Sunday, November 22, 2009

Second Thanksgiving in NYC

We are approaching our second Thanksgiving in NYC as a family, and as a young church. Honestly, in the past, most Thanksgivings have meant food and football, family, and a break from work. I haven't done a great job of using this season to take inventory of my life and be thankful. This year is different. A year ago I was going through major adjustment to our new life in the city. I was grieving all I had lost and left behind in Michigan, wondering how life was going to go here in NYC, uncertain about what our church would look like, and even if it would take off. It was a pretty difficult time, and looking back, I was pretty self-absorbed. Not too much room for Thankfulness. This year is a different matter.

This past weekend was such a great time of friendship and ministry. I realized that a lot has happened in a year. On Saturday, Communitas served at the New York City Rescue Mission, putting together care packages to be given to needy families Thanksgiving week. Over 2 dozen friends from Communitas came together. As we sorted and stuffed bags, I was overwhelmed with the community God has brought into my life. It was serious joy! I realized how much I love these friends and how they have enriched my life. We have all been through a great deal together. We have struggled, wondered, doubted, and rejoiced as well. It occurred to me that while we still have much to learn about genuine community, we are becoming "Communitas", a community forged in the furnace of struggle, risk, and challenge.

Today, Danny and Amy Cox were with us. I was so excited to have Danny lead our band and to lead us in worship. The years we worked together at Kensington, leading New Community, will stand out as some of the most formative and joyful years of my life. We helped each other to learn to hear God's voice more clearly, to love Jesus more, and to grow in our love for his bride, the Church. I have missed him so much. So as he lead us today, I looked around at the people that God has gathered to us in our first year here, and felt deep gratitude in my heart. God has been good. He is good.

For those who follow my blog, I am "moving it" to Communitas' new website (check it out- You'll see the tab for my blog on the home page.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Road Trip

Yesterday I headed west out of NYC on I-80, with my 17 year old son Caleb, driving the empty Communitas 16 foot truck to the Detroit area. We are going to leave the truck in Michigan until after Thanksgiving, and then drive it back to Manhattan with a full load... front to back, top to bottom. Full of what, you ask?

Last winter members of Communitas were part of an initiative called “Don’t Walk By? Each Saturday night in January we joined hundreds of other volunteers and hit the streets of Manhattan, covering a different section each week, walking block by block, going down into subway stations and other public spaces, looking for members of the homeless population of NYC. Our goal was to invite them to come for a hot meal, and then to connect them with different opportunities available to get them off the street for good. A different church hosted the event each week, and the men and women who accepted the invitation to come for the meal also had a chance to receive clothing.

By the end of January we had covered all the blocks of Manhattan, I believe from 60th Street to Battery Park. Thousands of contacts were made, many came for the meal, some got into programs to help change their lives, and some received clothing. But for every 1 person who came for the meal, I would guess 20 said “no thanks”. That means that they preferred to stay on the streets on a cold January night. I recall one particular evening in the Wall Street area, asking a man who was wrapped up in cardboard on the sidewalk in the shelter of a store entrance that was closed, if he wanted some help. He said he was “fine”. Fine? That night it was 12 degrees out, and even dressed for the occasion, after a couple of hours on the streets I was chilled to the bone.

Since that time, I have become more aware of the magnitude of the challenge with the homeless. Many will not go to shelters for a variety of reasons. Many are mentally ill. Some are drug addicts who cannot abide by the rules set up by shelters. Bottom line, in spite of the considerable safety net for the homeless in NYC, many will continue to try to survive on their own. That means that this winter, thousands will be living outside.

How many homeless are there in NYC? A friend of mine who has run a shelter in the city for almost 20 years believes that a conservative estimate would be 70,000. 70,000 homeless people! He actually thinks it could be as high as 100,000.

The problem seems beyond remedy. Maybe it is. But that does not mean that nothing can be done. When Mother Teresa was once told that her work in Calacutta, while admirable, was only a drop of water in the ocean, she replied that if she did not do it, then the ocean would have one less drop, And so, she said, we begin with one, and then one more, and then one more, and so on.

Here is the drop in the ocean for Communitas. Can we help some of the homeless fight off the cold? Yes. Easily done. Many of us have extra winter coats in our closets which haven’t been worn for years. And some of us can respond to one of the many Christmas sales and buy a coat at half price. We can add many drops in the ocean of NYC this winter.

So why is the truck in Michigan? Working with Kensington Community Church, we are having a winter coat drive for the homeless of both Detroit and New York City. I hope to drive the truck out of Kensington's parking lot on Monday, November 30 with the truck weighed down with hundreds of coats- men’s, women’s and children’s. All five of the campuses will be challenged to bring coats for the Thanksgiving Services on Wednesday, Nov 25.

If you happen to live in Michigan, come by the Troy Campus and look for the large white truck with “CommunitasNYC written on the side, and imagine it full of love and warmth sent from Michigan to the needy of NYC. (We are also looking for sleeping bags. A few weeks ago our small group brought some food to about a dozen homeless men who live about 5 blocks from my apartment. I had one sleeping bag with me and as I gave it to a man, the others came immediately to see if I had more. I’d love to help all of them!)

Can I ask those of you who read my blog to spread the word? Pass this blog along to others in the Detroit area. Help me fill all 16 feet of the truck. We can't solve the homeless problem, but we can warm things up a bit for people who are of unsurpassable worth to God.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Mind of Christ, Part 2

What do you see? How are you hearing this conversation? How are you thinking about this? What do these circumstances mean to you? With these kinds of questions asked of Jesus, I tried to interrupt the normal, conditioned responses I make to my environment.

Here is what I have learned so far. First, I could not always get past my own thoughts to his- maybe sometimes I did not want to. Second, even when I sensed clearly what his mind was about a given circumstance, I did not always line up my behavior with his thoughts. Third, there were times when I was not sure that the thoughts were his, or mine. Having acknowledged those failures and shortcomings, I will say that trying to tap into the mind of Christ has been a pretty amazing experience.

Sometimes I think I am a bit ADD- my thoughts wander a lot and I don’t stay easily focused. So it was surprising that I have been able to remember throughout the day that I am trying to access the mind of Christ. Perhaps it is because I began everyday before my feet hit the floor asking God to help me have the mind of Christ today. I think he helped me remember- whether I was on a bus or subway, studying in Starbucks, or watching the Yankees slug their way into the World Series (hey- I have to cheer for the Yankees- Paul said he became all things to all people so that by all means he might win some- so I am just doing my part…, see what I mean by ADD?). Here are a few of my experiences so far- some fairly unimportant, others more critical.

Smoking in the Park: I went to spend a couple of hours in one of my favorite parks in Manhattan- Madison Square Park. I brought my Bible, journal, i-pod, and spent a couple of hours in “solitude” as hundreds of people walked by. It was a beautiful fall day. I was enjoying being outside, enjoying God, enjoying sitting. Then a man sat down near me and began to smoke a large, smelly cigar. The wind was blowing the smoke right into my face. I became irritated, and began to think some nasty thoughts about this inconsiderate man. Wait- the mind of Christ. I redirected my thoughts. “Craig, you don’t know this man, but I do. He is of infinite value to me. Forget the cigar smoke. He is so much more than that. Your thoughts of him are not my thoughts. What if he could read your mind? Would your thoughts attract him to me?” Then I began to look at all the people walking around and playing with their dogs, and sitting in the park. And I think I saw what Jesus was seeing- so many people, all of infinite value to him, and most unaware of God’s love, and lost. As Jesus said, like sheep without a shepherd. And I began to weep, right there on that public bench. I felt like my heart was going to burst. A pretty big shift in thinking from negative thoughts about Mr. Cigar Smoke in My Face to compassion for the people of NYC!

Trash- I was walking down the street in my neighborhood and noticed all the trash. I don’t like trash on my sidewalks. The guy in front of me couldn’t make it another 45 seconds to the trash cans that are on every street corner in the city. “Someone needs to pick up this trash”, I thought. The mind of Christ. “You are the someone. This is your city, your neighborhood. Invest in it by helping to clean it up.” So on the way to the subway, I picked up trash and deposited it the trash can on the corner. I don’t know if this is going to become a regular thing.

Conflict- I walked into a situation where someone was had just finished being fairly rude to another person. I knew both of these people, and knew enough to know that “Jeff” was out of line. Jeff left the scene of the crime quickly, and after talking to the other party, I went on my way. For awhile, I was processing the situation and what needed to be done without consciously remembering that I have the mind of Christ. Since this was someone I know and care about, I was planning an appropriate “confrontation”. When I finally got around to redirecting my experience to the mind of Christ, and asked him what he thought of the conversation, I saw things very differently, and more importantly, I felt inclined to do something very differently than my initial thoughts about what to do. And I felt a gentle “rebuke” myself from Jesus that my thoughts had been overly harsh and critical.

