“Tell me what’s happening in New York,” they ask. “What does it look like? Describe it to me.”
But, can you? Really?
“Loud,” you say.
But so is the TV if you turn the volume all the way up. So is Stanford Stadium when it is full of the red and black faithful. So is the sound of a jet taking off or a baby crying in the middle of the night or the sound of your own heartbeat in the middle of a game of hide and seek. But can you really say all of these things are the same?
“Bright,” you say.
But so is the flash on a camera. So is the burst if lightning in the middle of the night and the pen light the doctor uses to check your eyes. So is the sunrise and the reflection of it off the freshly fallen snow. But can you really say all of these things are the same?
“Busy,” you say.
But so is every family in America the day before Christmas. So is every college student the week before finals. So is the grocery store clerk when several people call in late for work. So are ant hills and business men and pastors and kids building towers out of legos. But can you really say all of these things are the same?
“Big,” you say.
But so is the mountain in your backyard. So is the kitchen counter when you’re four and can’t reach the top. So is the ocean and the project due next week. So, is the hamburger you just cooked and the spider you just stepped on. But can you say all of these things are the same?
No, because stepping into Times Square is like stepping into a world bigger than the world. You Immediately feel small even in your normal sized self because normal is dwarfed by the hugeness of it all as if the buildings themselves may just grow legs and arms and feet and beards and squish the normal right out of you.
People are drawn to New York perhaps because someone said they should go or they want to walk the same streets millions of celebrities have and in some way feel connected to them or because they saw it in a movie or there was a whisper of the promise of the American dream, or perhaps because it is big and the vastness of the whole things makes the storms in our own hearts seem a little more manageable. They seem, if just for a second or a day or a week, small enough for us to handle, small enough for us to make sense of.
Then there is the paradox of the whole thing and perhaps this is what draws us because a paradox makes us stop, if just for the time it takes to think a thought, and consider the truth of the seemingly unrelated things. And we like paradoxes because they break us out of the normal and the mundane and the rhythm of our everyday. They invite us to hope in something new, something more, something beyond what we can see.
When you stand in the middle of Time’s Square, slowly spinning in circles as your mind tries to grasp the loudness and the brightness and the busyness and the bigness of the whole thing, you can’t help but notice the paradox of it all. Buildings that have stood for years and years and years beg of a time when the nation was still deciding who it wanted to be. It beckons us to a time when men built things with their hands and soldiers lined the streets on the way to war and the roar of industry allowed us to grow up and not out. And yet the buildings are there today, standing as ancient sentinels to when the times were different; standing there with a patchwork of scaffolding as the new world tries to drag the old world along with it. There they are, beautiful in their own right, crumbling and breaking and falling down as if the hope of the past for a better future is crumbling with them. And now they stand, in the middle of Times Square, covered by four and five story LED screens, flashing advertisements and messages that the better future we hoped for is still there, we just need the thing they are blinding us with.
And so there it is; the paradox of the whole thing. Old, romantic, breaking buildings covered on the outside with awe-inspiring, spine-tingling, loud technology. The old set next to the new.
But these are just words on a page and you really have no idea what I’m talking about. Just like I have no idea what the people in Joplin or Tuscaloosa mean when they say everything they had ever known was destroyed by a tornado. Just like I have no idea how truly terrible a volcano is or how truly beautiful the birth of your son is. They are just words on a page unless I have been there too and can give them flesh and blood and life.
And maybe we are drawn to New York because it really is all of those things. It’s bigger than words on a page, the paradox of it all causes us to stop and think, the vastness makes everything we are feel small, and it’s busy and bright and loud.
And maybe it reminds us, just a little, when the words on a page became flesh and grew arms and legs and a beard and feet and walked around with us, squishing all the normal right out us. Maybe it reminds of the time when something beautiful hung there on the old, broken, cross proclaiming to us the hope of a better future and a new promise that all the things we should be hoping in really were the the things we should be hoping in and all the old, breaking buildings would indeed be made new all over again. Maybe it reminds us that at the center of history there is a paradox which causes us to stop and think, maybe just for a second. The paradox of a king, hanging there on something old, dying the death of a slave, a thief, a murderer.
It was big in the sense that it all happened the way he said it would. It was big in the sense that people who were once dead were walking the streets and drinking coffee and the local Starbucks. It was big in the sense that the cloth in the temple tore from top to bottom and the holiness of the holy of holies poured forth like a torrent of raging water held too long behind a giant, man made dam. It was big in the sense that the temple was torn down and rebuilt in three days.
It was busy in the sense that people from all walks of life scrambled to see if this man who called himself God would indeed die, or if he, by some miracle, would save his own life. It was busy because all through the night he was on trial and being sold by his friends. It was busy because it was the sabbath and passover had to be done just right. It was so busy because the people standing around the place they called “skull” missed the perfect representation of the passover playing out before their very eyes.
It was bright in the sense that it flashed like lightning and knocked a man off his horse and left him blind for a few days. And it was bright in the sense it was described as a light shinning in the darkness, and we all know what happens when even the smallest light shines in the shadows. The darkness retreats as if it is being chased by a thousand dragons and with it our fear because what shines in the night makes plain the things hidden, which can in and of themselves become fantastical distortions of what is really true. Ask any child what happens to the monster under the bed when you turn on the light.
And it was loud. It was loud not because people were crying and wailing at the loss of the one they had given their everything to believe he was the Messiah. It was loud not because there was a crowd standing around watching the scene unfolding in terrible slow motion. Will the agony of it all every end? No, it was loud because this man reached all the way back in history and said something that shook the foundation of the earth and as the crowd gasped in exclamation at the recognition of the messiah as he simply said, “It is finished.” I’m sure when he said it it was hardly audible but it stands pivotal in the history of this world because it was the moment the price had been paid and the debt lifted and the chains removed.
And so people are drawn to New York because it is the shadow of a shadow of a bigger story, one bigger than the world, and for just a moment we catch a glimpse of something more wonderful and terrible than ourselves and we believe the monsters in the dark can indeed be pushed back because after all, a light shines in the darkness. But can you say all of these things are the same?
These are just words on a page and you really have no idea what I’m talking about. Just like I have no idea the terrors of war by reading the newspaper or the freedom of skydiving by watching it on TV. But then maybe you do know what I’m talking about because you have seen a sunset or seen the birth of your first child or held the hand of your wife on the first day you can call her wife, and for a second our hearts give pause because all of these things are reflections of a reflection of a bigger picture which has been playing out since the beginning of time and is the story we all desperately need to hear.