Jesus Is a Hobo

Jesus Is a Hobo

I met a hobo with dark hair and a black eye. He said his name was Scott. It was a hot July day in St. Paul, temperature in the 90s, and Scott was sitting in the shade of a bridge under the freeway. The path I was on divided him from the train tracks. As I rolled past on my bicycle we made eye contact and greeted one another.

That could easily have been the end of the story. When I’m on foot or riding a bicycle I often greet those whom I encounter, then never see them again.

Jesus is a hobo on a fast freight outta Denver,
huddled up under a twin stack his back
against the rain.

Back in the sunlight, an inner voice told me to bring water back to Scott. Maybe a little food, too. I’d like to say that I responded to this voice without hesitation. However, as is often the case, another voice countered with excuses. “He won’t be there when you get back. It’s a waste of your time. He’s a hobo, he knows how to take care of himself.” Usually that voice prevails.

Not this time.

At home I filled a bottle with water and placed that and an apple and a banana in my pannier. Almost an hour later I approached the bridge, half expecting Scott to be gone, but he was sitting in the very same spot. “Would you like some water?” I asked. Scott eagerly stood up and navigated his way through the rock bed to accept my offer. “Thank you for your kindness,” he said, reaching with a misshapen hand. His forefinger stopped at the knuckle and his fourth finger ended at the top joint. Frostbite? I didn’t ask.

He’s hoping to make the west coast
his food is running low.
He’s been traveling on these roads
for 2000 years or more.

Although his skin was tanned dark, I noticed a dark circle around his left eye. Scott thanked me for the water. I asked if he was just passing through. “Just waiting for the train. Headed for Michigan,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to cleaning up when he got there. Scott’s coveralls were fairly clean. Only his stringy hair and dirty fingernails gave him away as someone who had not showered lately. I pulled the apple out of the pannier and said I’d brought bananas, too. The wheels of a train heading toward St. Paul squealed, making it difficult to hear one another. Scott eyed the apple, then said, “No, thanks, I’m good,” which wasn’t surprising since he had only a few teeth, and with exposed roots long and brown, those teeth looked to be soon outward bound.

I told Scott I’d seen him when I had ridden past earlier. “You seemed like a nice man and I wanted to bring you food and water.” He looked at me with a sideways glance as if to size me up: was this woman who arrived on a bicycle for real? I’m not always the best judge of character. But the few minutes I’d spent with Scott confirmed my intuition. He was polite and thoughtful, offering his hand when I asked his name. He spoke economically, disinclined to chat. Scott scrambled up the inclined slab of concrete, back to his perch beside a flat day pack, sat down and looked at me, not unkindly.

Jesus is a hobo in a jungle near LA,
where nobody really knows him even if they know his face.
They’ll stare into his eyes
a disciple from the past
but the moment’s gone and lost
in the engine’s long low whine.

The next day I ran on the same path, wondering if I would see Scott. Coming around the corner I saw only concrete where Scott had been sitting. I imagined him on a train headed East and felt relief over not having to concern myself anymore with his welfare. The trail did not loop so I returned the same way, and this time Scott was sitting under the same bridge, but closer to the bike path. He was leaning over, possibly vomiting. “Scott!” I called out. “Are you ok?” He lifted his head as if startled. “Yeah.” He paused. “I haven’t eaten in 30 days,” he said, his voice soft and weak. It didn’t seem possible for him to be mobile if he hadn’t eaten in 30 days. I probably misheard him. But clearly he needed food. I said I would bring him something and asked what he would like “Anything,” was his answer. “Ok,” I’ll be back shortly,” I said. “Thank you, sweetheart,” was Scott’s answer.

What is the best food for a man who hasn’t eaten in many days and has hardly any teeth? Why did Scott have no food? Why was he still in St. Paul, watching the trains but not hopping on one? Why, of all the people who passed by, am I the one who is helping him? Why did I not pull the bananas out of my pannier for Scott the day before? Why did I have a surplus of food, but Scott did not?

