert or ocean for some extra peace and inspiration, “urban” continues to feel like home. Ironically, the pace of inner-city life often feels slower to me than that of suburban or even country living. I think it has to do with the walking. When I was a pastor in Texas and Georgia, I necessarily drove everywhere. From inside my air conditioned car I zipped past neighborhoods, businesses and parks on my way to meetings or hospital visits, windows rolled up, music blaring.
But the District of Columbia where I live now is a “walking city.” I’ve all but abandoned my air-conditioned car. Nowadays I shine with perspiration in the soggy summer air as I ride the packed escalator out of the Dupont Metro station. The giant moving stairway is excruciatingly slow and seems to take forever before reaching the sidewalk above. Some enterprising people jog up the escalator, briefcases in hand, Fitbits working overtime.
But I enjoy the unhurried experience. There’s almost always some street musician playing at the top of the escalator — the Peruvian guy on his mandolin, or the old man with a guitar singing B.B. King, or the young counter-tenor who, as far as I can tell, sings only Ave Maria. As the escalator lifts me out of the Metro tunnel I close my eyes and listen. Today it happened to be the Army vet with the fountain of dreadlocks playing old sitcom theme songs on his trumpet. By the time I reached the sidewalk, a small chorus of us were laughing and singing, with gusto, the lyrics to Gilligan’s Island.
Recently my spiritual director gave me an assignment: “Practice being fully present in whatever moment you happen to be,” she instructed me. “Pick an image — either air, heartbeat or ground — to prompt you into the immediate moment.”
I thought about my daily foot-commute. “I choose ground,” I said.
It is a considerable challenge to keep our soul and mind in the same vicinity as our body. And while I admit that it’s taken some practice, I find these days that the simple act of walking in my city has become a cherished, holy exercise. The measured, foot-to-pavement rhythm grounds me in this moment, this breath, this face coming toward me on the sidewalk.
As Frederick Buechner reminds us, Jesus is apt to show up, “Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but … at supper time, or walking along a road ….”
Love meets us, in other words, in all kinds of moments — urban or otherwise — if we are present enough to notice.