Hospital Waiting Room- My friend Dave broke his hand on a fall down slippery subway stairs. He had to have some pins put into his hands. As he was recovering from surgery, I waited with his wife Michelle late into the evening in the waiting room. As we waited and waited and watched the clock, Others were there waiting as well. One young man had just stepped out into the hallway and spoken as well to someone I assumed was a surgeon. When he returned, he was pacing and seemed agitated. I was tired and sat eating my candy corn (I love vegetables). As I watched this man, I remembered the mind of Christ. “What do you see?” I knew he saw a man who was there alone and was going through a difficult time. So I asked him who he was waiting for. That resulted in a conversation about his wife’s 12 hour surgery to her face that involved taking a bone from her leg and using it to replace part of her jaw bone. The tumor had been discovered in her jaw while she was pregnant with their first child, and they could not treat it until the child was born. So it grew and grew, and now they were facing a serious situation. Mattingly was born a few months back and now they are facing this ordeal. When he finally left for home, another couple who had been waiting shared their story of a loved one having an emergency appendectomy. The mind of Christ shoed me that in a hospital waiting room, there are no strangers.

There was so much more that has happened as I have been more conscious that I have the mind of Christ. I know there is still much that I miss- and as I said, some that I ignore or resist. But it has been and hopefully will continue to be a helpful way of learning to live in the presence of Jesus. He may be with me always, but I am not always with him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Mind of Christ, Part 1

When you think about it, what an amazing promise and an amazing gift…the mind of Christ! I have been reading through the gospels over and over for the last 12 years, and I so much want to be like Jesus. I want his compassion and his love and his wisdom. And I know how far away I am from being like him. But then, Paul writes to the Corinthians that we, that I, have his mind!

A few years ago there was a lot of attention given to the question “What would Jesus Do?” Of course, often it is not clear what he would do because he lived 2000 years ago when the world was very different. I recall seeing a article in the paper during the WWJD phenomenon entitled “What Would Jesus Drive?” I don’t see the issue of the kind of car Jesus would drive addressed in the gospels: compact, environmentally friendly car…a rugged SUV… American made or Japanese? Jesus didn’t live in our time when we face these kinds of questions, and many, more important ones. And yet, he is living in these times, in his followers, and we have his mind!

I admit to wearing a WWJD bracelet back then. I discovered that not only was it not always clear what he would do, but there where times when I knew exactly what he would do and I decided to do something different. Knowing what Jesus would do, and then actually doing it are not the same thing.

We have the mind of Christ. The mind directs the body (recall the Church is called the Body of Christ- he is the head). As I continued to reflect on this, I began to picture his mind being totally available to me, 24/7. And I wondered, what if I set about to intentionally direct all of my sensory data and experiences to his mind? Everything of course would come first to my mind, but in a split-second I could raise the question, what about your mind, Jesus? How are you experiencing and seeing this situation. In a sense, I would attempt to unplug my sensory input from my mind and plug it into to his mind. (By the way, I know this is probably not the theologically correct to understand what is meant by the mind of Christ, but my theological correctness has not consistently produced the Christ-likeness I desire).

So here is the experiment. I would wake up each day and begin by remembering that I have the mind of Christ, and I would thank God for this. I would attempt to keep that thought close by all day. And then, as I experienced my day, I would consciously re-direct my sensory data to his mind. For example, as I would see things, I would ask Jesus, “what are you seeing?” As I would hear things, I would ask Jesus, “what are you hearing?”

As I write these words, I am not entirely sure how they are different from the WWJD question. But they feel different to me. I am not reaching back 2000 years ago to someone I respect and asking the theoretical question of what he would do. He is with me- his mind is present and accessible to me in the here and now circumstances. I am not accessing the body of teaching of Jesus recorded for us by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I am in conversation with Jesus himself, fully present now- the mind of Christ.

Just to be clear (and probably redundant), the process is to live remembering that I have his mind. Then, as I experience life, I consciously direct my experience to his mind. Then I listen. Then I act.

In the first few days of this experiment, I happened to be invited to a talk given in Harlem by former pastor and author Ed Dobson. His book “The Year of Living Like Jesus” had just been published. If I was looking for God to confirm that I was on the right track, I got it that morning.

Ed began his talk with the words: Christians are into what you believe more than how you live. Guilty. The test of faith for me has always been more about belief than behavior, which is such an unbiblical idea (think Matt 25- I never knew you.). It’s not either or. The two cannot be separated.

In the introduction to his book, Dobson writes:

“One of the desires of a disciple is the desire to be just like the rabbi. The disciple wants to walk like the rabbi, talk like the rabbi, live like the rabbi, move like the rabbi, respond like the rabbi…I want to be like Jesus. I too want to walk like him, talk like him, live like him, move like him, respond like him.”

I have his mind. Should not my body then be able to follow him, and to be like him?

I have probably now exceeded the attention span of anyone who has read this far, so I am going to report on what actually happened as I attempted to live by the mind of Christ in my next blog entry. Plus, I want to give it a bit more time.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Mind of Craig

Tuesday mornings begin early for me as I hook up with about 8 guys at 7 AM at a Starbucks on NYU’s campus in Greenwich Village. They say that New York is the city that never sleeps- not quite true. New Yorkers stay up late- and consequently, the morning rush doesn’t begin until at about 8 AM. So a 7 AM meeting can be challenging for New Yorkers.

My commute begins at 6:30 with a 1/3 mile walk, followed by a subway ride, and then another 1/3 mile walk. Still adjusting to life without a car. They are just unlocking the doors to the Starbucks when I arrive. Most of us stayed up too late the night before. One of my friends told me that he often sits down to dinner around 11:00 PM. So coffee is indispensible as we sit around the table and dive into our discussion of 1 Corinthians.

We have only been at this for a month, but it has been very enriching. We take a passage every week, all commit to reading it each day and taking some time to reflect on it We are also all reading the same commentary. By the time we get together, there is a lot to share. I realize that in many respects, learning the Bible in this way is so much more powerful and potentially life-changing than listening to someone give a message, no matter how great the teacher is. The ability to interact about a portion of Scripture as we have each wrestled with it personally, struggled to personalize and apply it, and placed ourselves in a position each day to be taught by God’s Spirit creates a dynamic learning environment. So far each week, when I listen to my friends describe their encounter with the text and with God, I learn things that I did not see in my own study. It’s definitely been worth getting up “early”.

This past week, a phrase at the end of 1 Corinthians 2 really penetrated my heart deeply. After contrasting worldly wisdom and wisdom that comes from God, Paul makes the assertion that “we have the mind of Christ”. What does it mean for me to have the mind of Christ? Here are some of my thoughts so far in answer to that question.

I know the mind of Craig. That mind directs what I do. I experience the world through my senses, evaluate what I experience, and filter it all through my values and beliefs. My mind has been formed by thousands of life experiences as well- good and bad. And then there’s the reality of my fallen condition. The Bible is clear that there still exists in my forgiven and redeemed person a thing called my “flesh”. All of these things are somehow mysteriously involved as my mind directs how I respond. Evil forces are also at work, exerting an influence on my mind. So…in any given moment, my behavior, my attitudes, my emotions are the product of all these things processed through my mind. This helps explain why I, like Paul (see 1 Cor 7have the repeated experience of doing the things I do not want to do, and not doing the things I do want to do. Sounds schizophrenic. Is there a way out? Paul’s answer to that questions is…Jesus.

What about the mind of Christ? Can my sensory experiences and thoughts be filtered through his mind, thus directing a different set of behaviors? I may have the mind of Christ, but knowing that as a fact hasn’t eliminated the mind of Craig from influencing and directing a whole lot of bad thoughts and behaviors. How do I access Christ’s mind?

As I thought about this, I came up with a little experiment. I am in the midst of trying it out, and so will wrap this up for now. In my next blog I will write about my experience as I attempt to not just have, but to access or utilize the mind of Christ.

Monday, October 5, 2009

This Sunday we eased into our new digs for our Sunday gathering. I say eased because even though the venue was different, and we had a band for the first time (yeah!), so much of the day felt the same as it has each Sunday for the past year. I realized that God has graciously allowed us to build a community of friends and friendship, with Jesus as our center.

We started at 8:00 AM at the school, hauling equipment up from the basement. Then tech and non tech people alike worked side by side and assembled the stuff necessary to make a joyful noise. Another group worked diligently to provide a welcoming environment, which of course included coffee and bagels. It was a beehive of activity leading up to the 10:30 start.

