Monday, March 28, 2011

Heaven in Manhattan

This morning I woke to the familiar call of the morning birds outside my window. It was good to be home - back to the quiet, back to the familiar noises of nature and green space. I do not want to live in New York City, but I must admit, I do love to go there. I love the drive from the airport, crossing the bridge and driving along the river into Manhattan. I love the thrill of the cab ride, the honking and speeding only to stop quickly, shifting lanes to press on to our destination. Did we tell our driver we were in a hurry? I love the excitement of Times Square, the lights. and the music on every corner. I love the dinner before the theatre when knowing waiters are attentive to serve you outstanding food in short order. I love the beautiful department stores and the quaint shops in SoHo. I love the crazy idea of standing in line for something as simple and trendy as a cupcake! And I love the walking and walking and walking, even though this morning my body feels somewhat exhausted from the fun of it all.
Exhaustion from what? Certainly not exhausted from being with my family on a fun get-away weekend. Certainly not exhausted from enjoying new experiences together, looking at great art, and sharing a few days of sightseeing together in a fascinating city.
But exhaustion from the extreme pace of it all. Exhaustion from the hurrying, the movement, the noise, the lack of sky and sunlight - the lack of cardinals at my feeder and jasmine blooming outside my door. I realized all that I missed when we climbed the steps and walked through the doors of the beautiful St. Thomas Fifth Avenue Church. It was Saturday and the only movement inside was the soft music coming from the organ. One person wandered around. Two people sat at the front of the long nave. The three of us sat toward the back and rested our feet and listened. For me it was a moment of quiet nourishment from the contrast of frenzy outside the heavy, wooden door. As the narrator of the video describes so beautifully "the church takes one from "earthliness to heavenliness." ( Upon entering, it is simple and dark and dreary. But walk in and look up and experience "heavenliness" as the beautiful, tall stain-glassed windows capture the light from the sky and shine down strikingly, reminding the one who enters that here one can indeed, be refreshed and renewed, transported from earth to heaven right in the middle of Manhattan.
What a stark contrast to then step back outside into the bustle and noise of the city. I could not help but make the contrast as we remembered the parents and children lined up outside of FAO Schwartz, waiting for the opportunity to walk through doors to be mesmerized by a toy heaven. We had stood there once and even Blair remembered her childhood day of bliss and the purchase of some long-forgotten toy. But just around the corner, there were even longer lines to get into Abercrombie and Fitch, a store where grown-up kids crave buying an identity that will somehow give them notoriety and power. Henri Nouwen (Show Me the Way, pg. 64) explains it well," There is a mystery which is difficult to grasp in an age that attaches so much value to publicity. We tend to think that the more people know and talk about something, the more important it must be. That's understandable, considering the fact that great notoriety often means big money, and big money often means a large degree of power, and power easily creates the illusion of importance. In our society, it's often statistics that determine what is important: the best selling CD, the most popular book, the richest man, the highest tower-block, the most expensive car."

The journey of this Lenten season reminds us again of the disciples and how they, too, were looking for their leader to be one of power and might. They wanted to follow their idea of a king, their idea of a real leader. But as Jesus continued his resolute mission, we observe the way as harder and harder, lonelier and lonelier, descending as opposed to ascending. He moved away from the crowds and became more and more attentive to the invisible God. Like the disciples, it is just so hard for us to grasp this mysterious idea of descending, giving up, letting go to gain eternity. We want our kingdom and our notoriety now - even with a passing logo.
I amuse myself at finding similarities in stepping into church and stepping into one of those high priced luxury stores on Fifth Avenue. Certainly, you will never have to wait in line. The inside is quiet and serene. There is soft music, good smells and refined, gentle people to assist you.
I suppose the difference is in the point of purchase - or the decision. Should you decide to buy an item you will simply pay your money to the sales person. You will walk out proudly carrying a bag with a logo of distinction. And to justify your purchase, you promise yourself that you will wear the item for the rest of your life.
Should you decide to invest in a spiritual journey of faith, the things of the earth become dimmer and dimmer and all you want is the "heavenliness" of looking up to eternity. The cost? The Bible says that salvation is free to all. People generally line up for something that is free. We certainly stood in line for free admittance to the MoMA. But this freedom is costly because it is a decision not of the wallet, but of the heart. The heart wears a new logo of faith that is acted out daily with choices and attitudes, not carried around to sit aside when we are tired and want to move on to another style. We will be asked to trust in eternal things, not public opinion. We will be asked to give up. We will have to move from "earthliness to heavenliness." What I love is that right in the middle of the madness of Manhattan, "there is a place of quiet rest" where one can easily distinguish the two.

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