Day 26 – Eat Thai, Talk Anger

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My roommate, Matt, treated me to a late birthday dinner at Beau Thai. It was my first time. Honestly, I rarely think to walk the few blocks west to Mt. Pleasant. I should do it more often.

The food was tasty. The service was quick and friendly. The restaurant was cute and comfortable. On the way home, we walked up Mt. Pleasant Road, the opposite direction of my stroll on Friday. It was a lovely night.

Matt was gracious to let me reflect on my negative church experience yesterday, the sharply worded blog post I wrote about it, and the reactions from readers. Actually, most people were appreciative. But I was still thinking and feeling deeply about it. His assessment, “Well, you seemed angry.”

I was angry. I was angry that the preacher presented faith in such a burdensome way. I was angry at his disdain for the culture, as if we’re not all a part of it, as if we can separate that easily from it. I was angry because it reminded me of my formative years in a very similar church, whose view of God and the world caused a lot of damage.

Clearly, some scars remain. I think that they’re gone, but then something happens to show they remain, even if healed. I don’t think that means I’m nurturing hurt or refusing to grow. I think some hurts just linger, sometimes hidden. Then they flare up and you figure out how to attend to them.

I could look at my hurts as problems to be fixed. Instead I see them as opportunities for humility, a reminder to ask for love in the places where I feel poor. And the wounds give me a chance (when I’m at my best) to find communion with others who have also suffered. (There is, of course, the temptation to lash out and to wound in the way I was hurt.)

I am flawed and scarred. I get angry and self-righteous. I think and think and think, and then express that energy. There is good and bad here, healthy and wounded. Weirdly, I am grateful for it all. I see these as invitations to remember how small I am and how big the world is. And that there is a goodness, far greater than any of this muck, that is available.

Tonight I ask for love, and the grace to give it in return. Thanks, Matt, for the chance to reflect.

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Day 25 – Hate a Preacher

I loathed him as soon as I saw him. I recognized his demeanor before he even spoke. The whole thing was just like I remembered: hard edged and scornful of the world. I had stumbled into a conservative church like I grew up in, and the minister was pedaling a Christianity that made me want to be a pagan. Jesus, save me from your followers.

The church was full of 20 somethings in jeans and tshirts, swaying and clapping to upbeat music from the band. Then the pastor got up to speak. He wore a suit and tie, had slick, dark hair, and sported trim glasses he constantly adjusted — to underscore his erudition I suppose. He spouted 40 minutes worth of forgettable statements about faith, but people everywhere scribbled down his wisdom on notepads. He had disdain for the culture and little sympathy for weakness. He spoke about the poor with condescension. Above all, his god felt very demanding.

Yet I was fascinated by his showmanship. His voice would soar to make a point, then fall to a soft tremor with pauses after each, word, for, effect. His fists doubled in conviction. He bounced on his toes. His arms stretched to full length as his voice boomed to climax. He grew still and quiet, leaning into the mic for a few soft words aimed at your heart. He was Jimmy Swaggart, minus the charm.

I hated him and everything he stood for. He pushed a triumphalist Christianity that admits no weakness, accepts no uncertainty, allows no mediocrity. Burden piled on burden. Do more. Be more. Work harder. God demands it.

But this is not the God or the faith I know. It is a distortion.

Then all my thoughts turned to confront me. Who are you to suppose that God cannot do some good here? “Who was I?” I wondered, with such hate in me? I was the smug hypocrite from the Bible story, who looked to heaven and thanked God that he was not like the sinner next to him. But it was the sinner, who beat his breast and asked for mercy, that had a true measure of faith.

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This world is full of self righteous, arrogant Christian assholes. Yesterday I met one: myself. While I don’t buy the brand of faith I heard yesterday, my own spirituality will be just as distorted, unless I acknowledge and accept my own faults, failures, and deep seated weaknesses. I need mercy. He needs mercy. You need mercy. I think that is what can draw us together if we’re willing.

I want a faith that pulls me closer to others, not pushes us apart. I want a faith that embraces weakness, not makes us afraid of it. I want a faith that anchors you in a vivid sense of love, not a constant nagging to do more. I hope that in some way, the spiritual part of me can free me from the presumption of my ego, enough that I can receive real love and give real love, in a real way.

A man becomes a saint not by conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

 

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Day 24 – Amble Anacostia

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I ambled through Anacostia yesterday afternoon. I’ve only been east of the river once in 9 years. That’s ridiculous. My perspective on the city needed to be shaken loose.

I walked from the metro stop along MLK Boulevard, passing tons of storefront churches, barber shops, liquor stores, and small markets. Closer to the Big Chair I saw a few signs of development–art galleries, a Capitol bike share, a sit-down restaurant. I turned east onto Good Hope Road to find a business incubator/art gallery, sandwiched between a cash checking place and two tax preparers. A half mile further, I turned onto back streets, passing St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the Frederick Douglass site. I wound through residential areas until I landed back on MLK Boulevard.

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Anacostia seems an honest to God mixture — leafy streets with historic homes and blighted roads full of rundown houses; churches on every corner across from drunks and liquor stores on the other; neighbors talking on porches and silent, deserted streets.

