Monday, June 29, 2009

Trump's Tower

Anyone who has viewed the Chicago skyline with me lately knows of my distaste for the Trump Tower. I cannot look upon the thing without sneering and muttering something under my breath. Riding past it on my bike, I do not look up in awe; I do not celebrate the architectural accomplishment. Instead I compose a private monologue:

"Up till now, Donald, I've been able to ignore you. For most of my life you were just a name that flashed past in headlines; you were just that super rich guy from New York with bad hair and a worthless TV show. But now you're stretching your empire into my city, and I don't like it. What business do you have naming giant buildings after yourself, anyway? Can't you settle for New York, Las Vegas, and Dubai? Do you really have to come creeping into the Midwest?"

Some of my friends have had the pleasure of hearing this whiny litany while approaching the city on the Dan Ryan with me or walking together downtown. Indeed, the tower's very sight evokes in me a disdain so strong that I do not myself understand it. Isn't it irrational to have such emotions toward a man you've never met? Aren't there dozens of other buildings in Chicago funded by resourceful businessmen? Why don't Sears and Chase boil my blood so?

It is not Trump himself who angers me. His 93-story tower points to problems with the world and with human nature. When I see it, my mind thinks back through a hundred other depressing observations I've made about mankind, and the lesson learned from all of them is this:

People do a lot of things that don't make sense, thereby creating systems that don't make sense and perpetuating senseless activity.

Thoreau articulated this truth, writing from his cabin next to Walden Pond in Massachusetts in the 1840s. He digressed from answering the question of how a person can live most sensibly to discuss the construction of another architectural wonder, the pyramids. He writes:
Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive. As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much the same all the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the United States Bank. The mainspring is vanity, assisted by the love of garlic and bread and butter.

This passage made me laugh out loud, and I immediately felt validated in my my disgust for the Trump Tower. I do not advocate drowning Donald Trump and throwing his body to the dogs, but Thoreau's point could not be heard more clearly. The way people live does not make sense because they are short-sighted and predisposed to foolishness.

It does not make sense to become rich, especially if it is by building giant towers full of luxurious accommodations that no one needs. It does not make sense to contribute to such an operation by offering your skills and labor in exchange for a paycheck. It does not make sense to buy a condo overlooking the Tribune clock tower for $2.4 million.

How far all of that is from the simple wisdom of the Psalms. Describing the greatness of the works of the Lord and how he provides for his creation, from the small animals that live in the crags of the rocks to the leviathan who frolics in the depths, the psalmist writes:
They all wait for You
To give them their food in due season.
You give to them, they gather it up;
You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good.
You hide Your face, they are dismayed;
You take away their spirit, they expire
And return to their dust.
You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the ground.
Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works;
He looks at the earth, and it trembles;
He touches the mountains, and they smoke.

Why not take joy in the basic provisions so graciously supplied by the one who gives you breath? Why not take only what you need? Why not recognize that when your breath is taken away you will expire and return to dust? Why not live with the understanding that you and your race are a small part of the created order?

Instead, people lust for power, and the ones who gain the most- be it pharaoh or his modern descendants- memorialize themselves with needless and expensive structures. They gobble up money and human labor that could be put to use in a thousand other reasonable and decent ways.

The Daley administration, for example, encouraged Trump, who has currently sold units amounting to $600 million in his Chicago tower, to spend an extra $1.5 million to include a 326 foot decorative spiral. This spiral would make the building taller than the Sears and give Chicago claim to the two tallest structures in the United States. Trump declined after some residents in the building said they did not want to live in the nation's tallest building for fear of a terrorist attack.

Thank goodness! I wish such a ridiculous project would be turned down out of common sense, but I will settle for fear. If Donald Trump offered me $1.5 million dollars to help build a $1.5 million dollar antenna that poked a few feet further into the air than the antenna of the building next door, I would kindly refuse. I would hand him the Psalter and a book full of pictures of AIDS orphans and meat-packing plants and strip mines and refugees and landfills and people dying of famine.

To clarify and summarize, the problem is not the man himself or the tower itself. They are two small symptoms of a sickness that infects mankind and hinders people from living rightly. In Christian vernacular this is called sin nature, and it manifests itself in many forms over the centuries. The giant Trump Tower, as handsome and slick as it is, will always cause me to ask giant questions. So if you ever visit downtown Chicago with me, be prepared for a monologue.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Psalm for a Tree-Hugger

I came across this one this morning. It challenges me and affirms that the environment is something Christians should care about. It’s not just hip to green; it’s also biblical. Much of the “developed” world lives so far removed from the natural order that we are unable to appreciate the Lord’s simple provision or to take joy in the ways he cares for his creation.
This little Psalm is a good reminder.

Lord Jesus, create in us a longing for the coming kingdom, whose beginning was marked by your work upon the cross! With the rest of creation, we are yours; and we long for renewal in you.


Bless the LORD O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.

He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
The waters stood above the mountains
At your rebuke they fled;
At the sound of your thunder
they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

You made the springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build nests;
the stork has her home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.

He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, the steal away
and lie down in their dens.
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening.

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
Which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships, and the leviathan,
which you formed to play in it.

These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
When you open your hand,
they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works,
who looks on the earth and it trembles
who touches the mountains and they smoke!
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the LORD.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more!
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
Praise the LORD!