When 10:30 came, there was no one in the auditorium- ok- maybe a couple of people. It wasn't that no one came- they were out in the lobby and on the sidewalk enjoying conversation and enjoying being together...catching up with each other and meeting some new people. Just like it has been every week- we had to herd them into the meeting place.

When the gathering was over, people did not head for the doors- they stayed and hung out. In fact- after all the stuff was put away, we finally had to ask people to leave so the custodian could do his work and go home.

I share all this rather than the specific aspects of what went on in our time together because it is the most important thing to celebrate...the building of community. Last week a few of my friends e-mailed or texted me about the "launch" that was happening on Oct 4. I had to remind them that we launched the church in the Summer of 2008 when 18 people moved here from Michigan and began to meet and serve and love in Jesus' name. Oct 4 is simply one expression of how Jesus is growing his work among us.

In the past year we have served in over 100 serving projects, and Communitas people have spontaneously served in this city thousands of times. Each week 40-50 people meet in one kind of small group or another to learn together what it means to live as a follower of Jesus. All of this did not start Oct 4. In fact, we see our gathering time on Sunday as a time for us who have the been the church scattered all over NYC all week long to come together to celebrate the presence and work of Jesus in our lives and our community.

Having said that, Sunday was great! I have missed the chance to be lead in worship by people gifted by God to do so. Throughout the morning I looked at faces of people that I did not know a year ago whom God has touched this year in a significant way through Communitas. It really was a celebration of what God has already done.

If you'd like to hear the message from Sunday, we have attempted to put it on our website ( We are having a few technical bugs- so if this week's message is not available, or clear, tune in again as we straighten things out.

Friday, October 2, 2009

No Ordinary Moments

In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, author Philip Yancey writes (and this is a paraphrase) that there are no ordinary moments in life. Truthfully, my reality seems to be the opposite. Most of life is far from extraordinary. Days are filled with errands, commuting from one place to another, chores, shopping, casual conversations, etc. Seems to be pretty mundane stuff that fills most of my hours and weeks and months between the occasional significant events. However, Yancey suggests that to think of life in this way is to miss out on a great deal that is happening right under my nose. Truth is, says Yancey, every moment I live, and particularly every interaction of any sort that I have with another human being, is pregnant with amazing potential. Just like a plot in a movie, Yancey writes, it can be the smallest things, the “chance encounters”, which can turn things in a dramatic or unexpected direction.

I remember seven years ago after reading these words that my eyes were opened to see many things in a new light. I was more fully present, particularly in what I perceived as the mundane and unspectacular. I was attentive and open, and almost daily there seemed to be divine encounters and unexpected situations which were far form mundane. But it didn't last. I slipped back into the routine of life and switched on the autopilot.

Yesterday, something happened that has awakened my desire to live again more fully aware. It was a simple event that had “ordinary” written all over it. We got a call in the early afternoon about a copy machine that a business on the west side was disposing of, and we needed to let them know right away if we were interested. It wasn’t a planned trip, but a free copy machine for our office was too good to pass up. So Dave and I jumped on the M34 bus and headed across town. Seemed like a routine matter- check out the machine, and arrange for a time to pick it up.

The machine was great- worth $1000s, and immediately available. We just had to haul it back across town. We arranged to come back on Friday. That could have been it. Nothing too significant about this situation. Then Dave asked one question of the office manager before we left: “Are you ok?” A simple question- and one that had nothing to do with why we were there… (or, was getting a free copy machine all that this moment was about)?

Dave asked the question because it was clear from her face and her body language that everything was not okay. In response, she said “no”, and started to weep, as she steadied herself against her desk as if she was about to fall under the weight of grief. I can’t reveal specifics of what was going on, but when asked if we could pray for her, she welcomed it. We (who were strangers 5 minutes earlier) ended up with our arms around each other, praying as she sobbed. I stood with the $1000 copy machine on my right and my left arm draped across her shoulders- a woman who matters so much to God that no price could be affixed to her.

As I reflect on this, I realize that this was potentially a very ordinary event, just an errand concerning a piece of office equipment, But it was pregnant with potential that was unleashed because Dave was paying attention, saw something (someone) that mattered much more than the equipment, and asked one simple three word question. In one moment the plot of the story changed dramatically from "machine pick up" to "caring for an office manager".

Is it really possible to live my life always aware, always seeing beyond the routine? Probably not. But today reminded me again that Yancey was right. Life itself is extraordinary. People are extraordinary. And every in situation there is more going on for the person who knows what to look for.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Celebrating East

This morning I put the same effort I usually put into selecting my clothes for the day- I reached into my dresser drawer and pulled out the shirt on the top (I am sure I have shirts on the bottom of the drawer that have not seen the light of day for months- or years).

A bit later I was standing in front of our building waiting for a friend, and I caught my reflection in the window. It was then that I realized that the shirt selection was the right one for this day, because today was an important anniversary. 09.24.06. Three years ago we launched what we simply called "East" at the time- Kensington Community Church's campus in Clinton Twp.

It seems like it was a lot longer than three years ago. But the memories are still vivid. The year leading up to the launch was filled with home meetings, team building, looking for a location for the church, and celebrating the certainty that we were following God, and that he was up to something big. During that year I made many new friends.

September 24, 2006- we were filled with anticipation, uncertainty, and when it was over, joy. We knew that God had started something that would have impact, and he had used a bunch of ordinary east-siders. At the time, God had already started nudging Chris and me toward NYC. I really resisted those leadings initially. A big part of me did not want to believe it was true because I could see myself a part of this new community on the east side for the rest of my life. We were just getting started! In the end, leaving East became the most difficult thing about going to start a church in NYC.

Tonight, I spent the evening with Timm and Char Kelly in Brooklyn. They were at that first service at East. Char had worked with Treasure Island and Timm in production. They were key players for the East campus. Now they are key players with us in New York.

I felt pretty melancholy today as I walked the streets of my new city. I still miss terribly the many friends we made as we worked together to launch a new congregation. Clinton Twp. seems a million miles and a lifetime away.

If any East Campus friends are reading this blog, I would love to hear from you- just leave a comment. And I am thrilled that in a couple of months I have the chance to be back with you to teach on Sunday, Nov 29. And by the way, we have plenty of room for many more to come and help us!

Bumper Stickers and Buttons

Every where we turn, we are faced with some sort of message…billboards, t-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons. Many are trying to sell something, but some are attempts at capturing a philosophy, a world view, a value, in a simple or clever statement. Sometimes the meaning is clear, other times it is hidden. Some are uplifting, some are hostile. Take this example I saw early today on the bumper of a brand new burgundy Honda sedan:

“If Pearl Harbor Hadn’t Happened, Hiroshima Would Not Have Happened.”

I can’t imagine why someone would want to proclaim that message some 64 years after such a horrible event in human history. I wonder if the owner felt any irony putting it on a Japanese car?

Later in the day I was waiting on a very crowded subway platform at Union Square. I had just completed a 4 mile run and was a bit impatient waiting a long time on the hot platform for a train. People kept funneling down from the street and the platform became wall to wall with people. As I looked down the track waiting for the train, my eyes caught a very tall woman, who based on the covering on her head, appeared to be African. For a moment, I thought perhaps she was Immaculee Ilibagiza. Immaculee is the author of the book Left to Tell, the story of her amazing survival during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. I had a chance to meet her a couple of years ago and to hear her tell her story. At that time I knew we would be moving to New York City, where she now works with the UN, and we said perhaps we would bump into each other in the city. It hasn’t happened yet- even though I live just 10 blocks south of the UN building.

This week, things have been crazy in my neighborhood this week with the UN General Assembly and President Obama in town. With the attention on the UN, I have thought quite a bit about Immaculee, and now wondered if we were about to meet on the 6 Train. But with a second look, I could tell it was not her.

When the train finally arrived, it was a stampede of everyone trying to get into the train that was already nearly full when it arrived. I felt bad for those who got sandwiched in near me, with my shirt soaked in sweat. As it turns out, the woman I had spotted was right next to me, and like Immaculee, she was several inches taller. In her hands was a book about Rwanda- so while I had the wrong person, I had the right country. And also like Immaculee, she had a beautiful and joyful countenance. It was then that I noticed the button she was wearing (I was not staring at her- we were simply neighbors in ways that only those who have been packed like sardines in a NYC subway understand!). It said:

I Exist to Praise God and to Help Others

It was all that would fit on the small button attached to the lapel of the jacket she was wearing, but I could not think of one thing that I would add to that as one who strives to follow Jesus… a life directed in praise and adoration to our Creator, and a life directed to serve our fellow man.

