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At the 168th street subway station in Manhattan, four elevators are the only way to get to the surface from the 1 train. Every few minutes, dozens of people step off the train and into the dungeon to wait for an elevator to bring them up. It is truly one of the most miserable public transportation experiences, and my children and I do it every day.

When one of the four elevators breaks, it’s depressing.

When two or three of them are down, I start thinking about the end of the world.

When there is only one left, I write notes to my loved ones in my head.

Last week I was waiting in the 168th street platform and I saw a pigeon.

A pigeon, deep below the earth, with no hope of ever escaping unless this pigeon learns to board elevators or accidentally gets back on the train. This pigeon was probably born in a tree in a park, eating the crumbs that people leave (even though the signs say not to feed the pigeons). This pigeon was minding her own business one day and accidentally boarded a train. (I’ve seen it happen.) And then this pigeon got out at the worst station possible.

This pigeon will live and die at the 168th street platform.

She may have plenty to eat. She may nest safely in the grimy rafters that never see the sunlight. But she will never find a mate. She will never bathe in a pond. She will never breathe fresh air again.

This semester I have been studying providence in my systematic theology class. I have written thousands of words to my classmates, my professor, my teacher’s assistant, my family, and my friends, trying to grasp what it means to find God in a world where, no, not everything happens for a reason.

And in spite of the great thinkers and theologians that we are reading in school, I found the most solace in a haunting poem that I found in a book called Women’s Uncommon Prayers. I don’t know anything about the writer Terri Jones, but I resonate with the shadowy image of a sparrow in flight.  Enjoy:

It is not enough, Lord;
it does not suffice.
“Your eye, O Lord, is on the sparrow;
you will not ever let a sparrow fall.”
Does the sparrow know?
Can she take wing with security,
or sit safely in her nest?
Are you just a God of safety nets, O Lord?
Or does your breath beneath her wings
lift her through currents of the air,
support her as she soars and swoops alike?
Is the soaring and the swooping all the same to you?
Are the rising and the falling both alike?
Does it matter if the tide is in or out,
or if the lungs are void or full of air?
To you, eternal, changeless,
Encompasser of constant motion
in ultimate stillness,
there may be no difference:
no safety in repose,
no terror in the drop.
But it matters to the sparrow, Lord.
The sparrow knows the difference.

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One of the most terrifying experiences I had as a child happened in the parking lot of a San Antonio McDonald’s. I was in the 7th grade. My family had just finished breakfast and we were leaving for our yearly trip to Six Flags. My sister and I got in the car and a man came up to my dad and started asking him for money. My dad held out a dollar, but the man started following my dad around the car, snarling at him. I didn’t know whether to lock the car door to protect my sister, or to leave it unlocked to allow my dad to hop in. I could just hear my dad saying “Jesus loves you, Man!” over and over again as he circled the car. Eventually a McDonald’s employee came out and shooed the man away and everything was fine. But I wasn’t. I was trembling with fear and obsessed about the incident for a full year.

One of the understated elements of living in a city of 8 million is that the sheer volume of people that we encounter every single day produces more experiences with humanity than the average suburbanite will have in a month or several months. My kids have observed more people in their two years here than I had observed in my whole adolescence, perhaps. They have seen people talking to themselves, they have seen people asking for money, playing music, speaking different languages, caring for strangers, and screaming at each other. They have seen people litter. They have seen people fall asleep after a long day. They have seen famous people, tourists, families that look like ours, and families that don’t. I am pretty sure that they will see some scary things. But something about the urban experience makes it worthwhile. Seeing the depth and breadth of humanity builds both empathy and street smarts. In some miraculous way, we are able to love more and discern better. That is a gift.