“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware…”
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The lines on the ground are cracked, and I am hungry. I am in the way of this already. But I smell him.
His head bobs up and down. He is wearing headphones. He may not be listening to anything.
A shriek and a field of sparks. A moment of violence passing and followed by utter peace.
A thin sheet of light surrounded by faded brown/red light. Occasionally, a sharp nudge or sudden drop makes the light expand, but only for a moment, the light is hardly bearable.
Three women sit in plastic folding chairs, they are talking and laughing. In the distance, a train passes by in a flash of silver carrying the silhouette of a man leaning against a window. None of them look towards it.
A river streams between cream-colored ridges, carrying dirt and grit across its expanse, heading sometimes north, sometimes south as the landscape tilts, rises, and falls. A strip of dark gray cloth licks at the surface, siphoning the water.
We sway together as though we are connected.
A protrusion of faint white emerges snow-like from mottled red fiber—a tiny volcano. Beyond it, a man’s face is as large as the sun; a streak of silver dirt glistens on his cheek..
Green shoes, red shoes, shoes with a hole and a visible toe.
The car is full. A woman stands, grasps a pole, loses her balance with each turn. He lays asleep next to two empty seats.
Two men join him. They talk. Splitting up small collections of money. They leave. He tells one of them, “take care of yourself.
Exit on the left at Addison. For a moment, I am alone. In a moment, his seat is filled.
When I ride the trains in Chicago, I sit with the homeless so that I’m not alone. It’s not because I’m a good person (I’m not). It’s because I fit there. I look more like these people than the polished professionals commuting to work or the youthful congregations of those with headphones in and iPhones at the ready. I’m not afraid of a little dirt or a sour smell or a torn sleeve. I’ve got all those things myself. I don’t have much to lose. So I join the homeless on the train, pull out a notebook that has been unforgivingly shoved in a pocket and write notes like the ones above, looking at my momentary friends from as many angles as I can, recording their presence. We sit near each other, aware of each other. Slowly, they become familiar and beautiful to me.
There is a value to being silently present; to being near to people, acknowledging their existence, and making yourself familiar with the many ways they can be seen. My dad calls this the ministry of “being there”. It’s a ministry that makes sense to me. It’s a practice that has helped me see God’s handiwork in the most common of moments and beauty in the most familiar spaces.
Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a friend, and make it the most spectacular sandwich ever. Because the secret to finding beauty in the familiar is to invest with care and to share joyfully.
“Detectorists” Johnny Flynn
I want to love you, but I am so utterly in the way. Preoccupied, I miss the many wonders that you place on my path and the divine appointments of everyday. Give me eyes to see that which I have overlooked. Give me ears to hear you speaking through the common. Help me move myself aside that I might hear and see more. Help me to be present and familiar with your handiwork that I might praise You more.
Take 30 minutes of time. Go to a common place with a pad and paper. Look at something you see everyday and begin describing it. Don’t try to be clever or fancy or employ metaphor, just look and describe; this isn’t about you. Step aside from yourself. Look at it from above, below, and from the side; write what it looks like from far away and close; count the cracks in its surface. Acknowledge its presence and facets. Paying attention is an expression of care. Practice it. Expand it. Take this perspective to the people you encounter everyday. Take it especially to those you disagree with. You will find that things change as you engage in the ministry of being there, and you will learn a great deal about the world God has created.