And it took a lot less space than the bumper sticker.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Just when I think I am beginning to get a grasp on this city, I have an experience that makes me feel clueless. This morning I took the subway up to Harlem with my wife Chris and my cohort Dave to help out in a community food bank. The Yorkville Common Pantry provides food for over 1800 people a week. Communitas people have volunteered here a dozen times or so. Until today, I have worked in the back pantry area where food packets are assembled for distribution. We put together bags of staple foods for families of various sizes. When families come to pick them up, the bags are given out along with some fresh vegetables and meat. Today I was assigned to work in the distribution area. There were two choices for meat- chicken or pork. As each family came, I was to ask them if they wanted chicken or pork. Sounded pretty simple. Except that the first, second, third, fourth (you get the point), did not speak English. Most spoke Spanish. So Dave got on the phone to his wife, Michelle, who is fluent in Spanish, and asked for the Spanish words for chicken and pork. Armed with two new Spanish words in my vocabulary, I began to ask which they wanted in Spanish, bringing confused looks and occasionally nods and the word “yes”. Yes to which one? Pork or chicken? Clearly, this was not working.

One of our other Communitas friends, Jennifer, who is a Spanish teacher, observed what was going on, pulled me aside and gave me a quick lesson on the correct pronunciation of chicken and pork in Spanish. I tired again- only to realize that I was now speaking Spanish to a Chinese man who kept saying “yes” and “thank you”. So I retired from my position and spent the next four hours bagging vegetables and bagels- and watching the parade of nations. Unbelievable to think that so many people who live in America and call this country home have limited or no ability to speak our language. How did they get here? Why did they come? How can they function when they cannot communicate outside of their small circle of relatives and friends? And these are my neighbors. We live together in this city which I am realizing more and more is a microcosm of the world.

As I reflected on my experience later in the day, it is also clear that the work of Jesus in NYC has to be as varied and diverse as the city itself. Communitas has very limited ability than to do more than to serve the needs of these communities within the city, since I only know how to say “chicken” and “pork” improperly in Spanish. I’m not sure what the Chinese man heard me saying!

Later in the day, Communitas served at a mission in the Chinatown area of Manhattan. My job this time was to simply hand a plate of food to those coming into the New York City Rescue Mission. Fortunately, there were no choices this time, only one thing on the menu. Over 200 meals were served to the men and women who came in. They were young and old and also represented a broad spectrum of ethnicities, but nearly all of them spoke English. As I handed each a plate of food, I wondered about their story. What put them into a place where they had to rely on a soup kitchen for a meal? Why are they living in the most expensive place to live in the world?

My normal inclination has been to judge people in these circumstances. I would assume that drugs, alcohol, irresponsibility, etc. have landed them in this situation. But since moving to New York, I have found a growing desire to hear their stories, to know what has brought them to this place. I am certain that not one of the men or women to whom I handed a plate of food tonight had dreams when they were young of eating at a soup kitchen and living in a shelter. And I know that they all hope for a better future. Perhaps intersecting love by way of food and shelter will provide an opportunity for change.

As I left the mission, I spoke to a young man working at the front desk of the Mission. I thought he was a staff member, but as we talked, I discovered that he is a resident in the Mission’s program. I did not have time to get his whole story, but He came in off the street, and in the provision and protection of the mission, his life is coming back into focus. This spring, he plans to enroll in college. And he is growing in his relationship with Jesus. I shudder to think where he might be today if the Mission did not exist. This is why we help out in places like the Yorkville Pantry in Harlem and the Rescue Mission in Chinatown. God’s eyes are on the down and outers in this city, and rescuing them often begins with just keeping them alive.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Being the Church

A year ago we came to NYC to plant a church. Our intent was not to get people to come to "our church", but to be the church. Influenced by the thoughts of Alan Hirsch (author of The Forgotten Ways), we are convinced that a church must not allow itself to be defined by what happens once a week in a 60 minute service. While it is commonly said that the church is not the building or the one hour service, I think the way we speak about church reveals a lot. We speak of "going to church", or "what happened at our church last Sunday". Our mantra to "be the church" is a reminder that Jesus is actively at work through those of us who have come together in his name to build his Kingdom 24/7- not for an hour on Sunday. And in many respects, the work of Jesus will be more defined by what he is doing, and we are doing, the rest of the week.

This past year we have focused on some simple things, like learning to love each other. Jesus said that the world would know that he had been sent by the Father when they saw our love for each other- so this seemed to be an important priority. We have also spent time learning about our city. For those of us who came from the suburbs of Detroit, we discovered that NYC is a very different culture. We needed to listen and learn and be patient. And we also began to serve. Jesus said that he came not to be served, but to serve. And so we have attempted to the best of our abilities to roll up our sleeves and to serve as he taught us.

As we move into year two, we hope that we have firmly established the DNA of Communitas as a community of people on a mission together to love God and each other, and to demonstrate God's radical love as we serve others. The first year we have met on Sunday evenings, informally, learning together, praying together, and building community. We refrained from calling it a "service" (serving is what we strive to do all week long), but rather, we simply called it a "gathering". It has been a time when we gather together to learn and to celebrate the presence and work of Jesus in our lives and our community. Today marked an important day in the development of that gathering.

Today we moved into our new location for our weekly gathering- a public school auditorium. Our first official gathering there will not be until October 4.

We came together this morning to learn what it meant to have our gathering in this venue. We spent four hours drinking coffee, eating donuts and bagels, putting together sound equipment, working on music, and a host of other things we need to figure out over the next three weeks. The puzzled looks help explain why we are giving the month of September to preparing.

As we spent the morning together, the real joy for me was to look around the auditorium and to see Communitas at work- about 30 people, some who came with us from Michigan and some that I have only known for a few weeks, enjoying being together and pitching in to help in any way possible. It was chaotic, and it was a blast!

I don't know what God has in store for us as we put a bit more energy now into our weekly gathering. I know (pray!) that it will not replace the identity or work of Communitas as defined above. If you are in New York and you want to find Communitas, you don't have to wait until Sunday morning at 10:30 at PS 40 on 19th Street. We can be found throughout the city, trying (imperfectly) to follow Jesus and to be his hands and feet and voice. But starting in October, you can also find some of us in a public school auditorium, learning about the One who has given us new life, worshipping him together, and celebrating what he is doing is our lives and our community.

As I left the auditorium with all our equipment safely put away for a week, I looked at all the empty seats.

How will they ever be filled? There are 500 seats, and Commuitas is currently about a tenth that size. But as I have thought about it all day, I believe the key is not in finding clever ways to invite people to come to church. It will be filled as we stay true to our calling to be the church in our community.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting Saved

I spent this morning helping out at one of the truly great compassion ministries in NYC- St. Joe’s Soup Kitchen in Greenwich Village. As I walked to the subway heading home in the early afternoon, I encountered a heated exchange between two people on a street corner. Being nosey, I slowed down my walking pace to catch the drift of what was going on. One man, holding a stack of papers in his hand, was insisting loudly to another man that he needed to be “saved”. Then I noticed the other men, and the t-shirts bearing the name of some man who has a “worldwide outreach ministry.” Street evangelism. Cold turkey street evangelism. I wanted to observe for a while, but didn’t want to be evangelized myself, so I pulled out my cell phone and pretended to be in conversation as I watched the drama. Anyone who would take a paper, or stop for a moment to talk, was told that they needed to get “saved”. Not one person showed any interest , and the response of most ranged from irritation to anger. As I watched, I recalled having tried this form of evangelism in my youth, and also recall being equally ineffective. I still believe that to follow Jesus means to make disciples (of Jesus), or as Jesus also put it, to be fishers of men. And while I admire the conviction and the courage of these men, and their willingness to take verbal abuse, I am not sure this is what Jesus intended. And yes, I know that some people do come to faith in Jesus through cold turkey in your face evangelism. It’s just that I cannot recall any examples of Jesus doing this in his travels. It seems as though the “confrontational approach” was reserved for the religious. I had sensed Jesus at work among the poor at St.Joe’s that morning. I wasn’t sure he was present at the corner of Broadway and Waverly.

