The Bronx God

I am continuing to work slowly my way through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World.  I have read some of her writings before, but I confess I like this book better than anything else I have read from her.  Perhaps it is because I am reading and discussing things from the book with a group.  Reading is usually a private experience.  Unless you are in school or something similar, you never get a chance to hear how other people are understanding what you are also reading.

In a chapter I just finished, “The Practice of Getting Lost,” I found numerous ideas that triggered my thoughts.  I decided to pick out one of those for this inspirational reflection and think about it in my own way.  The title of this one is called “The Bronx God.”  That is my take on it and not a phrase Taylor makes.  It grows out of a story she tells and I now paraphrase.

Taylor tells the story of her first trip together with her husband, Ed.  Neither had traveled abroad, so they decided to go to Mexico.  Taylor writes with a neat sense of humor.  She describes arriving at the airport in Mexico, jumping in the rented car and beginning to circle the airport.  It turns out neither one of them knew any Spanish, so the signs were indecipherable.  “What do you think ‘Salida’ means?” she asked.  They began to learn Spanish when they figured out it means, “exit!”

Both of them got better at traveling, but they lost something in the process.  They never spent so much time lost as they had with that first trip to Mexico.  Of all the trips, Taylor comments, “that first trip to Mexico remains the most vivid.  We were lost most of the time.”  From this she makes the move to call being lost and all the encounters that ensue from the experience can become a spiritual practice.  She concludes, “Anything can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way---once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way.”

There is much to comment on in her Mexico story.  I must admit I enjoy thinking about getting lost as a potential spiritual practice.  I teach a class on spiritual disciplines and we focus mostly on the familiar ones—prayer, meditation, etc.  I have one more to add to the list---getting lost.

Clearly, getting lost implicates any number of themes.  Obviously, getting lost entails control---or the lack thereof.  It implicates the themes of adventure and exploration.  Most spiritual folks I know do not have sufficient senses of adventure.  Too often, I believe, we understand spiritual practices put us into the realms of the normal and the routine.  And often they do.  But new practices---such as getting lost---add adventure and exploration to the repertoire of disciplines.

Adventure led Taylor to one more story.  We recall that the Mexico trip let her begin to know “how near God can be when you have lost your way.”  It is here that Taylor picks up the theme and comments, “Of course for this last to be true you have to be willing to recognize God in your neighbor.”  This prompts one more Taylor story.  She tells about visiting the New York Botanical Gardens.  When she exited (salida!), she made a wrong turn.  As anyone knows who has been to the Bronx, things can become pretty scary.  For a single woman walking through often drug-infested neighborhoods means she is crazy or lost.

In such a predicament Taylor describes her rescue.  She simply said, “a bus driver stopped and opened his doors just for me.”  I loved her line: “I don’t have the right change…”  His response was perfect: “Get in…”  This elicited a wonderful theological line from Taylor.  She quips, “God drove a bus in the Bronx that day.”  That obviously provided me with the title: the Bronx God.

This provided me with a laugh.  But it also provided me with a neat way to describe my personal theology, which I like to call incarnational theology.  Most Christians know the incarnation is the story of God becoming human in Jesus.  And for many the incarnation stops there.  But I am convinced God also comes into humans of all sorts.  I think I can incarnate the Spirit in my own life and ministry.  And so can you.  That is the story of the Bronx God.

In that story God was incarnate---in the flesh---of a bus driver in the Bronx.  Unless you are a person of faith, that guy probably looked only like a guy driving a bus in the Bronx.  But with eyes of faith, he becomes The Bronx God.  He incarnated concern, empathy, compassion and mercy.  “Get in,” The Bronx God invited.  Jesus could not have been more clear.

This story helps me see that I also can be an instrument of the Spirit’s presence and work in the world.  Part of my spiritual call is to embody God’s love for the world.  I can save people, like the Bronx bus driver did.  I can feed people like so many good organizations do.  There is much spiritual work to do.  Many of us are called to incarnate that work of the Spirit.

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