Of course, I stuck out in my Cape Cod shorts, knit shirt, and messenger bag. A few people said hello but most ignored me. Two teenagers looked me over as we passed and concluded with, “Hello, sir.” I said hello back, but I felt dumb. Why? I didn’t want to be the white guy out of water, gawking or fawning my way through a neighborhood where I was clearly out of place. Neither did I want to be rude, brisk, or ignore the people who were letting me be tourist in their slice of the city. What a silly mental game. I’m sure that’s something every person of color has to deal with constantly.

I ended at Union Town Bar & Grill. At 4pm, there were just a handful of customers scattered across the bar. I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic and a little food. While I was watching the baseball game on TV, my head was sorting through why I felt so self-conscious. How much is about race? How much is about class? What does it mean to walk these streets as a tourist, taking pictures for a blog? Am I thinking too much? Probably.

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Anyway, a guy two seats down struck up a conversation, asking if I lived in the neighborhood and then why I would come to Anacostia. “Well, I’ve lived in the city for a long time and never really been east of the river. I wanted to see more of the city.” He seemed satisfied with that and went on to tell me about the sites in the neighborhood that I should see, the lack of city resources, a salty story about Marion Berry that happened in the bar, and his feeling that Anacostia gets ignored by most of DC. I’m glad he talked with me because I wouldn’t have gotten a local perspective without him.

In the end, all my inhibitions were silly but probably not surprising. Despite all my liberal ideas and feelings, there was no way I could go somewhere actually different, and avoid feeling clumsy. Yet, despite all that, grace happened when a stranger was willing to talk to another stranger. And probably that awkwardness itself is a grace, a sign of things to reflect on, an invitation to get outside my bubble more often, a recognition of the fraught history that impacts our interactions with people who are different.

Great afternoon. Just not what I expected.

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Day 23 – Meander Mount Pleasant

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I left my old job on Thursday. So Friday I was free to wander the city. Have you ever had one of those days? I left the house with no real plan or destination, so I meandered the sidewalks of DC.

I started with lunch at 2:30. Pizza. Delicious. It was fun to idle time in the restaurant, picking up random conversations among other day-time loafers. I thought of my former coworkers at their desks. I missed them, but I did not miss going to work.

After lunch I picked up books on hold at the library. The Mt. Pleasant branch is a striking classical building, whose entrance is tucked away on the side. You go up what feels like a secret staircase to an interior door.

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From the library it was natural to walk a few blocks over to Mt. Pleasant Road. I ambled down the main strip toward 16th Street and then continued south along 17th Street. I stopped to take pictures of odd signs or interesting windows, whatever caught my eye or invited me to linger.

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I noticed several expressions of devotion, besides churches. There was a framed picture of the Virgin Mary stacked on a market shelf with a coffee pot and cheese grater. Outside a senior center I saw a sculpture of a person with arms raised in resurrection-like celebration. The Potters House looked closed, but its painted candle still burns alongside the stencil quote from the Bible.

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I forget how saturated a “secular” city can be with signs of faith. Most of my friends are not religious, which is probably true for most Washingtonians. Do those signs and statues offend them, or do they overlook them like I often do? I wonder what token or expression of spirituality would cause my friends to notice and be moved. I don’t mean converted or convinced. I just mean a positive impression, like making them smile or think or feel love. Maybe some image or thought would stick with somebody long enough to earn a place in their mental curio cabinet.

Then I think, Jesus Jeremy, you’re the expression of devotion. It’s your words or actions, small but interesting, that catch someone’s eye and invite them to linger. What inside me is as beautiful or quizzical as that storefront sign? I’ve been exploring the city, but here is an invitation to search within.

 

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Day 22 – Eat a Hot Dog, Reflect on Life

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At 11:30pm I started a late night bar crawl with Andrew. We met at Ivy & Coney, a dive bar in Shaw, that serves hotdogs, beer, and whiskey. That’s it. Over an IPA and a Chicago-style dog, we caught up on the last few years.

I’ve known Andrew just short of a decade, longer than anyone else in DC. It’s remarkable how much has happened and changed in that time period, and our friendship bears the marks like rings on a tree trunk.

We ended the night at the Gibson, a speakeasy serving craft cocktails. Two drinks in, we were reflecting wistfully on growing older, parents, relationships, and the frustrating seduction of living in this city. DC breaks your balls and gets under your skin, and yet you like it. It knows you, your best self you put forward and your worst self you try to hide. In that way, it’s like a marriage, if you’re willing to stick it out.

Anyway, at one point, the bartender approached Andrew with deference to ask a question about the computer system. Andrew is a general manager at the sister bar next door, and he rattled off the answer with authority in his voice. At the end of the night, we left the bar with a free shot and a nod of respect from the bartender. Managers drink on the house.

Ummm, what?! I remember Andrew as the 20 year old I first met, who lived in a dorm and shunned all oppressions and indignities like management. How did he become an almost-thirty-year-old telling people what to do? And how did I become that guy who reflects on the passage of time during a night out? I might as well have showed off some scars and reminisced about the war.

New places, new drinks, new places in life. Old friends, old stories, and despite the changes, still the same people in many ways. What a surreal combination of old and new for a Thursday night conversation over gin and rye, and a hot dog.

thegibsondoor Mixologist Jon Harris of The Gibson - Washington, DC