Archive for August, 2013

I’ve been looking for God in my community, Washington Street in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. The evangelical Christian would would look for him in language. The presence of certain vocabulary and the absence of other vocabulary signals God’s presence for them. A Bible study held at noon for business people, and in a condo for loft dwellers would be a stamp of God’s presence. Or, they would see it visually in one person, usually with a Bible, in prayer with another person leaving the impression that evangelism was happening on Washington Avenue or in a coffee shop. But does the absence of, or presence of, certain vocabulary, a group of people studying the Bible together, or a public evangelistic encounter indicate the absence of God in his creation?

I have questions today: Does God work only in the lives of people who have made a focused commitment to him through faith in Jesus as the Christ? Is God completely absent from all else in society? Is everything that is good but does not emanate directly from a conscious submission to the grace of God in Christ just a moral principle at work in society? What does it mean for a society to have “redeeming” qualities that are never consciously, overtly connected to acknowledging Jesus as the embodied presence of God on earth–God’s Son?

Can God be present across the street in front of the hookah lounge and the tattoo parlor? Is he somewhere under a tattoo. or in a tattoo? Can he be present in the sharing of a glass of wine during dinner? Was he there in a conversation I was in one day last week between a lawyer, a coffee shop owner, a Japanese judo instructor, a man confined to a wheelchair, and myself? One is smoking, the shop owner and judo instructor will take off on an eight-mile bike ride in a moment, the guy in the wheelchair is hopeful that the judo instructor will enable him to be free of the wheelchair and on crutches again, the lawyer bought a newspaper, brought it outside, dismantled it, relegated the comics, ads, sports sections to the trash while telling me he had propped a book for me to read against my condo door.

Was the God of hope and new beginnings in any of this? Does he only show himself in the life of a committed extroverted Christian? If we see God in the design of life on Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis, that means one thing. If we don’t, is it because we’re not looking for him? Or, is he not present or hiding; and if he were present we would know it? Is he a God who reveals himself or hides himself, making it a kind of game for us to find him? Just wondering.

Waiting, regardless of the reason or whether or not it is volitional, adds interest, growth and enhancement to Life’s Designs. On the morning of August 19 on my walk down Locust Street and back up Washington Avenue, I saw a friend on the other side of Washington sitting in front of the Washington Avenue Post coffee shop. He was drinking his morning coffee while waiting for a friend to join him for a bike ride.

Whether sitting drinking coffee while waiting for someone, standing in line in a supermarket, waiting in an airport lounge to board a plane, or sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting is a good opportunity to observe other people. We often call this “people watching” and engage in it mindlessly. However, by observing cultural nuances surrounding you, you can discover designs in other people’s lives that can enrich your own.

For waiting to be productive, one must observe with the intent of learning how people respond to or deal with life in the moment. I’m not suggesting we approach these observations negatively. Most of us don’t need to exercise aspects of our personalities that cast negative aspersions on people. That activity often comes without exercise, it saddens me to say.

Observations made during productive waiting involves a desire to learn, to expand horizons, to enter into a different perspective. Once in a Walmart store while standing in line waiting to check out, I observed a mother, of an ethnicity different than mine and others in the immediate area, discipline her crying child, who was creating something of a small “scene.” Here was an opportunity for productive waiting while standing in line, an opportunity to broaden both my societal and cultural understanding.

Certain cultures have child-rearing practices that differ from other cultures. This is true of cultures at the micro level of local communities and neighborhoods as well as cultures separated by national origin and lingo-ethnicity. My thought response must not be an immediate negative criticism of what is being observed without first seeking to understand the cultural norms from which the mother is operating. Why did she use language that seemed cruel and harsh (I say “seemed” because of the tone of her voice, her facial expression and the child’s reaction. I did not understand the language she used)?

Her approach effectuated a response in the child that both stopped the crying and elicited in him a meek demeanor though not cowering nor fearful. The approach quieted the child, but was it the best action for long-term development for the child? I don’t know; I don’t fully understand the culture. I did appreciate the resolution that appeared to be somewhat good for all, the child, the parent, the clerk, and the people in line. I wish I knew more of the culture.

