Friday, February 27, 2009

Hating My Life

This blog is going to be bit on the personal side. I have debated with myself about whether or not to blog it, or just keep it in my personal journal. But since this is connected to church-planting in a roundabout way, here goes.

This week has been the toughest since I moved to New York. Last year my dad was officially diagnosed with Pick’s Disease, which is a progressive dementia of the Frontal Lobe of the brain. I say “officially” because as we look back at his behavior, it seems apparent that he has probably had the disease for at least 6 years For some time we suspected Alzheimer’s. The past 12 months we have watched his mental capacity diminish rapidly. All of this coincided with my getting ready to leave for New York to start Communitas.

My dad has lived all of his life very active and was always sharp mentally. It has been painful to watch the decline. But I was not prepared for how quickly it has accelerated. Since moving to New York I have had reason to return to Michigan a few times, and each time his deterioration was astonishing- to the point where he no longer knows who I am. Last weekend while in Michigan, I happened to be with him when he was undergoing an evaluation in his home by a psychiatric nurse. When I walked into the room, he said to the nurse “That’s Craig.” I was surprised that he knew my name. When she asked if I was his son, he laughed and said “No.”

This is especially difficult for my mom. She is a strong women- even at 5’ 1”! But on this visit I could see the toll this is taking on her. He does not know who she is (in the evaluation he also stated that she was not his wife) and she has to deal with his frustration, anger, repetitive and compulsive behaviors and everything else that goes along with severe dementia. However, over a half a century ago she made a commitment to stay with her husband for better or for worse, and she is honoring that promise.

Over Christmas when all the family was together we started the difficult discussion about knowing when we have reached the point where dad will need full time care- I don’t even like using the words “nursing home.” It has only been two months since that conversation, but now it seems imminent. My mom and I talked about this quite a bit last weekend. Then on Sunday morning, I had to catch a ride to the airport to get back to my new life in New York. Everything seemed unresolved. It is such a horrible time for me to be away from the family, unable to do much or to be helpful. It felt horribly wrong to leave my mom in that house with all the stress and anxiety. I have lived all my life near my parents, and now when perhaps I am needed most, I am unavailable.

All week long I have had this picture in my mind of my mom, standing in her bathroom in the cold garage of their home, holding their dog, and crying as we pulled out of the driveway. My mom loves Jesus and has other family around. She is not suffering alone, and truth is, she doesn’t really need me. I am the one who feels the need, the need to be physically present, to be a part of this critical transition in our family’s life, to help with the decisions and to find comfort in our relationships. New York has never felt so far away.

As I struggled this week, I found myself thinking about these words of Jesus in Luke 15: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
I have read those words many, many times, and I know preached more than a few sermons on them. They have never meant that much to me personally as they have this week. I know that Jesus was not encouraging us to hate anyone. But there can be only one Lord, one to whom I give my complete devotion. Anything or anyone I love enough to not follow Jesus becomes my Lord, my object of worship.

So in my sadness and depression this week, I have had to recall why I am in New York. If I came here for personal reasons, for fame and fortune, then it would be unbearable to leave my mom standing in that garage. But if Jesus has really asked me to move to New York, then I must learn experientially what is means to hate my own life. I have to be honest and say it is not easy.

Bottom line. I love Jesus, and I love my mom and my dad. And that’s good. It’s just that sometimes it’s painful.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Using My Imagination

Yesterday, my daughter Megan, who is 19, returned from a 10 day trip to India. This was her 5th trip, but her first without me. Our journeys to India began in December 2001, when she was just 11 years old. Since that time, I have made 12 trips, always with other family members. This year I made the difficult decision to stay behind in order to focus on our work in New York City. It was very painful to leave Megan at the airport knowing she was going to a place that God has used over the past decade to shape my heart. On our first visit I was moved beyond description by the poverty I witnessed, and particularly the orphaned and abandoned children who walked the streets. I could not believe what I was seeing, and felt like something had to be done. At the time, Jaya, our friend in India had taken in about 35 children. They were living in a building which provided shelter and food, but I found the conditions totally inadequate. I felt that this perhaps was why I was on earth…my purpose, to devote myself to helping the suffering children and the poor of this community.

In spite of major jet lag, Megan came to our Sunday evening Communitas gathering to share something that she believed God had shown her in India- something that she felt had a bearing on our work in New York. Before we returned to the states on that first trip we stood on a vacant piece of property and began to imagine how it could be put to use. Below is a picture I took as Megan along with Steve Andrews (lead pastor of Kensington Church) and his daughters Nancy and Helen walked the property. The only problem was that it had a hefty price tag and we had no money.

