Remembering How Easily We Forget.


I rode a bike every day for two years. I did it in the miserable Georgia heat. I did it while gallons upon gallons of water poured out of the sky and onto my head. I did it wearing a suit and tie. It was the sort of physical and practical challenge that seeps into every bit of your daily life no matter how menial. Like getting groceries; how do you plan to get them home? The Laundromat? How about an important presentation five miles away and dark storm clouds are gathering overhead? What about the winter when it gets dark at 5 o’clock? I lived with those questions, and the challenge of answering them, every day for two whole years. That was nearly twenty years ago. I will never forget it.missionbikewreck1

With all that in mind I recently started riding a bike every morning. I teach a class of high schoolers early in the morning and the idea of saving some gas money and spending some calories made sense. I didn’t make this decision flippantly; I put some real thought into it. I remembered what it was like to ride a bike to get somewhere, as opposed to riding for pure recreation. I knew what I was getting into.

But not really.

I remembered all sorts of little details, I could recount stories, I knew stuff. But it wasn’t till I began pedaling a fixed gear tank with all 250 lbs of me on top, up a giant hill, into a headwind, did I really remember riding a bike.

As my thighs swelled and tightened, and blood rushed to my face, true memory flooded my mind and soul. I remembered riding a bike. It hurt. A lot. Stashing my bike in the closet of the classroom with a sweaty shirt sticking to my arms, worrying that I was such a disgusting display of humanity that no one would ever listen to a thing I had to teach; I remembered riding a bike.IMG_3219

It gave me something to think about as I pedaled back home. How easily we forget.

I haven’t seen a homeless person in months.

Back where I used to live, there was this guy in a wheelchair that used to wheel down the middle of our small street collecting discarded scraps of metal. He was dirty. The kind of dirty you can’t fake with a one day roll in the dust, you have to compile this kind of dirt the hard way. It was a regular part of my day to sit in the car waiting for him to wheel his way across the street, or to the end of the block, so I could get my car to where I needed to go.

I used to spend hours on the phone with the local electric company, while a little old lady would sit on the couch next to me sobbing, a past due notice in her shaky hands. I do not have enough fingers to count the number of people I visited regularly that heated their homes by turning the oven on high and leaving the oven door open. It is the poor person’s version of a fireplace. Every day, at least for a moment, I would have to not only see poverty, but interact with it just a little. Sometimes a lot. It was as much a part of my life as that bike used to be.grimysteps

Pedaling past palm trees on my way to the swimming pool, I wonder how much I have already forgotten.

I read a scripture today in which the resurrected Jesus took bread and wine, passed it to those who were with him, and instructed them to eat it in order to remember him. Remember him? Not only was he right there with them, but these people had just watched this resurrected man descend from the sky in a cloud of light. They had just gone up and touched the holes in his hands, feet, and side. This was God’s son in all his glory. How could they ever forget?

But he knew they would. We can’t help it. Even when we can recall what happened, feelings fade. There is something in the remembering that fades. Jesus, on the first day of this remarkable visit, told them he would be back tomorrow, then, before saying goodnight, set up the taking of bread and wine as a process by which we should remember him. He told them to repeat this ceremony often.

Because we forget.

How can I expect myself or anyone to remember what true poverty is like if we aren’t in it? How can anyone who hasn’t been in it ever really comprehend how hard it is? It is like riding that bike up the hill, remembering how hard it is, is nothing compared to feeling the tight burning in my legs. Many who have lived in it before, been raised in it, struggled to escape it, are going to at some level forget it. The memory will fade into stories, events, recollections, but not the same feelings.

Unless we do something. Not just remember, but do.IMG_2769

Unless we somehow eat the bread and drink the wine. Unless we sit on the couch and call the electric company. Unless we help wheelchair man pick up the pile of tin cans he just spilled all over the street. Not only will we forget, but the poor will be completely forgotten.

And no one really escapes poverty on their own.

Easter Morning, My Stupid Jacket

I arose this morning ready to get started.  Easter is the day I finally get to pull the linen jacket out of the back of the closet and I was excited.  I tied my purple tartan tie, donned my pale green v-neck, and wondered why I didn’t have more Eastery cuff-links.  I’m not sure I’d go for actual Easter egg links, but maybe some pastel disks or knots.  I made a mental note of that for next year as I got in the car.

Few people are on the road that early on a Sunday.  This morning was the usual.  I expected to see a few more cars at the other churches I passed but sadly not so.  I guessed the big hats and white gloves would show up later.  No bother, today was spring, people would be happy at church, and I was wearing my linen jacket.

I turned north on Broad Street. 

A couple people were dragging their feet into Dunkin Donuts, the man was on the island setting up his stack of Sunday papers, and a completely naked woman was walking down the sidewalk.  When it registered what I had just seen, which was interestingly not instantly, I did a half-double-take; just long enough to confirm it really was a naked person on Philadelphia’s main thoroughfare, but not long enough to actually look at her.  Slightly embarrassed, this was Sunday and I was on my way to church, I drove on with a strange notion that I knew that lady.  The notion nagged me but I never really looked at her, just glanced, yet I had this picture in my mind of her face.  A face I recognized and I was ashamed to not remember her name.  I made a mental note, right next to the cuff links, to learn her name, not really believing I had just seen her walk past.

When I pulled up to the church gates there was a pair of jeans hanging from the rails. As I pulled into the empty parking lot I was greeted by a pair of white tennis shoes.  I parked and got out, leaving my things on the passenger seat.  There, off to the side, was a T-shirt and brassier.  It had been her.

I gathered her things, which I now saw included two sets of keys, I dialed 911, and put her affects in my office.  Looking down the block I saw a squad car, lights flashing, stopped at the corner.  I hung up and started walking.  She was sitting in the back of the car cradling her face on the back of the seat in front of her.  The officer was standing outside at the car window trying to talk to her, blank note pad in hand.  When she looked over and saw me she began to sob.  I apologized for not knowing and asked her name.  She leaned over sideways and whispered it to me.

I told the officer I had her clothes over at the church and I would be able to find her address and information from our records.  A second officer gave me a ride back to the building and I helped the best I could.  He took her things and left me about my business.

I unlocked the rest of the building, began setting up chairs, and prepared for my planning meeting a changed person from when I got dressed.  Today was the day we celebrate our Savior rising triumphantly from the tomb.  Today was the day we are supposed to recall the sacrifice made by one better than us, in order to save us from the very things that make us lesser.  On this, an actual sacred day, I was thinking about my clothes.  It took seeing a naked person to get me to forget them.

This woman was clearly not well.  She was walking out in public with all her flaws in plain view. Her suffering and her struggles were obvious to everyone who saw, just as my flaws are obvious and naked before God.  I felt a fool in my linen jacket and purple tie; such trivial things in a world with real trouble.  Today I was thankful that there was one worthy and willing to suffer for someone like me, who could take such a serious sacrifice so lightly.