I could have had an immediate impulse to be critical of the woman for speaking, what seemed to me, sharp and angry words to a defenseless child. Or, I could appreciate an interaction that brought peace in a stressful situation, even though I didn’t fully understand the transactions between mother and child due to my lingo-cultural disadvantage. Also, the clerk, to provide harmony within our American society, which values peace and minimal invasion of personal space, handed the child a sucker, with the parent’s approval. The child was happy, the mother smiled, chatter started up in the line as it began to move again, and life returned to normal.

Productive waiting can also be a mirror that reflects our own attitudes and actions. We can see in other people something that is positive and good and recognize that our own life comes up short. As a college freshman, I once waited in line in the Hannibal, Missouri, downtown post office to mail a package. A professorial type person was at a counter off to the side going through mail he had retrieved from his box when a younger person my age entered the post office and greeted him. They struck up a conversation obviously knowing each other. I watched and listened, not so much to specific words as to the flow. What struck me most, and what I remember after fifty-five years, is that the younger late teen would interrupt the forty-something, who would immediately stop what he was saying, even in mid-sentence, and focus attention on the younger would-be adult.

I felt warmth slowly rise to my face, not so much because of embarrassment for the youth as for my own personal guilt for the times I had done the very same thing. That day in the post office while waiting in line I observed, I learned, I vowed not to repeat the poor etiquette of the youth, and to follow the example of the man, whom I later learned was a professor and who would teach one of my college classes. I learned the importance of focusing attention on the person with whom I’m talking, to listen actively, to refrain from focusing on myself and my next great contribution to the conversation. The person buying stamps at the window was through; it was now my turn to mail my package.

Engaging in thoughtful observation while waiting can be productive. We can learn and grow. Our horizons can expand. We can become better people. The designs of our lives can be enhanced.

Life’s interior design, surfaced through reflection, comes at the end of the experiment–Life, an experiment in living that doesn’t “just happen.” Oh, there are some people who live without intention, who treat life as though it just happens. They make no plans. If they had no external constraints, there would be no structure for walking through the hours in their days. They float through each day and stack them up as the years pass. Then, as their life’s experiment slides into the last phase, through reflection that inevitably comes with increasing age, they discover shadows lurking around inside.

Some people live their lives as though they have little control over it. Whatever happens is God’s will, they say. And so they absolve themselves of responsibility for everything that happens. Their thoughts go something like this: I messed up and lost my last job. God must be trying to teach me something. Or they might say about that which is good in life, I give God all the credit for what has happened in my life. It’s all his blessings. And so, they are just pawns in God’s hands. Everything good and everything bad is of God and one’s mind and heart, will, emotions, and actions have little to do with life. And yet, in these religiously committed lives, there are shadows lurking around inside, there are repressed suspicions that things could have turned out differently if more energy had been applied here, or a better thought-through decision had been made there; if emotion hadn’t controlled actions, or a moral lapse hadn’t occurred. Shadows will inevitably be found in life’s interior.

Other people live intentionally, planning their lives and trying to anticipate life events. They view life as being a huge laboratory in which they perfect their skill, demonstrate their knowledge, and display their experiment as one that meets with peer review, that works, that is profitable for themselves and for society. Their life experiment also slips into waning days like an old Polaroid photograph fading to a ghost of its former sharpness. Their lives have been productive, satisfying, fulfilled. Yet, they too find shadows lurking around in the quiet recesses of the inner self.

These shadows, these unaddressed issues from the past, were suppressed during a time when life was energy expended toward education, possibly marriage, raising children perhaps, advancing careers. All of these hopes and dreams were met with varying degrees of success. With or without success, when the end of the experiment is in view, the accumulated shadows of unresolved issues float into consciousness. There is now more time to reflect and that reflection surfaces what time had not allowed before.

I have shadows I haven’t dealt with in my life, some conscious personality traits and the verso of other personality traits. This sounds rather Jungian I suppose, the shadows and all that. Regardless of psychological labels, I’m at a stage in life when I have time for reflection, and that is good. Reflection opens us to possibilities, and, I suspect, should have been more a part of my life all along.

