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Spiritual Reflections

Beautiful City

by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

Oh! What a beautiful city!
Oh! What a beautiful city!
Oh! What a beautiful city!
Twelve gates to the city!

Now perhaps those are not the words that might first come into your mind if you're picking your way through ice and frozen slush on a January morning. They were not in my mind at first, either. If you live anywhere near Philadelphia, you know what I mean. Yesterday's snow/ice/sleet/rain event was transformed overnight into a perilous mess. As I headed out for a run with Pepper this morning, the walkways were slick with ice. The path into the woods was even worse - ruts and ridges of solidified slush. Even the snow, where I usually place my feet on icy mornings, was covered with a glazed crust. I concentrated hard on each step, my head down and my hands out to brace myself if I should fall.

And so when Pepper gave an exuberant leap that jerked the leash, causing me to lose my balance and almost pulling me over, I lost my temper. I held onto the sapling that had broken my fall and began chastising her in my sternest "bad-dog" tone. At the same time, I looked up for the first time from the treacherous pathway beneath my feet. And there I saw the beautiful city - the glistening field, the arching trees, the ice-fingered branches, the blaze of sunlight in the blue dome of sky. Oh, what a beautiful city! And in my head, I heard the powerful voice of Kathleen Battle singing those words.

Right now, for a great many people, life feels like picking your way through a frozen slushy perilous mess on a dark day in January. Unemployment, and two wars, and a tanking economy have most of us looking down, watching our feet. But last week, for one glorious day, Americans stopped in their tracks and looked up together for a glimpse of that beautiful city. Was it a coincidence that the inauguration of our new president happened the day after we celebrate The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? Was it a coincidence that Barack Obama's extended family, gathered with him on the podium, reflected the rainbow shades of America? Was it a coincidence that The Rev. Joseph Lowery used the playful but honest language of an old African-American jump-roping jingle in his prayer? I don't even believe in coincidence. Yes, as a people, we are picking our way along a treacherous path in troubled times. And yes, we need to keep our eyes fixed on where we are going, proceed with caution, and be sure our footing is sure. But thanks be to God! Once in awhile something jerks us out of our anxious way and bids us look up to view the bigger picture. When we do that, we see around us a multitude of sisters and brothers - black and white and brown and yellow, young and old, gay and straight - the hope that is America. Let us continue to remind one another of that glorious day, and dare to be the insistent tug that calls us to look up and see the vision. It is a beautiful city. Hallelu!

When I get to Heaven
I'm gonna sing an shout
Ain't nobody up there
Gonna take me out
'Cause He built twelve gates-a to city