As I continued on to the subway, I had not gone 10 steps before I saw a man sitting on the steps of a building with the familiar cup out for spare change, and words scrawled on cardboard asking for help. What Jesus might do in this situation seemed clear. I pulled out a $5 bill, put it in his cup and as I turned away I said “I wish I could do more.” Immediately, a voice in my head, I presume it was God, said, “Oh, you could do more.” I turned back and read his sign- all of it, and sat down and asked him what was going on. Nathaniel has been stranded in the city for two months. Something about a girlfriend being why he came here, and that not working out, being kicked out, no job, no money, and no way back to Charleston, SC. And his family had told him not to go after this girl, but he wouldn’t listen. So he made his bed, they said, and now he can lie in it. Except he doesn’t have a bed.

For nearly 2 months he has been trying to raise bus fare. He has been chased away many times for panhandling. He makes enough to eat and get subway fare so he can sleep on the subway cars- but not enough to get ahead and get home. As we talked, I tried to image that since June, he has been in this city trying to get about $100 to get home, and he is still here. So I asked him if he would go with me, right then, to the Port Authority, and let me buy him a ticket to Charleston, and get on the bus. At first he didn’t take me serious. But once he understood that I intended to get him on that bus today, we headed off to the subway that would take us to the Greyhound Station. (BTW, Communitas has a benevolence fund to help out in situations like this- so I am not suggesting that this involved any personal sacrifice on my part.)

As we traveled on the N Train, a thought came to me. Nathaniel had sat all morning within a few yards of the street preachers. Did they come and talk to him? So I asked him. Nope. Now, I know I am judging my brothers, but I how else am I to think about it? I reviewed the scene in my mind as I rode along with Nathaniel. “You need to get saved…” the voice proclaims. “I need help getting home to my family” the sign proclaims. And somehow, the connection is never made.

As we waited in line at the Port Authority and then made our way to the Gate 75, where the bus will depart NYC heading for Charleston at 4:45 PM, we had a conversation about many things, including God. Maybe I didn’t say enough. I did not tell him he needed to get saved. Instead, I told him who Jesus was to me, and what he has done to change my life. He spoke of a hunger for God, and I encouraged him to pursue that- that God had a desire for him. It was a far different exchange than the conversations about Jesus I eavesdropped on a hour or so earlier. As we parted and I made my way home, I asked Jesus to reveal himself to Nathaniel in the days ahead…perhaps on the 23 hour bus trip.

Tonight as I write these words I am not sure how to interpret or think about these events. In the morning, I served the poor, but more or less anonymously. I did not have one spiritual conversation, but I loved them in Jesus’ name by serving them. Then I witnessed sincere men trying to talk to people in the street about Jesus, with what I would call disastrous results. And finally, in the afternoon, I came face to face with a man in crisis- and rather than just dropping a few bills in his cup and continuing on (which is what I typically do- to be honest, I don’t usually feel comfortable trying to talk with the homeless- it’s easier to just give money), I was prodded by God to connect with him. And that connection provided a context to have a conversation about Jesus.

Maybe this is it. This man needed to be saved- to be rescued, on several levels. And they all mattered to God. Perhaps the most effective way to introduce people to God’s love is to first understand what “salvation” means in terms of their present circumstances, and to offer “salvation” on all levels that addresses all the ways a person might need to be saved.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Art of Complaining

Most Wednesday evenings I meet with a couple of new friends I have made here in New York. It is always a lively discussion covering a variety of topics including pop culture, philosophy, religion, economics, politics, literature, entertainment, etc. We are literally all over the map as we exchange thoughts and personal analysis.

I should explain that my friends are a bit younger than me- actually, being in their 20’s I realize that I could be their dad. So far they have been respectful, refraining from calling me things like “pops” or “gramps” (at least to my face). I actually think the generational mix, combined with coming from Jewish, Catholic and Baptist backgrounds respectively makes our discussion more interesting.

Last night we sat in an enclosed balcony on a 15th floor apartment and talked for 2 hours as my friends shared a hookah, which is glass-based water pipe for smoking. (Don’t worry- it was just tobacco). I’ve never been around one, though I’ve seen them in movies, usually set in exotic places somewhere considerably east of here. Somehow, the device increased the sense that we were being deeply intellectual!

For a good part of the evening we talked about all of the technological improvements which have (supposedly) given us a better quality of life- things like AC, cell phones, and the world at our fingertips via the internet. And we also reflected on whether all of these things have made us more content, happy, grateful…or less so. That led to a discussion of an inclination to live with a sense of entitlement, and with that a propensity to complain. The key idea was that our expectations for life have risen over the past decades (or century) so that we have become increasingly dissatisfied with our lives. At this point, the discussion was not focused on “people out there”, but on ourselves.

One indication of high expectations, and a sense that things ought to be a certain way, is complaining. When I complain it reveals that I believe that things should be different than they are (for me), and when they are not to my liking, it is intolerable. I should not have to put up with this!!

The apostle Paul wrote that we should do all things without complaining… (Phil 2:14). At the end of the evening, I proposed an experiment. Over the next week I would try to pay attention to every complaint that passes my lips, or even occupies my thinking. Just how pervasive is this in my life?

Here’s my list so far- things I complained about:

• The slow internet
• An increase in our phone bill
• The crowded sidewalk
• How poorly I slept
• Our air conditioning
• The weather

These are the ones I am aware of- in about 8 hours of waking time.

I have been complaining about that last one a lot this week. NYC is in the midst of a heat wave- 5 days in a row now in the 90’s. And when it is hot here, it is really hot with all of the concrete and buildings. And I don’t like the heat. The subway platforms have to be 110 degrees.

This morning I went for a run along the East River early before the day really heated up. I knew when I got home it would take a long time to cool down because our air conditioning is not working as well as it should. I thought complaining thoughts about it for about ½ a mile before I became aware of what I was doing. As I ran, I noticed the homeless men who live along the river- trying to find some shade from the brutal sun. And I was running with thoughts in my mind about our stupid air conditioning that costs too much and doesn’t keep our apartment cool enough, I was not thinking at all that at least I had a place to live. Absent was any gratitude that, unlike these men, I have a place to come in out of the heat- a bed to sleep in, a refrigerator that keeps my food cold. Imagine if I stopped to talk with one of them. When asked how things are going, what if I complained to them about the weather and my poorly functioning and expensive to use AC? Not sure I’d get a lot of empathy.

So far, catching myself complaining has been good in that it immediately turns my thoughts to gratitude instead. Last night in our discussion, one of my friends said that he gave up complaining several years ago, and that it literally changed his life. Every day that he is alive, he said, is a good day. Hard things and discomfort come, but that doesn’t mean he turns a blind eye to all the good that is in his life.

Exchanging complaining for gratitude seems like a pretty good, and perhaps indeed a life-changing proposition. Maybe especially for those around me who have to endure my complaining. At least they haven’t yet complained to me about it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

NYC or Beulah

I returned yesterday from a two week vacation in a remote place in Northern Michigan. It is hard to believe that I have lived in New York City for a year now. As our family made the trip back “home”, I anticipated that there would be some culture shock. Other than a stint in Southern California for seminary when I was in my early 20’s, I have lived my entire life in Michigan prior to this move to NYC. That meant that last year, no matter how many trips to the city I made in advance, no matter how much I read about, studied, and tried to anticipate our new life in an urban and diverse setting, I was in for some major culture shock- and I was not disappointed. The people, the noise, the constant activity and busyness- it was life on steroids. Much of the time I loved it- I have always thrived on some degree of chaos. There were also times that first year when I thought I would lose my sanity- what was left of it, if I couldn’t get out of the city.

All these thoughts filled my mind as we drove to the major metropolis of Beulah, Michigan- population 450. This would be the 49th year of our family reunion on Crystal Lake, the first without my dad who passed away this Spring. All 27 of us spent a riotous week in and around the beautiful blue water of Crystal Lake. When my mind would drift to thoughts of my new life at 377 East 33rd Street, it seemed like a dream. I loved the sound of wind in the trees, the waves breaking on shore, the wide open spaces, the glorious stars at night as we sat around the campfire. New York City seemed like not another city in the same country, but more like alien life on a distant planet.

The two weeks went by quickly and in a blink I was on I-80 heading back to my new life in NYC. I discovered in those two weeks how much I liked and missed my old life. A certain melancholy and sadness settled over us as we continued east, leaving family and lakes and boats and grass and stars behind. I knew I was facing culture shock again.

I woke up in New York on Sunday morning and headed out to grab some milk and other post vacation essentials. I no longer grabbed for my keys to drive to the market as I had the past two weeks- it was a walk on 32nd Street to Third Avenue- a bit different than a stroll down Main Street in Beulah. But one similarity this morning was the quiet. Where were the people? The noise? It’s 9:00 AM and the streets were relatively quiet. Then I recalled that it was Sunday. New Yorkers observe their day of rest. God may not be a part of it, but is the one day when the streets of Manhattan, other than the tourist areas, have a relative quiet and peacefulness.