At home I spread peanut butter on gluten free bread and looked for other soft food I could bring: energy bars, blueberries. I filled a water bottle. At a nearby restaurant I pondered the menu. Salmon? Eggs? Potatoes? I settled on an egg, cheese, and bacon sandwich on a croissant. The man needed calories.

Jesus is a hobo, he never left us here,
caught a fast one from Calvary
and he’s been riding ever since.

Scott had moved to a spot in the sun, closer to the bicycle path. He turned as I approached, then nodded, remaining seated on the pavement, a pack of cigarettes within arm’s reach. I crouched beside him, handing him food pulled from my pannier. Scott surprised me by putting his arm around my shoulders and thanking me. “I got jumped,” he said, pointing to the left side of his face. I saw now that his cheek had been cut open and was scabbed over. “I’ve been resting here, trying to heal.” His vulnerability stunned me. What would it be like to attacked and lose what few belongings I had? How would I trust that the food and water offered by a stranger was safe to eat? At what age is a hobo too old to expose himself to the evils of the world? I wondered if the ride to Michigan would be Scott’s last.

“Are you going to be ok?” I asked, hoping he would say yes. It wasn’t that I had tired of helping him. My heart was overflowing with sorrow.

Jesus is a hobo riding south outta St. Paul
seeing a cathedral through the snowflakes
and bracing against the cold.
When he gets to Rock Island maybe there he’ll let ‘em know
that underneath his coveralls he wears a purple robe.

Back at the artist cooperative where I live, I rode the elevator with a neighbor and told him briefly about helping Scott. My neighbor stiffened. “They’re everywhere,” he said. He was right. At any time of day I can find a homeless person within minutes of leaving my building.

The name of every one of them is Jesus.

Yr gonna need me, yr gonna need me
But can you find me, where you look.

Yr gonna need me, yr gonna need me
You can’t always see the truth.

“Jesus Is a Hobo” is one of my favorite songs by Charlie Parr.

Radical Connectivity

Radical Connectivity

At some churches, the Sunday service omits scripture and hardly mentions God. Yet God is most certainly there, in the hearts of those taking in a consistent message of love, feeling hardness give way to greater generosity, opening to a universal message: love as much as you can, as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for the rest of your life.

I’m reminded of a service I attended a few years ago at a Unitarian Universalist church. I’d known about UU from my formation as a spiritual director, through some of my classmates, and I was curious, but not enough to go to one of their services. What brought me to a UU service that day was music – specifically, a piece called Spiritus Sanctus, written by Ruth MacKenzie, that explores the intersection between Hindu and Christian mystics. A co-worker, who is in the choir, told me about the piece, saying the entire choir was transported by the music during the rehearsal. I wanted to be transported, too.

As it turns out, the entire service, not just the music, took me to a different place that felt oddly familiar. From the beginning, when the senior minister affirmed who the church was (people who are united in spirit and accepting of differences), I felt very much at home. The ministers used language I might have, had I been at the podium.

And the music? Spectacular. My only disappointment was that there wasn’t more of it. Two worlds merged – a Western voice represented by Hildegard of Bingen‘s text and Ruth MacKenzie’s music, and a Hindu voice represented by Nirmala Rajeskar, a world-renowned veena artist and vocalist.

painting of Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen

Nirmala Rajasekar, vocalist and veena artist
Nirmala Rajasekar

In the program Spiritus Sanctus was described as exploring “the common experience of radical connectivity shared by mystics around the world.” The love and the longing in that piece transcended human constructs – geography, religion, language – and allowed each of us in the church to see through the eyes of mystics.

Through these eyes I’m thinking about church as more than a building, and more even than the community of people who frequent it. I have referred to the Episcopal church as “my” church, but from the perspective of radical connectivity, “my” church is wherever I go. Perhaps the reason I felt so much at home in a church I was visiting for the first time is that I brought my church with me. Wherever I am is my place of worship. I need nothing but love to feel connected with others, for all of my days here on earth.

painting of earth by Hildegard of Bingen
Vision of the Earth, by Hildegard of Bingen


Re-frame Your Experiences

Re-frame Your Experiences

Re-framing an experience opens us to a different perspective.

