Every Sunday before our current pandemic overtook us, I’d take my typical forty-minute Sunday drive from Staten Island into Manhattan to attend church. Driving takes me over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn, with it’s awesome Manhattan cityscape off to the left. The rest of the trip is pretty typical as I take the Gowanus, a portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), all the way to the historic Brooklyn Bridge where I cross over to Manhattan.
The thing with the BQE is how high it stands above the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. You’re buzzing by the top or nearly top of an assortment of buildings, made up of warehouses, apartments, businesses and others things. This should probably be nothing new to me at 50 years old. I’ve likely crossed this same path thousands of times. The occasional new building does go up, but the landscape doesn’t change that dramatically.
So it’s the same trip every week. Same scenery every week. Except this one time, all I could see were the churches, specifically the spires rising up, tapering off to a point or in some cases a small cross, and water towers spread out liberally atop an assortment of buildings of various sizes.
Maybe they stand out because of there shapes. City streets tend to be laid out in the form of a grid, and as a result, the buildings tend to follow that pattern. So what we have is varying degrees of squares and rectangles. “Four corners” for as far as the eye can see. Among that concrete sea of right angles, round cylinders sitting above it, pointy spears jutting out from in-between them, tend to stick out. Once you get a glimpse of that, it’s hard to un-see it. When you’re flying by on the expressway, they kind of break up the monotony of buildings.
Because I am a New Yorker, and have been for my entire fifty years. I’ve done more than just drive-by. I’ve been in some of these neighborhoods over the years.. I picked up our dog in one of these neighborhoods, I’ve gone to wakes to say goodbye in some of these neighborhoods, I’ve driven friends home in some of these neighborhoods, and I’ve worked in the some of these neighborhoods. So I know a little bit more about these church spires for example.
I know these spires are attached to old churches, in old neighborhoods. I know that some of them are no longer open. I know that some of them are in disrepair, literally falling apart. Some of them can barely keep going as their congregation dwindles down with each passing year. Some of these churches have been transformed and repurposed into other things, civic centers and markets, far from the original intention.
These old churches, steeples reaching skyward, are nostalgic reminders of what came before. Some of them take up entire blocks, while others are more modest in size. Whatever the size, there was a centrality to their locations. Church was a way of life in these neighborhoods. It was a part of life. Faith was a part of the fabric that made up this city tapestry. It still does, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. It always will, I suppose. Still, I see those old churches and wax nostalgic. What if they were filled to the brim, overflowing with spirit-filled believers, voices of worship singing heavenly songs that carry out into the neighborhoods.
I recently had the privilege to preach in an old Lutheran church in Brooklyn. It had definitely seen better days, but you could also feel the history in a tangible way. I could imagine the pews below filled up and even the rows in the balcony filled to capacity, as preachers more insightful than I deliver the goods of the Gospel of grace to an eager crowd in need.
Many of those old churches are stark reminders of what was, but they can also be reminders of what God can do again. What God always does… Call His people to him. Maybe they won’t be in a building with gravity defying spires that cut into the skies. Maybe they will be simple buildings, filled with people looking for a simple but profound message, “Christ for you…”
We know God will build His Church. He always does. When he does, it’s not made up of walls and steeples and altars and candles. That’s where we go. His church is made up of flesh and bone, the body of believers that he calls to himself.
So yeah, I did see a little more with this drive into the city. But I didn’t just see those church spires. I saw water towers.
To overstate the obvious again, I am a New Yorker. But I was born and bred on the very most forgotten borough of NYC, Staten Island. So growing up, I didn’t see many water towers. I did see plenty of them in every issue of my Spider-Man Comics. Heck, for a while I thought the only purpose water towers served were either as background for Spidey as he swung by or the occasional clever plot device to short out Electro, when the friendly, neighbor-hood web-swinger would break one open over him or toss him in one.
I learned later on, to my surprise, water towers actually DID exist, and that they really do serve a purpose, even today. For over 100 years, these five to ten thousand gallon mostly wooden drums sit atop buildings across this great city, providing support for additional water pressure for daily use, as well as holding emergency reserves. At first glance, they seem like just another relic of past, but they still do the same job they always have. More than 17,000 of these towers are spread out over the city, providing the most basic necessity of life for people.
So now when I see these towers, I see a need being met. Most people probably take it for granted. They don’t realize how much their buildings are dependent upon it so people can take showers, use toilets, even make tea. How unfortunate and inconvenient was it for those apartment-dwellers every time Spider-Man busted some villain through one? Maybe that’s the reason why it only takes a day to build now.
I see these towers with different eyes now. The way those old church spires reminds me of what was, or what can be again, those water towers remind me of what God always does, even when we take Him for granted or forget He’s there, as we live out our hectic, overstuffed lives.
He provides. He provides what we need to live. Just like the water from those tower help us wash, or quench our thirst, God provides us with a spiritual cleansing, he quenches our thirst for worth, for hope, if we’re willing.
This wasn’t meant to be a message about the coronavirus, but if there were ever a time we ever needed to quench our thirst for a sense of hope, it would be now.
Maybe you live in a city like this. Maybe you’re in a small town. Find the water towers, Find the churches with the spires rising high into the sky. Let them remind you that God is near, that he will build up his people. He will build his church. Let it remind you that he will provide for you and be with you in every situation.
God’s peace to you.