Thursday, March 26, 2009

Counting My Days

This past Monday evening I popped a video tape into the VCR and sat down with my brothers and sisters and watched all the old family movies that had been shot with an 8 mm camera and transferred to video tape some years ago. For you youngsters, 8 mm is what we had before video tape. There was no sound, and you actually had to send the film in to get it developed, then feed it into a projector and show it on a portable movie screen or on the wall. Yeah, I know, stone-age.

We watched birthdays and Christmas mornings and family vacations. We saw our family grow from 2 kids to 6, and our family shrink as grandparents disappeared from family gatherings as the years went by. We laughed at clothes and hairstyles and fads as we moved from the fifties through the sixties and into the seventies.

The setting was the family room of my parent’s house in Michigan. We had come from New York and St. Paul and northern Michigan to be together as a family on the night before my dad, who is suffering horribly from advanced dementia, would leave his home for the last time and move into a facility that would be able to provide adequate care. At the dinner table I think it was one of my sisters who suggested we watch the home movies. At first, I thought it was a horrible idea- it was already painful enough. “Yeah, let’s watch old family movies so we can cry some more!!” But she was right. It was a good thing to do. My dad sat in the chair, pretty much unaware of what was going on or even that all the people in the room were his children. But the man on the screen we watched was another thing. He was a twenty-seven year old walking with his two sons. He was a thirty-two year old teaching his kids how to water ski. He was running along side his son as he showed him how to ride a bike. But most of the time, he was not on the screen at all. The movies revealed what he saw as he held the camera and pointed it at his wife and sons and daughters . He was capturing his family on film. We got to see what he saw through those decades.

It was a bittersweet experience- to contrast that young man with the man he is now. I think that evening will help me to remember him not as the man who forgot my name or that I was his son, but as the man who for most of his years was full of life. Somehow, it helped to bring some joy in the midst of our deep sorrow.

Later in the evening, I found myself thinking about how quickly a life goes by. I found myself thinking about the dozens of video tapes I have of my family- each with three hours of family history, and these actually have sound! I realize how often I live as if life will just go on unchanged, but it won’t. And whether my life is being captured on film to be reviewed on some future day or not, it is nevertheless being lived and spent everyday. While this is not a new thought for me- right now there is a lot more urgency attached to it. I will live one time- and I will leave an imprint on those around me and on my world.

Moses asked God (Psalm 90) to teach him to number his days so that he could gain a heart of wisdom. This week I understand that prayer more than I have in the past, and finding myself asking God for the same thing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Joyful Community

Last Summer twenty of us moved from Michigan to NYC to start a new church. There were actually forty who had been together for the better part of a year getting ready, but some had to stay behind to sell houses and find jobs in New York before they could come. Some are still waiting on God.

In the first few months following our move it was not uncommon for me to receive e-mails and phone calls asking the question "when does Communitas start?" And my reply from the beginning was that the church started as soon as we arrived. We were a community of people committed to Jesus and representing him through our words and actions in New York. We were striving to love God and to love each other and to engage with the people of our new city in friendship and loving service. People on our team were immediately building new friendships and exercising their gifts and their passions on behalf of Jesus, expanding his Kingdom. Sounded like church to me.

Over the past 8 months our community has deepened in our love for each other and we are, I hope, learning to be what our name "Communitas" represents...a community that forms around mission, around a shared ordeal and a common purpose. The ordeal for many has been unemployment, struggling with the cost of living, loneliness as we have adjusted to a new world, noise, masses of people and crowds. But in the middle of it all, a sense of purpose and mission and the joy in doing this together. I cannot now imagine doing this without the amazing people God has brought together, including many I did not know a year ago. We have now become a group of 40+.