For example, contrast the sky seen from the plains in “Big Sky” Montana with the sky seen from the ceiling of James Turrell’s Sky Pesher. It’s the same sky. Yet, the experience is dramatically different. In Montana, the sky overwhelms us, tells us we’re small and almost insignificant. Sitting in Sky Pesher, looking up at a ceiling with a square hole, we see the sky as something almost touchable. There’s something about that cool, contemplative space, that quiets the mind and removes much of the distance between the ephemeral human and eternity.

Yasmil Raymond writes that the Sky Pesher “creates the illusion that the architecture of the space slowly vanishes as it becomes saturated with light and color, making it appear infinitely deep and closer to us.” Turrell, a master of light, refers to this as “bringing the sky down.”

As we go about our daily lives, doing things as mundane as taking out the garbage or sitting in traffic, we have the option of framing each experience from a spiritual perspective. It’s far more interesting to ask the question, “What is God asking me to notice right now?” than to get snagged by boredom or frustration and wallow in “Why is this happening to me?”

Our whole life experience can be seen from a spiritual perspective. There may be times when the Spirit feels more palpable – in church, when we pray, when we sit with a loved one who is dying. Our lives, especially as we age, feel enormous. Still, we can frame a piece of those vast experiences from a spiritual perspective, bringing us closer to the divine.

What do you think: Are we merely humans trying to be spiritual? Or are we spiritual beings living a human experience?

I invite you to ponder those questions while watching this MPR video of Cantus singing in Sky Pesher at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Dance Church Groove

Dance Church Groove

On the seventh day, God said, “Let there be dance!” God watched the dancing and saw that it was good. 

Every Sunday, people of all shapes, ages, and sizes gather to worship at Dance Church, in the radiant dance room at Tapestry Folkdance Center in Minneapolis. Is “worship” the right word? In this light-filled space you’ll find no icons, no statues of Jesus or Buddha. What you see are fellow human beings, twisting and jumping, moving and shaking, running and stretching, juggling and gyrating. The definition of “worship” is “reverent honor and homage paid to an object regarded as sacred.” Here at Dance Church, the sacred objects are us. After all, we not just human, but also divine. We celebrate being alive in our bodies through boogie woogie. 

The scripture? It’s in the songs mixed by a DJ. Just like the Psalms, these lyrics speak of longing, joy, despair and sorrow. Our hearts beat synchronously with the music. This is no somber Catholic or Episcopal service. It’s kin to Pentecostal. Sure, some people may come simply to dance. I’m quite certain, though, that I’m not the only one who experiences dancing as sacred. I arrive with the intention to open as fully as possible to Spirit, feeling the Spirit take me by the hand and lead my communion with music and other dancers.

I commune with a woman ripe with unborn child, gently swaying to the music, hand on her protruding belly. A young couple, joined like paired images in a poem, fluidly elegant as they responded in tandem to the beat. A man dressed in a lion suit, swirling his tail. A three-year-old, blond-haired girl with dimples. A teenager whose long legs seemed foreign to him, shifting mechanically in search of rhythm. A woman in her 80’s, cane in hand, shuffling in tiny steps, smiling beatifically. Two young, dark-haired women slithering along the floor, as if love-making, without a trace of self-consciousness.

People come and go during the two-hour dance session, and last Sunday, up to 40 people filled the space in various ways. Some of us roam the floor, weaving in and out of dancers. Others remain in the same spot the entire time, carving out a space of their own. A few people meditate or do yoga postures. Here, at Dance Church, everyone is welcome and accepted for who they are or who they want to be in that time and place. Only with that freedom can  church truly be church.

At Dance Church there’s no bread or wine. Cold water feels like a blessing after dancing non-stop for an hour. 

And sharing of the peace? Oh yes, some of my fellow dancers share exuberantly. This euphoria that arises with the freedom of movement shows itself through smiles, laughter, sweat, and a saintly glow. Each of us could crank up the music and dance at home, alone. Instead, we chose to dance with others, in community. We chose to go to church on a snowy Sunday.