sharper focus “Street grade”

By Kelly Pontsler, Major

You can hear the trains from my house. It’s not so much the clickety-clack of the wheels as they run along the steel tracks, although if it is especially still outside you can just identify that pulsing rhythm as an undertone of movement. No. It’s the horns! Running north and south through town, both passenger and freight trains are required to sound their presence at every street grade intersection where the tracks cross a street. The piercing blast of noise carries easily, catching your attention in a crescendo of sound as the train approaches and then fading away as the engine moves further down the line. I prefer to sleep with the window wide open and I can tell you this: this is a town with a lot of intersections!

I happen to love trains—watching them and riding them—and it’s not the first time I’ve lived so close to the tracks. Most of the time I hardly notice the noise and, for the most part, getting caught behind a lowered crossing bar when I’m driving around town is an enjoyable moment of pause in an otherwise crazy busy day.

The topography and skyline of Salem are pretty flat and as the sound of the train horns caught my attention last night, it occurred to me that living our lives for Jesus has to happen at street grade. His instruction in Matthew 5, to go as salt and light to the world wasn’t a lesson in culinary skill or interior decorating. It was about being “boots on the ground,” present and engaged at street level. And I started to wonder, when was the last time any of us carved out the time and space to live at street grade?

I recently changed television providers at home and in assembling the package of services, I decided to include a DVR (digital video recorder). I’m not sure if it was a smart move or not. Although I love the fact that I can record programs from all hours of the day and night and save them to watch at my convenience—I do find that lining up the recordings and checking out whatever is on the playlist can easily fill hours of time.

I remember well, the evening I was first introduced to this new electronic contraption. I had just returned home from assignments in Europe and was enjoying fellowship with officer colleagues. They gave me a quick demonstration of the system. Wow! With hundreds of TV channels to choose from, having this means of managing a family’s viewing was simply amazing to me. But in the split second that followed, I recall thinking to myself how easy it would be to never leave the house. Huddled up safely with a glimpse of the wider world as seen through a camera lens, yet never experiencing it for ourselves. And now some years later, I am the possessor of a DVR and I wonder to myself if I’ve been wise.

Engaging the world at street grade means we actually get out on the street. I was fortunate to have many friends from home come and enjoy some vacation based at my place in each of my appointments in Europe. The end of day debrief, as they returned home from the wanderings of tourism, almost always started with, “I just love walking around…” (insert name of the city).

At street level, you see the intricacy of carved doorways and the beauty of children playing in the park. At street level, you hear the sounds of life expressed in the movement of heavy equipment and the laughter of men telling stories about days past. At street level, you are confronted by the odors of need and the color pop of the first shoots of spring green. Imagine being salt and light there?

The psalmist David wrote, Teach me to do what you want, because you are my God. Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground (Psalm 143:10).  Sounds to me like living at street grade. May it be so.

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