So yesterday, Megan shared with us the story from Exodus about God providing manna and quail as food for the Israelites after he had led them out of Egypt. There were a lot of hungry months to feed and absolutely no resources in the desert by which to feed them. But since God had led them, he would provide- and he did miraculously. She has read this passage one morning in India and related how she had reflected on this truth as she looked out over what now exists on that piece of property. The picture below was taken from the same vantage point just 3 years later.

What you see here are a dorm that houses over 200 orphans, a school with 150+ kids in attendance, a sewing school for women, a school for training young adults to plant new churches in the surrounding villages, and a medical clinic. It has been truly miraculous to see something spring up out of nothing. How did this happen? Simply put, God called us to step into this impossible situation, and he provided. And it is still growing as last week we laid the foundation for what will be a hospital offering free services for the poor.

For Megan, who has witnessed this transformation over the years, she saw concrete evidence that when God calls us to respond to an opportunity or a need, he will be faithful to provide. She related this to our current impossible task…planting a church in New York City. It is expensive to live here. It would require more resources than we could imagine. How could it be done? This is something I must confess I worry about. Can this really be done? The answer, Megan shared, was right before her eyes- a field once filled with nothing but garbage and animal refuse is now a place of life and hope in this needy community. So is it too difficult to imagine what God might have in store for Communitas in New York if we have the courage to obey and trust him? As Paul wrote:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, (Eph 3:20).

I think its time for me to put my imagination to use.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Peanut Butter and Toothpaste

I knew when God called us to live in New York City that many new and stretching experiences were ahead for me. And indeed, I often find myself in brand new circumstances in which I can find nothing in my past to draw from to help me know what to do or how to respond.

Tonight our small group got together and assembled food bags to share with the homeless later in the evening. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, added some fruit, cookies, juice, etc, We ended up with 30 such modest meals in total. At about 10:00 PM we jumped on the M34 cross town bus heading for Penn Station. A few weeks ago I was at Penn at about 4 AM. Penn is normally one of the busiest places in Manhattan as all the trains from New Jersey and Long Island feed into the station. At 4 AM, however, there were very few people, with the exception of the many homeless sleeping on the floors and in the chairs in the waiting areas. So with Matthew 25 in mind, we decided to go to Penn and feed Jesus (“When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat…when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me”).

On our arrival, we split into groups and fanned out to different parts of the station. Since it was early in the night I wasn’t sure if we would find many needing help. But within 20 minutes, all of the food had been given away. We could have easily given away 100.

This was a unique experience. I learned some new things, watching the homeless care for each other. Several times as we handed food to one person, they asked if a friend could also have one, and then took us to where he or she was hanging out. There is a community of homeless people who look out for each other and care for each other. But there was more for me to learn this night.

As we were waiting at the rendezvous point for everyone to show up, I noticed a blind man walking through the corridor, using his cane to avoid obstacles. He literally bumped into us, and made a 90 degree turn into a drug store. As soon as he was in the store, he turned right again into a narrow dead end where an ATM was located. Thinking he was lost and confused, I followed him into the store to see if I could get him back on track. I approached him and asked if I could help him. He did not respond. I asked again. He ignored me. Then he began to rummage through his back pack. It was then that I noticed a sign hanging around his neck that said “I am deaf and blind.” He could not see me, he could not hear me! As I pondered this conundrum, my complete inability to communicate with him, he pulled out of his backpack an empty toothpaste box, and a coupon for $1.00 off a toothbrush. He handed them toward me. I took them and asked him if he was trying to buy these items. Oops, he can’t hear me. What do I do? I stood there with these items in my hands and did nothing, looking around for some kind of help. Then he pulled out a stack of paper and a pen and began to write to me. “Am I a store employee?” He handed the paper to me. I wrote “no”, wondering how that would help since he could not see. I handed him the paper back to him and he held it right up to his eyes, the paper literally pressed against his face. He took him a long time to decipher the writing. He wrote “Are you volunteering to help?” “Yes”, I replied. He wrote about the toothbrush and the toothpaste he needed. As he handed the paper back to me, it fell to the floor and as it scattered, I saw that many pages were filled with writing- conversations he had had all day as he had navigated in a world he could not see, could not hear, and could not speak into. That realization hit me so hard that my eyes began to fill up with tears. What a way to have to live! I don’t think I would even try.