On my return, a friend asked me an interesting question. What percentage of me wanted to remain in Michigan and not return to NYC? There was not an easy answer to that question. In some respects, 100% of me would take Beulah over New York. But I am in New York in response to God’s call. Would I have liked a call to start a church in Beulah? Probably. And with a population of 450, if we could reach 10% of the population, the church would be 45 people. If we could reach 10% of the population of NYC, it would be 850,000. Or if we were content with just reaching 10% of Manhattan, that would be 180,000. That’s not going to happen. That is why God is raising up many people to start churches in NYC. And the quiet streets on a Sunday morning reminded me of the need, as did the jammed subway car later in the day. There is a church planting movement in this area with a goal of starting 50 new churches a year- that’s nearly one a week. The task of Jesus vision for this city is enormous to say the least.

So, I am reminded that Beulah, Michigan, which is just as important to God as any place on earth, probably has all the churches it needs to reach its 450 people. The same is not true of NYC. That’s why he tapped me on the shoulder for New York and not Beulah.

As I adjust again to the noise, the congestion, the 100+ degree temperatures I faced this morning waiting on a subway platform (with vivid images of sailing on Crystal Lake fresh in my mind!!) I know why I am here, and I am glad I am here.

By the way, don’t be surprised if God calls you to come to New York, the greatest city in the world, to join in the work Jesus is doing- to start a new church, or help us with Communitas. We could use the help!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

Last week I was having coffee with a friend who does not share my convictions about Jesus as King, Savior, Lord. He does, however, have great respect for his teaching, for how he lived his life, and for the example he invites us to follow.

During our conversation, he noted that he has had encounters over the years with Christians who spoke to him about their beliefs about Jesus and who tried in various ways to convince him that he should believe the same. Their chief interest seemed to be to get him to believe the right things about Jesus, thus becoming a Christian and thus gaining eternal life when he died. Absent was much discussion about the way of Jesus, about the content of his teaching, which had more to do with how we live than where we go when we die.

This friend, who does not identify himself as a Christian does, nevertheless, live more like one than many Christians I know- including myself sometimes. I arrived at the coffee shop about 5 minutes before he did. When he walked in, he threw his Bible on the table and said “just a minute”, and walked back out the door. I couldn’t imagine what he was doing. A moment later, he walked back in with an elderly woman and took her up to the counter. I had to join him to see what he was up to. He helped her pick out a sandwich and a drink, and paid for it. As we got back to our table, he explained that she had been on the sidewalk just outside the store asking for money for food. He noticed her, had compassion, and invited her in for a meal. I realized that I had walked right past her on my way in without even seeing her.

Our discussion that night included a consideration of what we might call orthodoxy and orthopraxy- believing the right things about Jesus and actually living the right way, as Jesus taught us. Both are critical. I confess, however, that most of my life I have been far more passionate and even dogmatic and argumentative about believing the right things than I have been about living the right way. I didn’t put a tenth of that energy into worrying about whether or not my life lined up with the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus. As long as my views of the atonement, the Trinity, the Bible, etc., were right, than I was alright. At least my eternal destiny was certain.

Since that conversation, I have had this picture (actually, it’s more like a movie) in my mind. My life on earth is over, and as I come before God, I hand him my doctrinal statement, which I had worked hard on over the course of my life. He accepts it, and then proceeds to mark up with a highlighter the places where, in spite of my study and diligence, I did not get it right. When he is done with that, he asks me for another document- my resume- the record of how I actually lived out the truth and the implications of the truth contained in my doctrinal statement.

Is God less interested in that second document?

I have been thinking a great deal the past few days about how the rift between orthodoxy and orthopraxy occurs. I am reminded of Gandhi’s words: I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. In Gandhi’s time, those calling themselves Christians indeed had little resemblance to Jesus, thus his observation. How does this happen? It was the biggest issue confronted by Jesus in his day- the Pharisees who believed the right stuff, but in Jesus’ own words “never heard the voice of God”. How do we get the right information, yet not be formed by it?

I believe that orthodoxy matters a great deal. Truth matters- truth about Jesus, that he is as he claimed to be- not just teacher, but King, Savior, Lord. But I also believe that one of his most penetrating questions needs to be taken serious by all of us who are “orthodox” in our faith: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I say?” Calling him Lord makes us “orthodox”. If we don’t do what he says, what does that make us?

My hope for my friend is that he will continue to live his life doing what Jesus says. That’s not a bad place to start with Jesus. From what I can tell about the disciples, they began to follow Jesus, even radically, leaving their family, their jobs, their possessions, to be with him before they fully understood who it was they were following. But in the end, in the process of following him, they came to see the full picture of the One who had initially captured their imaginations and their hearts.

I have always thought that we must begin with orthodoxy, which will eventually lead to orthopraxy. Sometimes, I now believe, it is the other way round. Orthopraxy can lead to orthodoxy. Follow Jesus’ teaching, and it leads to Jesus.

I hope that is the journey my friend is on...that his orthopraxy leads him to greater orthodoxy. In the meantime, he is making an impact of on others, because he is following Jesus. And I hope my orthodoxy leads me to greater orthopraxy.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crazy or Demonic

In NYC it is common during the course of a 15 minute walk to pass a couple of homeless people. Sometimes they sit or stand and quietly ask for help, verbally, or by means of a sign. Sometimes, usually on the subway, they give a speech explaining their circumstances and ask for help as they walk up and down the train with their paper cup outstretched to receive donations. Sometimes, they talk nonsense and act threatening.

It is estimated that more than 50% of the homeless in NYC are suffering with some form of mental illness. In my first year in the city, I know I have encountered many of them. Having worked in the field of psychology earlier in my life, I recognize the signs of schizophrenia and paranoia pretty quickly, although usually it is pretty evident to any passerby. I have also wondered for years how to know when there is something demonic taking place in the individual. The 4 Gospels took it for granted that demonic activity was common. Jesus encountered and dealt with it regularly.

Last night our small group was discussing Like 6 and came across these words:

He (Jesus) went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, (17-18).

Those troubled by evil spirits were cured. There seems to be nothing astonishing about this statement. It is assumed that demonic activity would be encountered. Is that our assumption in this culture today- even among Christians? I would say generally not. In fact, talking about demons likely raises some eyebrows, even in our churches. Should we assume that since Jesus’ time, demonic influence has abated?

While I believe that mental illness does exist that is not related to demonic activity, it seems likely that deranged thinking may at times be evidence not of mental illness, but of demonic activity. Even physical illness can be the result of demonic activity:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. Luke 13:10-11

Clearly, both physical and mental illness may have a demonic basis. But how do we discern when this is the case?

This past week I have had three encounters with homeless people who clearly had a mental illness or demonic presence, or both. The first occurred Sunday evening. Amanda, one of Communitas’ members, invited a homeless man she met on the bus to join us for our Sunday evening gathering. He came, and sat through the service quietly. He then joined us for our post-service meal at a local diner. It began well with him ordering a meal, but things began to deteriorate. After a few bites into his hamburger, he began to tear it apart and mumble about it being poisoned with cyanide. He pushed the food away. Then he began to speak against the government, becoming increasingly agitated and raising his voice. Our attempts to reason with him had no effect except to make him angrier. His diatribe then turned against some of the men in our group sitting some distance away form the man. He began to accuse them of things and his statements were laced with foul language. Now everyone within earshot began to squirm. We were extending love and care to man who seemed now bent on anger, and perhaps violence.

When we left the diner, the man stood across the street shouting obscenities at us. As we walked away, he hurried across the street, catching up with us and speaking lewd and threatening comments. At this point, I steered him away from the group and walked in a different direction, trying again without success to get him to calm down and to explain why he was angry at people who had shown him kindness. As we walked west on 34th Street, he continued to rail against us and the world in general, and at one point told me that he might be an old man, but he could take me down easily. At this point, I decided another strategy was warranted. I asked him what he thought about Jesus. His demeanor changed instantly. As we walked he spoke about him being the only true man, the only one worth trusting, one who had complete integrity. No obscenities, no raised voice, no incoherent thoughts. And most importantly in that moment, no talk of taking me down!!!

After a block, I left him with words that Communitas is simply a group of imperfect people who agree with his assessment of Jesus, and are trying to follow him. The obscenities returned as I walked away. I have no idea what this experience meant. Why did the mention of Jesus’ name calm him down? Most accounts of Jesus encountering demons resulted in increased agitation. All I know is that his name bought a block worth of peace to a trouble man.