Reflection, as a mentor, guides our consciousness into the back corners of our mind to surface life experiences that can bring color and beauty to present living–even if these experiences were born out of difficulty and pain. Entering these shadows and walking through them will add to the topography of the soul that will produce a living landscape that is intricate, beautiful, and powerfully liberating for the self and for others, regardless of the pain and suffering that may have contributed to a suppression of them. My life’s interior design is beautiful in spite of what I see as unattractive. I need to do the hard, necessary work to expose the shadows to the light and, by dealing with them and through conversations of faith, discover the beauty hidden within.

We have all known of the close-knit community a small town can nurture–“it takes a village” and all that. The phrase often heard is “everyone knows everyone.” Community life in a small town is a cohesive whole. Five years ago when talking with friends in one small town about my pending move to St. Louis, they couldn’t imagine doing so. In fact, they had a tinge of fear with only the thought of doing such a thing. They said they couldn’t leave their community where all their friends and family lived.

I moved to St. Louis, downtown St. Louis, bought a condo and moved in. I will have lived here for five years when October arrives. It has become my neighborhood, my community. This community is located on a stretch of Washington Avenue from approximately Tucker (12th Street) to 16th Street. The heart of the community is the 1400 block. People in this community live, work, and play here. There is a coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store, a gelateria, a judo establishment, a delicatessen, a dry cleaners, a fitness club, several restaurants, and pubs. These establishments are in street level spaces of six to ten floor, one-hundred-year-old former warehouses. The upper floors are condos and apartments.

The primary gathering place is often the coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store. Members of the community gather either at tables on the sidewalk or inside depending on the weather. Another place to connect is the gelateria, again, outside or inside.

The people who make up this community are varied, different, interesting. There is nothing homogenous about the community. In my building there is a young couple with two small children, one a preschooler and the other entered kindergarten this week, my next door neighbors. He paints houses, inside and out; she’s a student.

In the next block west another young couple–their all young around here–lives in a loft condo. I had seen them in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t until one evening last week that we get acquainted standing in front of Levine Hat store while I was out walking my dog, Paco. His wife has some Asian heritage. He is involved in graphic design and also dabbles in vinyl records. They enjoy traveling and we discovered we had both been enjoyed some time in Amsterdam in the same year recently.

A couple of days later, when in conversation with the graphic designer while I was drinking coffee at the gelateria, I mentioned something about the proprietor of the coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store was biking on the river trail with the older Asian gentleman who frequencies the coffee shop, the young man said, “He’s Japanese. He’s my wife’s father, my father-in-law.”

There is a criminal lawyer in my community who also mentors young lawyers and is an adjunct professor at a university in Atlanta, Georgia where I once lived. He meets with colleagues at the gelateria mapping out lawyer stuff.

Last Sunday, I ate lunch at a sidewalk restaurant about six blocks from the condo–under an umbrella while a soft rain fell all around me. On my walk home, about two blocks from my condo, I stopped for a conversation with a couple with whom I had a speaking relationship. Over the last few months I had watched the vacant southwest corner of Washington and 14th street change from weeds to a freshly paved parking lot, bright strips, and a credit card reader, no cash accepted. On this occasion, the owner and his wife were present. The installation of the new card reader had just been completed the previous day. We exchanged names and talked about the parking business, the economy in general, and living downtown. They are actually considering moving to our neighborhood from a suburb thirty miles out.

Tuesday, while drinking coffee and eating a scone at the gelateria, I picked up a word or two in a conversation across the room. My curiosity was piqued and I tried to capture the flow of words, but only caught a few, they were enough. A short while later, that conversation broke up but the gentleman whose words I had heard was free and standing off to the side. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and then asked if he had said something about a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. He said he had, so I followed up with, “So you know about the Dalat School.” The Dalat School is a Christian and Missionary Alliance boarding school for missionary kids and was located in Dalat, VietNam. In the middle of the VietNam War, just after the Tet Offensive took place in 1968, because of concerns about security the school was moved to Penang, Malaysia. I knew all about that; I had lived in Dalat shortly after the school had moved. The gentleman, whose conversation I had overheard, a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor, is from Longview, Texas, and in town visiting his son, the proprietor of the gelateria.