After a few more written exchanges, I headed off to find the toothpaste and toothbrush. When I returned, we exchanged a few more messages about the items. At the end, I asked him his name. When he pressed the paper to his eyes to read my question, he broke into this beautiful smile and wrote “Artiz”. I wrote my name and he smiled again when he read it. He wrote “Thanks, and God bless you.”

God did bless me tonight by allowing me to spend time with Artiz. I’ll admit when I first realized he was blind and deaf and mute, I wanted to just walk out the door. It was awkward and I felt inadequate to help. But I will never forget his beautiful smile, and more importantly, his courage to live with such challenges. When I left him, I easily navigated the stairs, through the crowd on 34th Street, on to the bus, and home to my apartment. I do these things every day without much thought Sometimes I complain about the bus being late, or crowded, or the weather being bad, which means most of the time I lack gratitude for what I do have- like sight, hearing, speech.

God, help me to live with the resolve and courage and resourcefulness, and the attitude I discovered in a man who is living with challenges that I really cannot imagine. And please keep Artiz from harm.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Scattering Seed

Since moving to NYC 6 months ago it is not unusual for me to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who call this city home. Today we took a drive out to Long Island to visit a friend. On our return we first entered New York City in the borough of Queens, with a population of 2.3 million. As we approached the Mid-town Tunnel through which we would enter Manhattan and its 1.6 million people, the skyline rose up before us. A couple of weeks ago my friend Rick Seidel took an amazing photo from a place I drove by today.

The foreground is obviously a cemetery, in Queens, just west of the East River. The buildings of Manhattan rise up in the background just across the river. In the center of the picture is the Empire State Building which is just a few blocks from my apartment. I grew up in a town of less than 3,000 people, Now that many people live on my block.

How do we make an impact on this huge city? Can we make a difference? This week I read these words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and it helped me understand the answer to these questions:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Our job is to scatter seeds. Seeds are not big, obvious things. They are small, easy to overlook. We scatter seeds of Jesus’ kingdom by simple daily obedience- primarily defined by loving God and loving others. Every time we do that, seed is scattered. Then, in ways we will never understand, the mystery of growth occurs. Whether we are asleep or awake, the scattered seed takes root in the soil, and the miracle of new life occurs. We don’t make it happen, we only watch it happen. God works through the little seeds we scatter. And as Jesus promised, the harvest comes.

How will Communitas have any impact on this city? Not by doing great things, but by faithfully scattering a little seed everyday. It brings to mind the words of Mother Teresa- we don’t do great things for God, we do little things with great love.

Friday, February 13, 2009

It Started on the Elevator

Yesterday, Chris and I returned from a run and stepped into the elevator in our building, pushing the button that would take us up to the 20th floor. Just as the doors were closing, an older man poked his cane in, stopping the doors. He stepped in and pushed 22. On the short ride up, we started a conversation that wasn’t over when the elevator stopped at our floor. So the man (I’ll call him Joe) got off with us and we continued to talk in the hallway outside our apartment. He told us about his life, about making lots of money, being married to a wonderful woman for 60 years, raising a family, accumulating homes in the Hamptons and on Long Island. Then last June it all came crashing down. He was riding in the car with his wife when she began to complain of a headache. The last thing he would ever hear from her was a scream of pain, and then she fell over into his lap- dead.

Joe told that he pulled the car over, then began to scream for help. The police came, but nothing could be done. She was gone. Joe went into shock. He had to be hospitalized for some time. Months later he is still taking medication just to keep going. He moved into the city to be near his daughter. He doesn’t see her very often. When he left his home last fall, he didn’t care about any of his stuff- none of it mattered anymore. He had all his furniture and a lifetime of possessions hauled out to the curb and hauled away by garbage trucks. Now he lives in this crowded city, alone. He is Jewish, but never practices his faith. He is a WW2 veteran where he served as an infantryman. He told us how much money he has, what banks he has it in, and how little he cares about it. He has no desire to go on living and said repeatedly, “Why am I here?” All this to strangers.

He talked mostly about his wife, what a wonderful woman she was. He misses her terribly. When he mentioned that he would like to someday show us pictures of her, we responded that we would love to see them. He said, “How about now?” So it was back into the elevator and up to the 22nd floor. He invited us into his one bedroom apartment. It was sparsely furnished. The walls were drab and unpainted with no pictures or paintings. He gave us a quick tour, saying this was all that was left of his former life. On the tables and dressers were pictures of his wife, his children and grandchildren. Then he took us into his bedroom closet and showed us two winter coats that belonged to his wife. As he touched them with his hands, he began to weep and then fought off the tears. His pain and sadness were palatable.