Since that evening I have had encounters with two homeless people, both women this time, who were shouting nonsense and obscenities, and threatening people as they walked by. In both cases I came near to see if I could engage with them and perhaps try the “Jesus experiment” to see if it would calm them as well. No chance. As soon as they saw me looking at them and making eye contact, the volume and intensity increased dramatically. In fact, both screamed at me and said something to the effect that I was the true source of their trouble. I have to say that in these cases, it felt to me as though these women were, as Luke wrote, troubled by demonic spirits.

I find that a part of me wants to ignore this issue in the city- the visibly disturbed homeless. It seems hopeless, and I don’t really know how to discern what is needed and how to respond. And yet, if Jesus was living here and walking the streets and riding the subways I do everyday, I don’t think ignoring would be his strategy. I realize again how much I have to learn, and how utterly dependent I am on the wisdom that God has promised to me when I ask. Believe me, I am asking!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Costly Love

Yesterday I returned to the city after a week in Michigan. Part of that trip included giving a message at Kensington’s New Community service. I taught from John 9, a passage that has played a critical role in shaping the ministry of Communitas in New York City. One focus of the teaching was the verse at the beginning of the chapter which is easily overlooked: “As Jesus went along he saw…”. This simple observation about Jesus raises some questions: Are we looking, are we paying attention, do we see the people, the needs, the opportunities to love which are around us all the time? And are we willing to be interrupted, to have our plans and agendas altered as we go along? I suggested that this could be costly in terms of our personal time and resources, but in the end it is what it means to love others, the commandment the Scripture tells us fulfills the entire law.

I got off the plane mid-afternoon, took the bus and subway home, dropped my suitcase at my apartment and walked back out the door heading to New Jersey. My friends Brad and Stephanie were moving into a new apartment in Jersey City just across the Hudson from Manhattan. I had promised them help and I was running late, so I was walking at my fastest NYC pace across 33rd to catch the Path train to NJ.

As I went along, in a hurry, behind schedule, I saw a woman sitting on sidewalk, leaning against a building, holding a sign. I was walking too fast to read the entire message, but these typically are a plea for help. I went by…a few steps, and then remembered. I turned back and read the sign- quickly. I was late and in a hurry. The sign read:

I am a mother of four. I lost my job. I need help feeding my children and paying my rent. God Bless.”

I reached into my pocket, pulled out my change, and dumped it in the paper cup from Subway she was holding in her hands.

I sped away- late and in a hurry. And then I thought, as Jesus went along, he saw, and stopped and healed. So I turned back. I sat down next to her on the sidewalk and asked her about her situation. She could not understand a word of English. I tried to communicate anyhow, by pointing to words on her sign. No luck. What could I do? I decided I could pray for her, so I asked her if I could pray- no comprehension. So I just placed my hand on her shoulder, bowed my head, and prayed for her- asking Jesus, who knows all about her situation, to help and protect her and her children. Then I opened up my wallet and pulled out a $5 bill and put it in her cup. She looked up at me and said, in English, “God Bless You.” She knew some English!

I hurried down 33rd to the train, continuing to think of her and to pray for her. As I sat on the train a few minutes later, more of my message I had given at Kensington came to mind. I had shared a story about seeing a homeless person sleeping on a subway platform that reminded me of my son, and how in the instant when I first saw him, I felt deep pain in my heart for him as if he were my son. I shared that we will know when we are beginning to love as God loves when we feel that for all people and respond as if they were our own children. They are all God’s children, and that is what he feels.

To love in this way will be costly. I don’t even know how it can be done. If that really was my daughter, I would have skipped New Jersey and scooped her up in my arms and taken her home. I don’t think God was asking that of me. But when I got to New Jersey and reached into my wallet and pulled out the 10 dollar bill to get something to drink, a troubling question popped into my head. When I pulled out my wallet 30 minutes earlier to help a hungry, unemployed woman with four children, why had I pulled out the 5 dollar bill? Why not the 10? Why not both? Because I was hungry and had not eaten all day. Like her? Like her four children? Was my love a love that was costly- that would cost me just one meal? And if that really was my daughter, which bill would I have given her.

I see that I have more to learn about costly love.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Little Things with Great Love

My dozen trips to India over the last nine years have at times raised doubts about what I believe. It’s a bit strange I suppose to go as a missionary and find oneself struggling with doubts about God.

Somewhere between 1.2 and 1.3 people, about 1 out of 6 people now alive on planet Earth, live in India. To put that in perspective, the “.3” of the 1.3 represents the entire population of the US. And most of those people have no knowledge of Jesus- about 97% of the population. They are poor and suffer from all that accompanies poverty. I would ride the train across the country going from village to village and city to city, seeing the masses of people, and because of what I believe, I would regard them as lost and without hope. They live a miserable life on this earth, and then enter into eternity separated from God. How could this be true? How could God allow this?

It’s not that I did not have theological answers to those questions, but when one’s mind is filled with thousands of images of faces of Indian people, those answers bring no comfort or help. The Bible teaches that all human beings are of unsurpassable worth to God. Jesus showed us God’s heart for humanity when he spoke of the lost coin, lost sheep and lost son. He would leave the 99 “found” to go after the 1 “lost”. In India, the numbers are nearly reversed- 97 lost for every 3 found. I could barely stand the pain of such thoughts as I lived and moved among the people of India. How could God stand it? And whatever efforts I made seemed so feeble. Then I would think of Indonesia, China, parts of Africa, Central America, South America- all of what constitutes the “Third World”, and honestly have felt even more hopeless.

Now I live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. NYC is certainly not third world, but my life here has so many similarities to what I experience when I go to India. I am constantly surrounded by people who have no relationship with Jesus. In fact, in Manhattan, the percentage of people who have put their faith in Jesus is about the same as in India. So I am a minority who, in order to be true to the teaching of the Bible, has to believe that nearly all of my fellow citizens are lost. And what difference can I really make?

Helpless is how I feel when my thoughts turn in this direction, whether in India or in New York City. Yesterday I spend four hours traversing back and forth across Manhattan putting together a walking tour for a mission team coming from Michigan in a week (if you are on that team, bring your best walking shoes!). That brought me to areas of the city particularly populated : Union Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, Battery Park, Wall Street, Columbus Circle, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, etc. I felt like I was in India and as I observed so many people and perhaps felt a bit of what Jesus felt when Matthew observed of him::
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

I felt compassion, but also a bit of depression again. The task seems impossible. What will it take to reach and help so many people- people who by and large don’t believe they need help and don’t want to be helped?

Mother Theresa is known worldwide for her work of compassion in Calcutta. What she did over the decades among the poor, sick and dying is remarkable and honorable. But honestly, with a population of 13 million, how many people did she really help? She didn’t even make a dent in the need. But she was not bothered by that fact. She once said that we should not attempt to do great things for God, but rather little things with great love.

So I am reminded- I am not here to change the city. I am not here to do great things for God. I am here to love in Jesus’ name. And that will likely look like little things, hardy noticed, never making the 6:00 news, but done wit great love. That’s all God asks, and that has to be enough. And there are opportunities many times every day to do that.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Don't Believe the Lie

Today I put in more than my normal 4-5 miles of walking in the city. I had appointments and errands around different parts of Manhattan, so I found myself navigating the crowded sidewalks a good part of the day. Honestly, sometimes it can get tiring. I even had a couple of people cuss me out for no apparent reason. The man I am sure was mentally ill, but the woman just seemed to be generally annoyed and angry and I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Late in the day I was on the M34 bus as it crept along. Walking is usually faster than the busses, but my tired legs needed a break. I had my i-pod playing and I heard these familiar words from one of my favorite songs:

Don’t believe the lie,
That you are of no worth
In your Father’s eyes…

My friend Danny Cox wrote the song “Forever and a Day” about three girls in Honduras that he and Amy were trying to adopt (they are now their daughters, living with them and their two boys in Michigan!). The lyrics above strike at the heart of the most crucial lie perpetrated against God- that he doesn’t care about us, doesn’t value us, that we are insignificant to him- of no worth. The beginning of the true knowledge of God is to understand his outrageous love for us. As Danny and Amy went through all of the legal issues over several years to bring their daughters home, his prayer was that they would be drawn into the reality of God’s love for them- that they were of unsurpassable value to him. That love would protect them form the many harms that would come against these young girls.

