Everywhere you go, you can’t help it. You see it in a thousand different ways. A middle-aged woman gives up her seat for a senior. A young hispanic man creates his work of art, loading a deli sandwich with salami, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, and his favorite dressings, all with a smile from ear to ear. A CEO holds an elevator for a raggedly-dressed man. Three strangers car pool to work, striking up a conversation about how uncomfortable, yet how surprisingly fun, it can be to drive to work with a new person every day.
These are the real intersections of the city. They exist not so much on a map, but in relationships. They could not happen driving solo to work, or opening a garage via remote control and pulling in. They are randomly-inevitable happenings. Each day I’m excited to see what new adventure will unfold.
Most of us work hard to eliminate these things. Progress, we imagine, is owning our car, achieving independence, becoming self-reliant. But in the city, the sheer volume of people in a limited space invites engagement. Sometimes, it leads to frustration and impatience. But quite often, it leads to surprising acts of human goodness.
Now, that’s not a phrase you hear often from a Calvinist. People are bad, we’re told. Expect the worst, and if you get the best behavior, assume the worst motives. And I’d agree. This is a mad, mad world. Adam Smith may have invented Capitalism, but Hobbes told the truth about it – people won’t act in the best interests of the other, because it’s contrary to human nature.
Whether out of bad motives or out of some innate and Eden-born remembrance of life-as-it-was-meant-to-be-lived, people I meet every day defy the laws of human nature. Perhaps, when we’ve earned enough to achieve self-reliance, we become a bit callous toward our neighbor, even if we attend church and tithe every week. Perhaps, the poor-in-spirit are those who, acting contrary to human nature, make the best of their interdependent existence. Perhaps, the man in the wheelchair who lets 3 high school students get on the bus before him knows something I don’t know.
We, Christians, with our Jesus-fish-bumper-sticker and our Testamint candy and our leather-bound NIV’s are often pitiful exemplars of Christ-like self-sacrifice. I’d much rather get home than give up my spot on the bus. I’d much rather get up the elevator rather than hold the door for the incredibly slow elderly man who works on the same floor and takes the same elevator. Calvin was right when he said that Christians lack “sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate.” Yet, somehow living in the city is forcing me outside of myself. While professors in seminary lauded Wendell Berry’s rural life, I’m finding that Berry’s vision of relatedness, common humanness, interdependence, and more is a fit for life in the big city. Against my self-reliant impulses, it is teaching me neighborly love.
Calvin also said, “ Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun.” I’m a case study in Christian selfishness. But each day, God surprises me with visions of the poor in spirit. He loves them, the Gospels tell me. Tidy theological categories don’t work in these places, but faith in the person and work of Jesus does.
I suspect Calvin had to get that long beard trimmed every so often. Perhaps he took a 16th century Genevan bus to the barber. Perhaps he saw his often feeble love of neighbor revealed in the kindness of one-to-another along his route. I know that I’m entering a new week hoping, with the Spirit’s help and God’s grace, to live up to my puny capacity for grace and beauty and love and selflessness. The prayer of Jesus invites the kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” May my life be a little vision of God’s kingdom-come to a watching world. May I be alert to the intersections of grace I see and experience among my urban neighbors.