This weekend 35 of us "retreated" together about 70 miles out of the city to a quiet place called Mt. Bethel, just across the Pennsylvania border. I just read in Luke this morning that Jesus often went to a lonely place to get some rest. This was definitely a lonely place compared to NYC. "Bethel" is a Hebrew word that means "house of God". The acres of open land, the sounds of birds, grass under our feet- we liked God's house after the concrete and noise of the city. It was an awesome couple of days of relaxing, laughter, late night games, spiritual renewal, worship, and a little ultimate frisbee thrown in. We didn;t get much sleep, but I think we got rest.

As we headed back into the city Sunday evening, I was never more aware of the value of community and friendship in following Jesus and serving him. I honestly felt like the richest man on the planet. I don't know all that God has in mind for Communitas, but I am glad to be able to share the journey with the amazing group of people God has already brought together.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Does God Need Our Help?

This week at a conference I was attending the presenter at one of the sessions was talking about avoiding burnout in ministry by making sure that we stay connected to God in an intimate relationship. The idea was that before we do anything for God we need to know him and be in a relationship so that we minister out of his strength that flows in and through us. Then she said that we all needed to remember that God doesn’t’ need us. He can do a good job of running the world without us.

I turned to my wife Chris and said "Oh yeah? Look at the world? It’s a mess!” I said it out loud, but not loud enough for others to hear. That’s the kind of statement that can get you thrown out of a Christian conference. But before you conclude that my statement was sacrilegious, hear me out.

A couple of questions. First, is God “running the world?” This morning I looked through the newspaper delivered to my hotel room, and a casual scan of the entries showed things like a 7 year old with cancer, a murder, a rape, terrorism, drought in various places creating famine, aids spreading through parts of Africa like wildfire, etc. And that was just in the comic section! (just kidding). Consider now the words of an old hymn composed in 1901:

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears

All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.

This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought

Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;

His hand the wonders wrought.

While I do delight in the wonders of God’s creation, what do I do with the world brought to me every day in the news? Is God “running” this world? It seems that if there is a power behind the suffering and evil we see everyday in every corner of the planet earth, it cannot be God. John wrote that… We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. (1 Jn 1:19). What would a world look like where Satan was having his way? The one we live in.

Maltbie Babcock wrote the hymn cited above. Here is the third verse:

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:

Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,

And earth and Heav’n be one.

I would say that not only does the wrong often seem so strong- it is strong. And while I agree that God is the ruler of the universe, he has not chosen to meticulously control events on earth. So freedom expressed by human beings and evil spirits creates a world Babcock decided not to describe in his hymn. But notice he goes on to write that the battle is not done.

Here is my second question. How has God chosen to do battle in this world against all that is wrong and evil? Answer...through us! Consider this sampling of Scripture in light of the statement that “God does not need our help.”

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Ephesian 6:10-13

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:4-5

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Matthew 25:35-36

Jesus taught us that we should pray that his kingdom would come and that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. I have to tell you, a great deal of New York City does not look like heaven. As I look around the city, I think I hear God telling me that he does need my help- that is why he called Communitas to New York.

Let me be clear. That God needs our help is not a reflection of any weakness or imperfection in God. It is simply how he has designed things. We are his hands, his means, his plan to come against the wrong in this world. He could have done it differently. But as it stands, he is dependent upon us. If we don't, it won't get done.

By the way- I did get the point the teacher at the conference was trying to make, and I agree. No sense trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus in New York City if I am not connected to him. As Jesus put it, without me you can do nothing.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Learning About Compassion

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of “compassion” this past week. It’s a word that shows up a lot in the gospels, describing something Jesus felt or experienced. A passage I read in Mark a few days ago is a great example. Jesus had sent the 12 out to heal and preach and cast out demons. They came back some time later with a report of all that had happened. They must have been pretty tired because after hearing their description, Jesus invited them to a retreat- to get away to a quiet place to get some rest. Mark adds the detail in this account that they had so much going on that they couldn’t even break for lunch. So Jesus leads them to a boat to escape the hectic pace of life and recover. They push off shore heading to a remote destination away from people so they can get refreshed. But things didn’t work out as planned. When they hit the shore, this is the scene that Mark describes:

