Please excuse me if this post is a bit ‘scatter-brained’, but my wife and I just returned from a few days in New York City. It was wonderful – we saw a Broadway musical (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, a song-and-dance, nearly all libretto adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was so much better than how I just described it), stayed in a tiny hotel room, did some window shopping along 6th Avenue and ate at the world-famous Katz’s Delicatessen. The best part was the time Jeanine and I had together on the train – the four hours of adult conversation each way was wonderful.
As I sought to connect my thoughts with motivation for the spiritual journey, I thought about writing about the despair of Russian story-telling and quickly decided against it. I thought about the tiny hotel room and the benefits of hospitality in an unfamiliar environment, but our amenities were nothing to write home about. My thoughts keep going back to that warm brisket with ground mustard on light rye sandwich that I enjoyed at Katz’s (as well as the corned beef with mustard on Italian sandwich Jeanine savored). That is what really made me think about God.
Saying all this about a sandwich may be tantamount to gluttony, but being there was a bit like being in church. For those who have yet to experience all that is Katz’s, allow me to share a few things: first, there are no counter seats or tables for two, just four-tops along the walls and long tables which seat eight in the middle of the floor; then, you must walk up to a (meat) cutter, who will prepare your feast before your eyes; and last, people from every walk of life will be there (while we were dining, there was someone there with bodyguards who was obviously someone special). It was like church because it epitomized community, generosity and acceptance.
So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find. Matthew 22:9
The opportunities we have for community dining are quickly passing away. That is tragic. As we were eating, a chair’s width away from us was a bowl of matzo ball soup and we were humored by the size of the ball amidst the broth (it was about equal to a softball). We were shared pleasantries with a businessman who squeezed in behind us. There was lively banter between perfect strangers all around us. It was the closest thing to a church supper I’d experienced outside of church, and it was awesome.
With the norm of dining out being fancy meals that can fit on a tea saucer, it was a breath of fresh air to see and consume the sandwiches we were served. I watched the cutter take out a whole brisket and, after a bit of trimming, slice half of it. I watch him fan out the meat and place it three layers high on the bread, as well as offer me a taste as I watched. It had to be two pounds of meat – more than necessary, more than generous. He did the same for Jeanine’s sandwich and then sent me on my way with my food and a plate of pickles. It was the closest thing to grace I’d experienced in a while – for I received so much more than I imagined.
As we sat there wondering who the man in the suit (surrounded by two guys with earpieces) was, we speculated that maybe he’s the mayor, or a politician, or a business leader. Whoever he was, he too, waited in line (in truth, one of the earpieces did) and had to sit at a community table. No one got special treatment. Everyone was treated the same, and that treatment was exceptional. As I ate my sandwich, I was blessed with the knowledge that I was being treated the same way every celebrity who had entered the deli was treated, and if the décor was an indication, plenty of celebrities had passed through the doors. It is the closest thing to heaven I’ve witnessed in a while – everyone treated equally, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.
The experience has whet my appetite for the real thing – heaven – where we will live in community, be blessed with generosity and experience acceptance. Maybe heaven will have heaping mounds of brisket, too.
Over the past two weeks, I have travelled with my youngest son back in time courtesy of two historic dwellings. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of serving as a chaperone for his third grade to the Pierce House, built in 1683 and located about four blocks from Joshua’s school. Then, last Monday, the family went to 83 Beals Street in Brookline, the “modest” home built in 1909 where the thirty-fifth president of the U.S. was born. Both these houses have been restored to reflect an earlier time period and give those who visit a unique glimpse of life for those living in the past.
The Pierce House was restored to reflect its namesake’s ownership, Colonel Samuel Pierce. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the Pierces farmed and worked a 20-acre plot of land and the house was furnished and fashioned to depict colonial life in New England. It gave my son and his classmates the opportunity to experience life from another person’s perspective. One activity the children played during the field trip was a trading game: each student was given a role in the community (wheelwright, farmer, shoemaker, etc.) and a shopping list, requiring them to interact with others to secure what they needed to survive. From this humble home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of community.
We visited the birthplace of John F. Kennedy on what would have been his one hundredth birthday. While the brochure describes the house as “modest”, it seemed opulent for the times (electricity, indoor plumbing and maids’ quarters). The home was restored to its appearances in 1920, according the “living cultural translator”, a maid-of-all-work named Marie. She told us about the modern convenience of the toaster and the Cupcakes she was working on to celebrate Jack’s third birthday. She seemed proud to work for such a prominent family and grateful for the opportunities her new life in her new country provided. From this well-appointed home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of hard work.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
These two homes gave me pangs of melancholy. As I stood watching third-graders trading food and fabrics with their classmates, I longed for a time before supermarkets and department stores when we knew our neighbors and their importance to the community: everyone had something to offer and everyone helped everyone else. As I stood in a Brookline kitchen, I longed for a time before Apple© products and electronic apps when we sought to serve others and share our lives with more than a small circle of like-minded individuals. I long for a place where the values of the past are appreciated in the present.
This nostalgic sadness subsides as I think about the role of the church in our culture: it can be the place where we find real community and the place where we foster real opportunities to serve. Perhaps your longings for a better world, if you have them, can be satisfied at a house of worship near you.