One afternoon late last week I encountered an acquaintance, the publisher of a monthly news sheet–well, several sheets stapled together into a booklet–advertising neighborhood businesses. He lives above the gelateria, I think. He also runs a shuttle service, an old school bus, between Washington Avenue restaurants in our neighborhood and Cardinals baseball games. And then, on the way home, I passed by the neighborhood dry cleaners and waived to the clerk inside. He has a Chihuahua-Dachshund dog just like mine and lives about twelve floors up in an apartment on 4th street that overlooks the Mississippi River and the Arch.

The point is that in this downtown, urban setting there is a neighborhood, a community where people know each other, there are family connections, and greetings pass from one to another while doing life. Everyone of the people I’ve mentioned I know by name. It’s like a small town in the heart of the city, life’s designs in the city.

Major restoration work at the Old Cathedral at the east end of Walnut Street across Memorial Drive. The Cathedral rests on the edge of the Arch Grounds. The exterior renovation consists of stone work–repairing, replacing, re-grouting, etc. Father Billings, pastor at the Cathedral, told me last week that they would be working on it into the fall of next year. The building, one of the oldest west of the Mississippi with a cornerstone dated 1831, deserves to be taken care of due to its architectural interest and its historical significance. Historically, it is the first Catholic Cathedral west of the Mississippi River.

Father Billings just drove by and we exchanged good-day wishes. I think I’ll step inside for a moment of spiritual reflection.

I enter and my attention is immediately focused on the altar. It is illumined by a wonderful round skylight above it. Not only is the alter bathed in light, but also a life-sized crucifix behind the altar is lit gathering my attention. I am overwhelmed at the thought of Christ’s suffering, for me. Statuary on both sides of the chancel area and other locations are significant to this church. One is of Saint Louis IX. At the back of the worship area is a painting of St. Louis IX dated 1888(?) I have already forgotten the exact date, although I have a nagging suspicion that it was an earlier than this. The Cathedral is a wonderful space for private meditation/reflection and corporate/public worship. The interior of the church is also undergoing refurbishing. The end results should enhance the worship of God and the enrichment of one’s faith.

I walk out of the building and into life surrounding it observing Life’s Designs–men working on the netting-enshrouded building, traffic exiting Interstate-70 and coming to an abrupt stop at Walnut Street where vehicle occupants can gain a moment’s peace observing the Cathedral, people rushing to occupy their office space, young adult joggers entering or leaving the Arch Grounds focused on their health and intent on their schedule.

For the last three days I have taken Paco, my little ten pound dog some call a Chiweenie and others call a Chidoxi (Chihuahua-Dachshund mix), for daily walks–without a leash! We walk from the condo west to Seventeenth Street then back east past the condo and cross Fourteenth Street. Continuing east, we go past the park, which is across Locust Street from the library, to Thirteenth Street, and turn north, cross St. Charles, and on to Washington Avenue. Turning west on Washington we pass many pedestrians and Flannery’s pub where there are usually diners sitting at tall sidewalk tables, particularly on our evening walks. Even with the crowd of diners he stays focused on our walk. Passing the groups of dinners we cross busy Fourteenth Street again and then on to Seventeenth from where we weave our way back over to the back entrance to the condo off of St. Charles Street.

Maybe you didn’t follow all those twists and turns, but Paco did superbly well. At street corners all I had to say was “wait” and he stopped and most times just sat down to wait for further instructions without my telling him to do so. He does less wandering and stays closer to me without the leash than when on the leash. I need to remember to take treats to reinforce good behavior on these walks.

I had always heard that a well-disciplined dog was a happy dog and had taken this truism at face value. I now have experienced it. I wonder, does this translate to the human race as well? I think we know the answer.

