Praying While Walking Around Cambridge
August 5, 2020
In early July, during a time of prayer for our church, I had this idea come to me with clarity – that I should walk the perimeter of several communities our church serves, praying for the people and concerns of the communities as I do so. “Should” is the wrong word really. When I pray, sometimes I have a strong intuitive instinct for an idea or an action. I trust these as emerging from the Spirit of God in me. Some people call this kind of thing “God speaking to them.” Whatever you call it, if Spirit of God is with us, it’s beautiful to learn to pay attention to that presence.
Why I Walk and Pray
These two pictures capture the subtle difference between two different ways to walk and pray, only one of which works for me. The day was hot, muggy, with temps rising into the 90s, so I was dressed casually. But I got ready to bike to the Cambridge border to begin my first walk around Cambridge, wearing the stole of an ordained clergy person, as I was praying as a pastor on behalf of the city. But I remembered that these stoles have their origins in the vestments of Roman imperial officials, later copied by pastors and priests, to signify their position or power. And I thought – that’s all wrong for my prayer walks. So I replaced the stole with a basic kitchen towel. One, I didn’t want to sweat all over my friend’s stole I’d been borrowing and I could use a towel to mop all my sweat on this day’s 12-15 mile walk. But two, I walk and pray not doing anything imperial. I’m not claiming land or people for Jesus, not doing spiritual battle in that sense. (If that makes no sense to you, know that there is a whole bunch of prayer teaching that has this kind of martial attitude.) That’s not my style at all. I walk and pray to learn about a place, and to pray for what I learn. I walk and pray because I have ADHD and I just think better while I’m moving. And I walk and pray because I have a theology that says God walks with us and God can be found everywhere, so when I walk and pray, I believe God is ahead to me to be discovered and that God at the same time walks with me, helping me see and learn and shaping my heart as I do so.
Cambridge – Power to Heal or Destroy
I started my prayer walk just across the JFK Bridge from Cambridge, in front of a field by the Harvard Business School, where Napalm was first tested. Napalm was the stuff the U.S. used to fire bomb Japanese cities during the final year of World War II and used to firebomb Vietnam some twenty-five years later. It was invented by Harvard chemists, with some help from Dupont, under commission from the U.S. Air Force. And it was used to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Japanese and Vietnamese civilians, and to burn many houses and cities, and despoil forests and ecosystems. It was tested in a whole dug into this soccer field, or one of the other ones nearby. Cambridge – with its premier research universities and large and influential technical and pharmaceutical companies – is a city of enormous influence and power. So I prayed again and again that God would raise up more of us, made in God’s image, to use our power and privilege to heal, not to harm. And that God would more healing and less destruction through these mighty institutions of Cambridge.
Signs of Life Everywhere – And on Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously
While walking alongside Memorial Drive, you see so much more than travelling by car or even bike. Cambridge is so beautiful – and there is life of all kinds everywhere, be it in the flowers growing alongside sidewalks, or the mix of wasted and ingenious solutions to shelter where some of our city’s unhoused sleep at night, or in the flocks of birds that travel and rest and breed and eat alongside the river. Struck my all this delightful life, I was aware that I was walking right by Cambridge’s Morse Elementary School, where our church gathered for Sunday worship most of its first six or seven years. I only visited a service once during those years, but both from my visit and from all I’ve heard of that era since, there was so much life in our church during those early years. We grew, and grew exclusively – as fast as any church in New England has ever grown. And we had so much fun – there was a lot of delight and surprise in the community and in our gatherings. We also, though, started to take ourselves too seriously during those years. We got a lot of attention – too much attention – for our growth, and we thought we were so very special. Sometimes we seemed to think we were one of the most important things God was part of on earth, or at least in our region. And that taking ourselves too seriously didn’t do us any favors, then or in the future. There was a lot for me to ponder in this – about joy, about fun, about staying humble and grounded, regardless of what other people say about you.
MIT, The State House, and a Big Baptismal Pool
Continuing to walk along the Charles, I saw the mighty concrete structures of MIT and felt the impressive image of strength that institution projects – intellectual formidability meets hand-on ingenuity. What can those gods not do? And then as I prayed, I felt the insecurity and fear of so many of MIT’s younger students, and maybe of so many of its staff and faculty of all ages as well. I prayed for healing. And I prayed for the learning and discussion around race happening on all our campuses and in so many of our institutions, for capacity to listen, to really listen in the Jesus they-who-have-ears-to-hear kind of way. And I prayed for the humility that will help facilitate learning and transformation.
Looking across the river to the State House, I prayed for our legislature and governor, as I did throughout the day, that beneath their gilded dome, and beneath the mix of people-pleasing and policy making and politicking that happens there, our elected officials would do justice, and particularly that they would do justice in police reform, in health care access, and in immigrant rights.
One more funny little vision. Either in the Spirit, or kind of dehydrated at this point, as I looked at this widest section of the Charles River, I pictured it as an enormous baptismal and also as a giant civic swimming pool, where residents of Cambridge and Boston and surrounding communities get into the water to identify with the crucified and risen Jesus and feel the freedom of new life, and also just to play and cool off. Let me know if you need baptising, friends – it so joyful to get under the water or have water poured over the head as a sign of death and life, and the pouring out of the Spirit upon us!
Cambridge Street – Heart of the City
I fell in love with Cambridge Street today. It feels like the heart of the city. A little pink house, a live chicken butcher, poetry engraved upon the sidewalks, signs inviting us to reflect on the city’s atmosphere – there is so much life, so much striving. Working class, but now gentrified East Cambridge is tied to Harvard University, with three large Cambridge public schools and Cambridge Hospital set in between. As a lover of this city, I prayed blessing after blessing, that God flourishes all the living and eating and teaching and learning and healing and dying and striving and resting that happens on this street.
North Cambridge Home, Green Space Beauty and Annoyances, and The Witness of Jesus
So North Cambridge and the West End are really big. Walking through Porter Square, pit stopping for a bathroom break at our church, and then circumnavigating Alewife and Fresh Pond and the neighborhoods nearby is a lot of miles of walking. A lot of beautiful miles too. Insanely sweaty, legs tired, low on water at this point, I too fewer pictures and prayed with less focus.
But I was struck how homey Rindge Avenue felt, not just because I’ve spent more hours along this street than anywhere else in the city, not just because the home base of my beloved church is there, but because it is also a residential center of the city. Loads of people live in North Cambridge, thousands of souls – speaking many languages, living many different lives, of all manner of demographics, all made beautifully in God’s image.
This part of the city is greener than most. There is the extraordinary reservoir after which our church is partly named. There are the wetlands by Alewife. There are a lot of household gardens. But as I prayed about the land and people’s enjoyment of the land, I was annoyed that green space isn’t evenly accessed by residents of this city, and all cities. I was especially annoyed by the golf course. Sorry, golf lover, but I’m with Malcolm Gladwell in finding golf courses to be environmental travesties and undemocratic wastes of good green space.
So there’s that, but near the end of my walk, as I passed St John’s monastery, I had the chance to pray for a while about the presence and witness of Jesus in our beautiful city. I ended the day more convinced than ever that the life of Jesus runs deep in this city Jesus loves and lives in and roots for its best, along with the rest of us.