I did something this past week that I haven’t done for quite some time: I took some time off from life and went to Pittsburgh with my wife and sons. We have wanted to see the fireworks from Point State Park for quite a while and this year we were finally able to do so.
We stayed in a small hotel in Oakland, which is a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh, and where The University of Pittsburgh is located. We were in a fourth floor room that had one window with a spectacular view of the mountains and Monongahela River. It was quite exhilarating to look out the window and see the river, the mountains, the bridges, the freeways, and all the cars moving along without a thought to the fact that those roads are being held in the air by nothing but concrete and rebar.
On Sunday, July 4th, we walked from our hotel in Oakland down Forbes Avenue through downtown all the way to Point State Park where we joined in with thousands of people, scattered upon the grass and concrete, to watch the fireworks. We sat behind an family of Arabic descent who were sitting next to a young white couple who were sitting next to a black woman and five small children (all boys). We watched sky-divers make a dramatic descent to earth, putting all their faith in a thin piece of silk and a few ropes. We saw people watching from the safety of their hotel rooms behind us. We listened to the thump, thump, thump of the All-America music being played by a DJ a short way off in the distance, “Born in the USA, I was, Born in the USA!” We smelled the BBQ, sweat, cigarette smoke, popcorn, and smoke from expended fireworks.
We saw a stand where we could get our favorite Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken and fried rice. Or, if we preferred, from another stand, popcorn or cotton candy. We watched people squeeze 15 people into a space suitable for maybe 5. We saw people talking on cell phones and others talking face to face. We saw some folks making out. We saw some women dressed like they were going to church and others dressed like they were opposed to the very idea of clothing. We saw men in suits and others in their biker get-up and children in pajamas. We saw entrepreneurs selling glow sticks and others selling bottles of water. There were booths with information and food. There were police and other safety people. There were…people, Americans…and we were all together.
The young white couple that sat in front of my family was especially interesting. Next to them there was a black woman who was tending to five small boys. I don’t know if they were all hers or not, it doesn’t matter. What was amazing is that this young white couple became fast friends with the five small black boys and before long all five boys were sitting on the young couple’s blanket. Then the boys also began partaking of the couple’s chips. They talked as if they had been friends forever but when the fireworks began the conversation abated and there was a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the five boys and the young man and woman. It was a beautiful thing–these utter strangers sharing food and blanket space and a song of celebration.
When the fireworks were over, everyone stood up and began the long walk back to wherever they were living that night. Some undoubtedly went to their hotel and others went back to their house. Maybe some went to their cars and others went a walking (like us!). It could be that others went to nowhere as they had nowhere to go or back to their box under a bridge. But for those 25 minutes at Point State Park, we were altogether one people.
It’s sad, really, that it takes something like a colorful recreation of bombs bursting in air is required to bring a people together, as one.
That same Sunday, the fourth, we also attended a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. It was 9 innings of pure bliss (even my eldest son, who rather despises any and all sports, said the game was his favorite part of the trip.) There was so much going on that day–not least of which was the Pirates coming from behind to win the game against the Phillies. I can only think of one, maybe two, things that I enjoy more than sitting at a baseball game in hot, July heat, but not many more.
There we sat in a crowd of 28,000 people cheering for the home team Bucs! It seemed like the weight an entire city was riding on every pitch. It was so intense that I didn’t even mind the three year old sitting behind me who literally kicked the back of my chair for nine innings. There was the perogi race, the weiner toss, the t-shirt toss, and the perfect coordination of the ground’s crew who came out every three innings to drag the infield. There was the standing and singing of God Bless America in the seventh inning and the follow-up during the stretch of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Have you ever heard 28,000 people singing Take Me out to the Ball Game? It is quite truthfully a sound to behold. There were the fireworks and the roar of 28,000 people in the seventh inning when Pirates rookie Pedro Alvarez walloped a homerun kicking off a rally that eventually gave the Bucs the win.
And of course let’s not forget the view. We sat in the upper deck along the third base line. From there we had a spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh and the Allegheny River. The accompanying picture does no justice to how wonderful the view was that day–clear sky, downtown, baseball, and 28,000 people who cared about nothing but the outcome of a silly game. And yet I knew beyond doubt that I was automatically friends with everyone in that stadium–joined together by some mystical bond created by the crack of a bat. I was friends with Pirates fans and Phillies fans alike.
While I sat there I was thinking about Scripture. I was thinking about John who, by the end of the Revelation, is also thinking about a city that has come into his view.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
And also I thought about this one from later on in the same chapter:
“The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.” (Revelation 21:15-17)
I was thinking about all those people in that great city. I was thinking about all those squares and cubes and and geometry and the symmetry of the city. I was thinking about a river flowing through the city. I was thinking about God and whether or not he was King of that city too. I was thinking about that building right near the center that looks like the top of a castle (in the picture). It’s made entirely of glass and does it ever shine in the light. It’s called the Pittsburgh Plate Glass building. I was thinking about the city sparkling in the sunlight and glittering in the moonlight. It’s a veritable city on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.
I was thinking about the church. I was thinking about all those people and how many of them knew about Jesus. I was thinking that my experience in Pittsburgh was so unlike my experience in the church.
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27)
I was thinking that I wish church could be like that baseball game–where everything we disagree about and hate each other for is forgotten because we are overwhelmed by what is right in front of us. Nothing else mattered that day except baseball. I wish I could say that in the church the only thing we truly cared about was Jesus–that we were truly overwhelmed by Him.
I was thinking that I wish church could be like those fireworks–where everyone from every different walk of life and culture is brought together under one banner and celebrates. I wish I could say that in the church the only banner we unite together under is Jesus. And I wish we didn’t have to wait so long for it to be a reality.
I was thinking that I wish church could be like that city–where everything is in balance and shines and sparkles and glows and radiates unity in the sun. Where strangers walk together and every tribe and tongue is united under one Name. I wish I could say that the church glows and shines in the Son. I wish I could say we truly were that City coming down from heaven.
I was thinking that I wish the church could be a place where…
I was thinking that I wish the church could be a place….
I was thinking that I wish the church could be…
I was thinking that I wish the church could…
I was thinking that I wish I could love the church, and all of the stupid people that make up the church, half as much as I loved the people in PNC Park that day or in Pittsburgh that night. I think if I could learn to love again the church then maybe I would see that I don’t need to spend so much time wishing the church was something other than what it is and instead I could concentrate on being what the church is: loved by God.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)
I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I probably should have just said, at the outset, that I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to love the church the way Jesus does. Or, I wish I could love the church the way I love Pittsburgh–a city full of strangers.
I was thinking I spend too much time wishing and not enough time doing.