As the bus stopped at the light at Broadway and 34th, I looked at the people sitting on the bus with me and the sea of people flooding the sidewalks- certainly many thousands in my field of vision. The music quieted the noise so that all I took in were the faces. For some reason in that moment I became more fully aware that each person was a story being lived out- with adventure, boredom, happiness, sorrow, romance, anxiety, etc. And the overwhelming thought was that God as their Creator was fully aware of every detail of every story, that he new the current plot line for each, and the trajectory of the story. For that moment they weren’t just human beings walking crowded streets, waiting to go off on Craig, but rather people of great value to God, most of whom have probably bought the lie that they are of no worth in the Father’s eyes. I think God gave be a piece of his heart and a glimpse into what he sees always. And it overwhelmed me.

As the bus nudged ahead I became aware of the tears that were streaming down my face. In my heart I felt perhaps a bit of the pain of a Father who is crazy about his children, but they have been convinced that he does not care (or does not even exist). And it was much needed reminder of why God has led us to this city- to be a contrary voice to the lie. Our Father has many children, and he longs for them to know his love.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fill in the Blank

One of Jesus’ lasts discussions with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion is intriguing and revealing. As they recline around the Passover table, he tells them that one of them will betray him. For this small group of friends who have been together in close proximity for the previous three years, this has to be terribly shocking and disturbing to say the least. They are riding a wave of exhilarating anticipation- Jesus had been welcomed into Jerusalem as a King. Now there is a traitor in their midst… one of them will betray Jesus. How would they respond? Luke’s words seem to be an understatement: “They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.” I can see the eyes darting around the table, looking at each other, and at Jesus, trying to guess the most likely candidate. They knew each other pretty well, knew each other’s weaknesses, and probably immediately each had their top candidates. Jesus observes, listens.

What happens next is the part that has always intrigued me. Luke tells us that “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.” You’ve got to be kidding! Moments after learning that there is a really, really bad guy in their ranks, and that the One that they loved and had left everything to follow is going to be turned over to their enemies, they break into an argument over which of them was the really, really good guy??? And I am sure they were not casting their votes for each other, but for themselves. We don’t have a record of the conversation, but I can imagine how this might have gone down. As names are being thrown out for the possible betrayer, each responds with vehement denials, followed by putting forth their resume for the “greatest” candidate. “I would never do that! Actually, I believe that I am Jesus best pupil, and I think Jesus will back me up on this one, right Jesus?"

Picture Jesus, having dropped the bombshell announcement of a betrayer in their midst, now watches them posturing themselves to not only not be the betrayer, but to be the best of the bunch- the teacher’s pet. By the way, at the beginning of the meal, he had made his way around the table washing their feet, teaching by example about humility. Seems to have gone in one ear and out the other.

In the midst of the jockeying for greatness, Jesus spoke some words that have never hit me as hard as they did when I read this passage a few days ago. He said:

“But I am among you as one who serves.”

While mere mortals, imperfect creatures, argue with each other about their greatness, the truly great One, the one identified later by John and Paul and the writer of Hebrews as the Creator, says that he has lived among them as one who serves.

I have been thinking a lot about that sentence. In fact, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. Here’s why. If Jesus, being God, could speak these words- because they were true of his life- that he lived to serve, then is there any reason for me to ever, even for a single moment, not serve others? And I am asking myself, would people who really know me let me get away with making that statement? Would my family? “I am among you as one who serves.” I picture my wife or my kids response. They know the truth.

If it is not “to serve”, then how would I complete that sentence. What word would characterize my life. Here are some personal thoughts that have come to mind as I fill in that blank:

I am among you as one who is impatient.
I am among you as one who gets his way.
I am among you as one who controls.
I am among you as one who ignores you.
I am among you as one who judges you.
I am among you as one who worries.
I am among you as one who tries to impress.
I am among you as one who is self-centered.

That’s just a sampling of the possibilities that have entered my mind the last few days. I am certain that there are times when people who know me would not argue if I made these statements about myself.

As I have thought about Jesus making that statement because it was reality, I have found a growing desire to learn from him how to follow his example- to truly be a servant. It is one of the few statements in the Gospels that Jesus made about himself. And since it was one of the last made before his death, I think it would be a fitting statement on a tombstone of one who lived as a follower of Jesus. “Here lies the body of one who lived among you to serve.” But I realize I have a lot of work to do before my friends and family planning my funeral would be able to have that engraved with a clear conscious.

Just today, I was on a crowded subway- standing room only. When the train stopped at Times Square, a bunch of people got out, opening the possibility that I might get a seat for the rest of my journey. As new people entered the train, it was a mad dash. As I made my way for the last available seat, there was another man approaching from the opposite direction. It was going to be close, but I was determined to win even if it meant knocking some people out of the way. After all, I have lived here long enough to learn that this is normal subway etiquette. It is the survival of the fittest. As I crossed that last few feet to get to the seat, I heard a little voice in my head that said:

I am among you as one who gets the seat on the subway.

So I slowed down. As I stood there on the train as it made its way to my stop, I realized that I need to keep thinking about the blank at the end of that sentence. I don't want this on my tombstone:

Craig Mayes lived among you as one who always got the seat on the subway.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Melting Pot

I sit on the subway and watch as the doors open at the next stop. The world steps into the train. The 70-80 people jammed into this small space are the world. The skin color ranges from pale white to dark black, and every shade in between. As I eavesdrop on conversations, I detect many different languages I cannot place, and many English words spoken with heavy accents. These are not tourists, but my neighbors. We are far from Times Square, Broadway, and other tourists hangouts. These people commuting to or from work. This is their home.

A few stops later, a dozen high school students jump on board a train that is already wall to wall with people. Somehow, we make room. There is no such thing as personal space on a subway train during rush hour. I look at the students talking and laughing together, seemingly unaware that they too represent many different ethnicities…Hispanic, Asian, African American, Caucasian.

In college I worked on our newspaper called The Melting Pot. The term was initially a reference to America as a place where people came from all over the planet and were assimilated into a culture where what was shared in common was more critical than the differences brought into this new world. In 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in Letters from an American Farmer, wrote the following:

"…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes... What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither a European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared."
One of my favorite things about my first year in New York is to experience the reality of de Crevecoer’s words (and the population diversity is even more diverse than the Europeans he identified!) While racial tensions still exist, there is a refreshing acceptance of diversity that I have not experienced elsewhere. It almost seems as if ethnicity is a non-issue. Diversity is taken for granted and people are accepted on the basis of shared humanity.

When I was a child, we learned a song about Jesus loving all the little children of the world- “…red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight…”. Paul wrote in the early days of this new thing called Christianity that we “…are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, or all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He also wrote: “…you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.”

It would be an understatement to say that over the centuries the Church has not always represented this vision of unity among diversity. In fact, often the opposite, racial hatred and prejudice, has been promoted in the name of God. I am hopeful in the early days of Communitas that, just as our city represents the world, so also our one expression of the “household of God” can do so as well.

I hop off the sub way and walk the 6 blocks to my apartment. As I wait at a corner of Lexington and 33rd for the light to change, I see a young African American chatting with an elderly Jewish man, evidenced by the yamika he wears on his head. I can’t hear the conversation, but as they turn to walk their separate ways, they smile and exchange a brief embrace. They are precious in His sight!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ultimate Church

This picture is of one of the most famous and popular places in Central Park- The Great Lawn. On a beautiful Sunday, like we had this past weekend, it is a place for tens of thousands of people to get away from city life, to feel the cool grass on their bare feet, to run around, or just rest. There were softball games, roller bladders, bikers, dog-walkers, soccer and football. There were plenty of tourists mixed in with the New Yorkers who retreat here regularly from the concrete jungle.

May 10 was the second Sunday of the month, and for Communitas, that means a party. We have set aside every second Sunday of each month to break out of our norm and to express what it means to be a “church”- a group of people following Jesus together- in a different way. Second Sundays for us are about getting together for fun and laughter and joy, eating together, and in this case, a little game of ultimate Frisbee. Our hope is that some of our friends who are perhaps leery about church, about religion in general, will accept an invitation to come to a party where there are no expectations except to hang out and have some fun together.

I, for one, enjoyed every minute of it. I am paying for the frisbee part with some sore muscles today, but it was worth it. I had a chance to meet some new people, to learn some new things about people I already knew (it is amazing what competition brings out in people you thought you knew really well- I lost count of how many times I was called an old guy by members of the opposing team). It was great to sit on the grass and have conversations that were not constantly interrupted by sirens and horns.

I am reminded that Jesus encountered people, not only in the synagogue or the temple, but also out where life was being lived. His greatest influence on his 12 disciples was probably in the many spontaneous moments shared together rather than in some formal “teaching” session.

If you happen to be in NYC on a second Sunday- look us up. You’ll find us in a park, on a roof-top, on a ball field… It won’t look like church, but the church will be there.