He turned down an invitation to have dinner with us, go to a movie with us, hang out, etc. He said he is not good company right now. He said that if he came for dinner, he would end up sharing all kinds of bad things he had done, that we would judge him, and that would be the end of it. In spite of our assurances to the contrary, he said he could not be with us, or anyone now. He did accept an offer for us to bring dinner by (he had even showed us his nearly empty refrigerator). As we left, Chris gave him a hug, which from my vantage point he gladly received. I doubt he experiences much human touch. He is trapped in his loneliness, needing friendship, yet fearful of it.

It was hard to leave him alone in that apartment. As soon as the elevator doors closed on us, Chris’ eyes began to fill with tears. The man is in such pain, all alone, obviously struggling with guilt, not wanting to live. He must have asked “Why am I here?” six times in our conversation. And while he does not want to come to dinner, I marveled at how much of his life he opened up to us. I hope we are going to become friends. That is why we are here.

This experience illustrates one of the things I love about New York City. The population density puts us in proximity with people every day who are hurting deeply, people who matter to God. People who have a story to tell- the story they are living. And if we take the time and show interest, they will tell their story. God sees Joe shut up and alone in Apt 22H, near the end of his life. And he sees our family two floors below. With a little effort, perhaps we can become a part of Joe’s story, and maybe change the plot.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


In the six months I have lived in NYC, I have spent 100 times more time with the homeless than I have in all my years before moving here. I think it is mostly because unlike anyplace I have ever lived, they are my neighbors here. I pass them on the sidewalk, sit next to them on the subway, see them sleeping under the awnings of the local stores at night. But it is also a part of God's call on my life in coming to New York. As I read and reread the gospels over the past few years, I came to see that I actually had very little to do with people that Jesus had a lot to do with and a lot to say about...the poor.

Tonight I spent about 90 minutes talking with a homeless man. We did not talk on the street or in the subway, but at our Communitas Sunday evening gathering. Two of our members spoke with him an hour before our service, and invited him to come and have dinner with us and if he wanted to, to stay for the service. I think they were surprised when he showed up. As I taught from Acts 2 tonight, I looked out over our small gathering and felt joy that there were two homeless men present- men who have hopefully found love and acceptance in a community that is trying to follow Jesus and to see them as Jesus does. Should not the "Church" be the one place where they feel wanted, safe, loved?

Not always. The man told me as we spoke tonight of a church in the area where he sleeps at night that has never once offered help, but has called the police.

I know I have a great deal to learn about the appropriate way to help someone who is homeless. I can't just give money- I'd be broke in a week. And I can't invite them to live with us. We are already pretty tight, the four of us, in our little apartment. But I can offer friendship, a listening ear, love, and community. Probably a good place to start and see where it takes us.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Where Everybody (Somebody?) Knows My Name

Today we moved the last of the stuff out of our office on 61 Gramercy Park North. As we begin a search for a new place for Communitas to meet on Sundays, we figured we would save some money by working out of our apartments. So I dragged my son Caleb away from his school work to drive a borrowed Jeep a few blocks down Lexington Avenue to try the impossible- to find parking near the office. No such luck. So we were stuck with the task of hauling boxes and an ancient, very heavy HP printer a few blocks. We had to take several breaks to let our arms rest. We made it to 22nd and Lexington before one of the boxes ripped open, spilling the contents onto the sidewalk. The Jeep was just down the street, so I picked up the mess and stayed with the stuff as Caleb took a box or two at a time to the Jeep. As I waited I began to look at some of the interesting architecture on the buildings on the corner. Suddenly, a woman with a dog was standing next to me, following my gaze as I looked at the 15 story building across the street. She asked me if I had ever noticed the building right on the corner where I stood. She began to describe it using architectural terms that I did not understand. She went into a lot of detail and mentioned how many times she had walked by this building…hundreds of times, before she noticed the intricate detail and artistry. Diane turned out to be quite a talker. She ended up with us at our Jeep, telling stories of having spinal meningitis as a child, before there was medicine to treat it. How she was hit by a car at age 5 and had a compound fracture that still bothers her at age 66. She told me about an internet business she had just started, and about how mentioning King Tut’s name keeps his spirit alive (don’t ask me what that means), and too many other things to remember. She has lived all of her life in New York, and as we talked as if we were old friends, I couldn’t help but think that here she was, in a city of 8 ½ million, lonely, starved for some human contact and conversation.