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

Instead of a break from people, the crowd had figured out where he was heading, and they ran ahead and were there waiting for him. Notice what Jesus experienced when he saw the crowd. I know myself well enough to know that I would have been ticked off, frustrated, and would have shoved off shore again looking for a place to anchor out in the lake away from all the needy people. I would have seen the people as a barrier, separating me from my plans. Jesus saw them differently. As much as they all experienced hunger pangs and the need for rest, there was something they, (well at least Jesus,) experienced that was more powerful and compelling…Compassion

I once heard compassion defined as feeling someone else’s pain in my heart. It is perhaps similar to the experience of empathy- the capacity to know at a deep level, an experiential level, what another is going through. Rather than responding to someone’s misery or suffering with the attitude (acknowledged or not) “I am glad I am not you”, I feel as though I am that person.

I am coming to see that compassion is simply another word, actually a really good word, for love. Love is not love unless it encompasses compassion. Jesus taught us that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. When we are hungry, tired, thirsty…whatever we experience, we naturally and automatically take action to meet our needs. To love our neighbor as ourselves, then, means that we do the same when we are not the one in need, but we encounter someone who is. We relate to their need, their suffering, and we embrace it as if it were our own, and take action. Love, as defined and exemplified by Jesus, is an identification with the suffering of others, embracing it to an extent that we are compelled to act. Without compassion, it seems love is a lofty ideal with no power.

This week New York City experienced some uncharacteristic winter weather, especially for March. After 12 inches of snow fell, the temperatures dropped into single digits at night. In a place like New York, you really experience the weather. I no longer own a car. I get around using subways and busses. This means walking a lot (about 5 miles a day) and waiting for busses and trains in the cold. I was glad for my winter coat and gloves and hat and a warm apartment and a hot meal, and the prospect of a good night sleep in my warm bed. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a homeless person in weather like this. But I should. I should try to imagine. It should matter. It should bother me. What if that was my mom, my son or daughter, hungry and out in the cold. What if that was me? Can I push such thoughts out of my mind, or, as the boat hits the shore, will I look at the crowds and feel compassion?

On Tuesday night, 10 of us put together meals and placed them in plastic bags. This was our second Tuesday evening venture to Penn Station this winter. With the bitter cold we figured there would be more homeless men and women wandering the halls of the train station, thankful at least for a break from the biting wind.

Our experience was identical to what I reported in a previous blog- in minutes the fifty meals we had prepared were given out. As I walked the corridors carrying my last bag looking for someone who might be hiding from the cold, Dave, who was with me, spotted a woman tucked away in a corner. She was dark-skinned wearing dark clothing, hiding in the dark shadows. As we approached her, she became fearful. I do not think that she understood much English and I know she did not understand what we wanted with her. When she understood we meant no harm but were offering her food, she received it. She told us her name was Yvonne. I know nothing about her except that unlike me, she has no warm apartment to go to, no warm bed or warm supper waiting for her.

A few minutes later as we stood in the cold on 34th Street waiting for the bus, I kept picturing Yvonne. What if that was my mom, or my daughter? What would I feel? What would I do? I had to admit that what I had felt was much less that what I would have if the woman had turned to be my mom or daughter. She would be waiting for the bus with me heading for the warmth of my apartment.

I don’t honestly know if I have much of a clue yet about true compassion. In the account in Mark 6 cited above, at the end of the day when they all would have been even more tired and more hungry than they were when they got in the boat to take a break that never came, there was still more compassion needed. Jesus knew the people were hungry and he was concerned about them. Rather than sending the people away to get supper (I would have been the one of the 12 making that suggestion to Jesus), he asked the 12 to bring them their food to feed the thousands. As the disciples did what Jesus asked, taking inventory of their few loaves of bread and fish, and bringing it to him, I am sure they imagined that they were not going to get anything. Instead, they became a part of a miracle.

It seems against the tremendous need in this city, what we did Tuesday was not enough. But I have to trust that Jesus can still do something with a few loaves of bread offered to him.