Transactions on Washington

Posted: August 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

Last Thursday (Aug. 1), while sitting at a sidewalk table in front of Gelateria Tavolini I watched Mid State Produce make a delivery to Flannery’s Pub. Washington St. was waking up to another morning with the temperature in the low 70s. The Downtown Clean Team guy was busy picking up cigarette butts and such detritus from the Thursday night’s sidewalk patrons that, that if left unattended to, would equate St. Louis with cities around the country — having a trashy downtown

About then, a couple of acquaintances of mine with a friend, whom I hadn’t met, passed by headed to a B&B in Herman for the weekend. This is their first time to visit the quaint, bucolic town renowned for its vineyards and fine wine. They should have fun knowing how much they enjoy good wine.

They had no sooner left than Business Suit (that’s my name for him because he’s always wearing a suit) just walked up and entered the gelateria, right on time. I’m on the sidewalk but I know what’s going on inside without actually seeing it, I’ve observed it often enough. As he walked in, Jonathan, proprietor of Gelateria Tavolini called out, “coffee as usual?” while Business Suit went to his usual table in the back corner, took off his suit jacket and hung it on the back of a chair. He went to the counter, presented his “plastic” for Jonathan to swipe. Jonathan turned the iPad “cash register” around for Business Suit to enter his tip, sign with his finger on the screen, and indicate whether or not he wanted a receipt or desired it to be sent to his e-mail account. Business Suit then returned to his seat and shortly Jonathan took his coffee to him.

This morning, walking back from the River, I passed Washington Avenue Post, a coffee shop and kind of general store for loft residents, and stopped at the gelateria for a breakfast sandwich with my morning coffee. I was sitting at a table in front of the gelateria watching the drama unfold a few shops away in front of Washington Ave. Post. A man of Asian heritage is playing chess with a man confined to a wheelchair. Since he can’t reach and maneuver the pieces, he’ll call out “Pawn to alpha-four” and his opponent will move the piece for him. You can find these guys and others there most any day rotating in and out of the chairs at the chess board.

A young man and his wife who live in the neighborhood and frequent the shops along Washington, his arms and legs well tattooed, passed me and entered the gelateria. His wife came out with her drink and continued walking east on Washington. A few minutes later the young man came out and with his drink and walked east stopping at the Wash. Ave. Post sidewalk tables watching the chess game. In a little while he went to the back of the wheelchair and retrieved a cigarette lighter from a backpack hanging on the handles. He put a cigarette in Steve’s mouth and lit it for him returning the lighter to the backpack. After a few draws on the cigarette, the young man held a cup and positioned the straw so Steve could sip.

I returned my focus to news on the iPad. Looking up a few minutes later, I saw Tattoo with his morning drink headed west on Washington, back to his condo I presume. At a nearby table, the proprietor of one of the Washington Ave shops has been in an animated conversation with someone else — city politics was the topic when I had passed by them a few minutes earlier.

The Downtown Clean Team guy just passed sweeping up cigarette butts and trash as he does all day long. Workers unloaded bricks, coils of rope and wire, and other stuff for a construction project at Grace Lofts, the building that houses “Flannery’s: Your Neighborhood Pub for Sports and Spirits” on the first floor.

These are the kinds of transactions between people that create the design of the thirteen-hundred block of Washington Street, a pattern that provides a certain meaning, and even comfort, and security for some of these people.

A Life’s Designs

Posted: August 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

Every life has a design — actually a collection of designs — of some kind. It (they) may be haphazard, ill thought through, or simply happens; on the other hand, a life may have clear definition, purpose, and intentionality. Regardless of deliberateness or lack thereof, each experience one encounters finds a place in the design(s) of one’s life. These experiences may add color, interest, shape, perimeters, strengths or weaknesses, symmetry, calmness or energy; they may be constant or sporadic, serendipitous or planned. Some of life’s experiences are transformative while others impede growth and development toward full realization of life’s potential. Nevertheless, they all come together in this one life.

When these mosaics are combined they form an artistic rendition of community, a collection of designs. This blog will examine designs of life, personal and corporate. It’s the acquaintances, friends, and family we have. It’s the world we live in. Let’s explore life’s designs together.