A Dark Lower Manhattan after Sandy.
(Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
In a bit of confusion – partly fueled by the terrible cellular service in New York since Sandy made her way through – I drove over to Manhattan this evening, thinking I might be shuttling some friends back to Brooklyn for hot showers, electricity, internet access and the like. It didn’t happen, and that’s fine.
By 6:30 pm, darkness had fallen over the city. Normally, my drive into Manhattan from Brooklyn is a rather uneventful affair. Traffic on the Belt Parkway or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Congestion as people decide whether to drive in via the Battery Tunnel or instead go over one of the bridges. People are looking either to get home, or to make their way to their evening’s plans in the city.
But tonight, the darkness in the city was near complete. There’s next to no electricity below 34th Street, so the view from my car stood in stark contrast to the usual. Instead of the normal wall of lights from buildings, or the sight of bright orange ferries moving between Whitehall and New Brighton, or cars making their way along FDR Drive, there was only the silhouette of empty, unlit buildings standing on the edge of the usually busy island; the occasional peeks of light from buildings uptown broke into the scene, reminding me of what the place normally looks like.
Even the bridges are half-dark. As I crossed the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn, the half way point – normally nothing more than a blink of the eye along the way – had its own line of demarcation. In Brooklyn, where I alighted, there were lights along the edges of the bridge, and on its suspension cables. But then, halfway over the river, suddenly there was darkness, and only the outline of the great steel suspension bridge against the even darker city.
By some happenstance, my phone was playing my music library track by track, in alphabetical order. I left Bay Ridge with Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk” playing; and travelled the length of the Gowanus Expressway with “The Abduction of Margaret” by The Decemberists. Then, as I crossed the bridge into Manhattan, a familiar and favorite tune began playing.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
I certainly didn’t plan for that track to play. But it sure as hell caught my attention. Scottish Anglican poet Henry Francis Lytle, it is said, wrote the hymn’s text as he lay dying of consumption. He finished his work, and died two weeks later. I’ve heard more than my fair share of his text in my first year of ministry – officiating at twelve funerals inevitably points to a few favorite hymns, and this is one of them. But in a city that’s been brought to its knees by wind and water, it certainly struck a chord. The evening was at hand, and the day was past; indeed, the darkness was deepening.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
I spent most of my weekend trying to get the church buildings ready for the storm. The church was built around 1890, the rectory was added around 1910, and the parish hall was re-built after being leveled by fire in the 1930s. In many ways, they don’t appear to have been improved since: the fascia and soffits have noticeable breaks on the parish hall; slates are missing from the sanctuary; the rectory has a leak in its roof that causes water to fall with a noticeable drip-drop into the shower during any heavy rain.
The echoes of history are in every stone of this place. It’s the third oldest Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, opened in 1834 to serve the soldiers of Fort Hamilton, the army base that guarded the entrance to the inner portion of New York Harbour. At that time, it sat outside the bounds of Brooklyn, a long coach ride from Park Slope, where the nearest church sat. While he was stationed at the fort, Robert E. Lee, later the famed Confederate General, sat on the parish’s vestry. Thomas Jackson, who later gained his nickname as “Stonewall” for his stoic stand for the Confederacy at First Bull Run, was baptized in the font that sits just inside the door of the sanctuary. The parish seems to have chased off its first rector not long after its founding on suspicion that he might have sympathies for the Oxford Movement, although the history isn’t certain. St. John’s gained a reputation during a much later conflict – Vietnam – for the tombstones the then-rector placed in front of the rectory in which I now live, and for having meetings of Students for a Democratic Society in the Parish Hall. Instead of being accusing him of being a Puseyite, they called him a Communist.
Perhaps it is that sense of history, and the responsibility I feel as priest here, that led me to stress so much about the building. I was up on a ladder as late as 4:30 pm on Sunday, pulling down a loose gutter that had the potential to fly through our stained glass. The wind was already picking up by the time I retreated inside for the storm, where I would remain until the all clear sounded around midday today.
But today, as I descended into the blackness of the familiar world of Lower Manhattan – now devoid of its familiar hum of activity, its lights, its traffic signals – I couldn’t help imagine that the same burden of history – that same fear for a beloved place – must have been felt by any number of folks in this area. St. Paul’s Chapel, for instance, opened in 1766, and has been in use ever since. It survived the 9/11 attacks, and served as a place of rest for numerous first responders who worked for weeks in the wake of the towers’ collapse. Just hours before, the Hudson River was pouring into the new World Trade Center site with such force, the Governor later said, that they worried about the structure of the new pit itself. And there the historic old church sat – George Washington’s pew, 9/11 museum, all of it – just across Church Street from the raging river. The same kind nervousness could probably be felt by many thousands of people thousands of times over for any number of places now sitting in the midst of that darkness – for New York is a city of stories – stories forgotten, stories being written, stories being told – and so every park, every bridge, every street corner, every restaurant table has a monumental quantity about. And now, all these monuments are covered in darkness – forced into the darkness by the storm that exceeded what any of us could have imagined.
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
The great scandal of the Christianity has always been incarnation. That God – who dwells beyond time, space, and comprehension – saw fit to dwell in this same world in which we live. After all, the world is much too messy for God. It is too transient – too much in flux. We want to dwell in God’s eternal changelessness. If the eternal changelessness of God saw fit to plop himself down in a stable that smelled of smoke, blood, sweat, and donkey shit two-thousand years ago – well, count us out.
Anglicans pride ourselves on being profoundly incarnational, which is fortunate, because changelessness, majesty, and splendor doesn’t seem to be our gig, while scandal does. One only need to look at the two thousand years of flying donkey poop that is the church’s history to realize that we don’t have much choice but to take that bent. As much as we might like to dwell on the fact that we’re the people whose Book of Common Prayer changed the scope of the English language and who stage royal weddings that everyone wants to see, we’re also the church that was founded by a King who wanted a divorce; a people who are far more apt to dwell on the taste of the communion wine than the life-changing reality that is its substance.
The dark buildings and the still city disturb us, haunt us, strike us as eerie, because they remind us of what we truly are in the large scheme of things. Bits of molecules that are pieced together into something larger for a time, only to fall back to the dust in the end. What we believe to be truly monumental is, in the scheme of things, more of a molehill than a mountain.
Elie Wiesel was once asked what his favorite phrase was in language. “And yet…” he answered. “…and yet.”
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.
And yet. We make mountains out of our molehills, and yet God sits with us as we are, nonetheless. In the still city, and in the darkness. We are always making our journey to return to the dust, and yet, Jesus tells us, and yet that dust is the very stuff of the new creation. That very dust is the the stuff of life.
We thrive because we are put into the donkey shit world of the incarnation. God comes not to bless our edifices, but to sit with us in our frailty. God’s heart yearns for us in the power outages, in the dark city, in the momentarily silenced stories. In the hiccups and in the bumps. And when we meet God in those strange places, things change for us.
“Life is short,” Henri-Frédéric Amiel famously said, “and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”
When we meet God in the darkness, in the craziness, we are changed. Charged, even. And so we leave to go out into that city, and room by room, floor by floor, turn on the lights once again until it shines more brilliantly than any of our fondest memories can recall.
Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love
things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among
things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall
abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and
reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
(Nota bene: While the Hymnal 1982 only lists four stanzas to “Abide with Me,” Lytle wrote eight. You can read them all here: http://www.risa.co.uk/sla/song.php?songid=26985)