As we talked, I had to remind myself that this was not an interruption in my plans, but maybe the most important thing that would happen all day. Together, our team in New York has been trying to follow Jesus’ habit, as John described it, of responding to the moment: “As Jesus went along, he saw…:” (John 9:1). Most of what Jesus did happened as he responded to the moments, to the people, to the need, unplanned, right in front of him. This woman was not an interruption to my plans, but a beautiful creation of God, of unsurpassable worth to her creator. My normal inclination is to look at my watch, thereby communicating impatience and distraction. I wonder sometimes if God didn’t lead me to this city of incredibly dense population so that I couldn’t help but notice people, to see what he sees.

The other thought I had as I reflected later in the day about my time with Diane relates to a project we are considering. We have our eyes on some available retail property just north of where we had talked- up on Lexington and 28th- probably in Diane’s neighborhood. It is what some call a “third space”. First space is where you live, second space is where you work, and third space is where you are when you aren’t at the first two spaces. It’s where you hang out and find community. It is said that New Yorkers sleep in their apartments and live in the city. In my first six months here I have found that to be true. We are imagining this property as a coffee shop or café. We see the regulars dropping by in the morning, or after work. They come with their computers for the free WiFi as they drink their coffee. We know their names and they know ours. We begin to learn about their lives- stories of childhood meningitis and car accidents, and interesting facts about architecture. On some evenings a band plays in the corner of the café, others there is a planned discussion on matters of life and faith. And out of relationships that form, we see the opportunity for Jesus to be present and to be made known. I know Diane would be a regular- along with thousands of others. Makes me think of the line from the theme song for Cheers- we want to go where somebody knows our name.

The people of Manhattan don’t have much interest in church- 97% stay away from church each week. In fact, today my wife Chris had an appointment with a new doctor. When asked why she had moved to New York City, Chris answered that we had come to start a church. The doctor burst into long, almost uncontrollable laughter. No comment, just laughter. Church isn’t on their mind. But they do like coffee. They do like community. And they do, as Diane demonstrated today, like to talk abut their lives. What if, instead of inviting people to come to church, the church came to them, to their environment- no strings attached except the commitment to listen, to learn their name, and to love?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Following Jesus...Literally

When Jesus called Peter and the others, he simply said, “follow me”. And they did. They left their nets and followed Jesus, literally! The next three years they made a lot of mistakes and failed many times to actually live according to the example and teaching of Jesus. But their intent was to follow him.

Recently I read something that challenged me. I forget the book and author, perhaps because I am reading a few books at the same time, or maybe because I am getting old and forgetful. At any rate, here is a paraphrase: “Too many times we read the words of Jesus that are startling and challenging, and respond by saying, Jesus didn’t mean that literally.” We find a way to take the words of Jesus that may be difficult to hear, more difficult to apply, and we explain them away. We spiritualize them, or apply them to somebody else.

Not long ago I found myself doing exactly that. I was walking with a group of college students when a woman stepped into the street between some parked cars and was struck by a car backing up. They never saw each other and she went down hard, striking her head on the concrete. We came upon the scene and like others, felt utterly helpless. She was not moving and immediately there was a pool of blood forming beneath her head on the cold pavement. I exercised my spiritual leadership, and suggested that we pray for her from our place on the curb, with the intent that having done that, we would move on. After all, we were not doctors, and the single-digit temperatures made it very uncomfortable standing there and doing nothing. Plus, we were on our way to somewhere else and had a tight schedule to follow.

Does these words sound familiar? A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. Jesus is describing a situation where a man was dying in the road and the priest observed the situation and passed by on the other side of the road. Why? Maybe because he wasn’t a doctor. Maybe it was cold. Maybe he was in a hurry and was running late. Bottom line, he passed by.

OK, so what was Jesus’ point? He didn’t mean that if I saw a man or woman lying in the road unconscious that I should actually stop, did he? Literally? All these thoughts passed through my mind in a few seconds. And then we moved into the street- not knowing what to do, but sensing that Jesus was not remaining at the curb, or walking on his way. He was in the street with her and if we are his followers indeed, that is where we would be.

We didn’t do a lot. We prayed, we covered her with our coats, and we waited for the police and ambulance. We were relieved to see her breathing. Others offered help, including a nurse who took off her own hat and put it under the woman’s bleeding head. And we spent a lot of time with the driver who was, as you can imagine, pretty shook up. It was a scene of many people caring for a stranger, and there in the middle, I am certain was Jesus. Most of all, he was there because some who responded to his invitation to “follow me” are learning to take his words literally.