Monday, April 27, 2009

Saturday in the Park

A new condo high rise is going up a block from my apartment on the corner of 33rd and 2nd Ave. A big banner stretches across the building announcing that it is “Murray Hill’s First Green Condo”. I am not sure what makes a condo “green”, but I know what the phrase is intended to communicate. The builders care about the environment.

Being “green” is important these days. This past Wednesday was Earth Day. Since 1970 it has served as a day to focus on the well-being of this planet we inhabit. Across the country and around the globe people have awakened to the importance of taking care of planet Earth. But caring for the environment is not a new idea. In the creation account in Genesis, after each day of work, God comments on his own handiwork with these words: “and it was good”. And his first words to the human race had to do with caring for what he had created. I believe God thinks that “going green”, while not really a new idea, is a good idea nevertheless.

I have to confess that most of my life I cared little for matters of the environment. It’s not that I was pro-pollution. I simply didn’t think that in the long run what we did with planet Earth mattered much since my theology- my interpretation of the Bible- indicated that eventually God was going to destroy all that he had created and start all over again. Saving planet earth was like trying to save a sinking ship that had no chance of staying afloat.

I don’t think that way any more. I see the future differently…a future where God takes what he once made as very good and restores it to its original beauty. In the meantime, the original mandate stands- to be caretakers of God’s “green” earth.

With that in mind, Communitas joined 4985 other volunteers this past Saturday who spread across New York City’s 5 boroughs to clean up parks. Our group of 15 was assigned to Cunningham Park in Queens. Armed with rakes, shovels and plastic bags we did not change the world. But we did enjoy being outside on a very warm spring day. We enjoyed being together, working (and goofing off some), and in the end, after 109 trash bags full, changing one small part of God’s creation just a little bit.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On a Greyhound Bus

Since moving to NYC last summer, I have had many “first-time” experiences- like riding in a taxi cab, seeing a airliner floating down the Hudson River, and going to the second floor of the County Court house a few weeks ago to file some papers, stumbling onto the set of “Law and Order” as it was being filmed (don’t look for me in an upcoming episode). Now to these illustrious first time events I can add, “taking a long trip on a Greyhound bus”. I don’t recommend it.

I have concluded that the people who work for Greyhound do not like their jobs, and particularly do not like people. I think it may be a requirement to be hired. And the people who take long bus trips- well, since I am now in that company, I better not share my observations. So why the long bus trip?

As I shared in an earlier blog, living away from family creates a certain strain that I have not experienced until this point in my life. One has to be particular about when to return “home”, and how. On Sunday evening, April 5, right after our Communitas gathering, I began to receive a series of texts from family members saying that my dad’s health seemed to be failing quickly. Words like “two or three days to live” came along with “or he could live for months or years.” Over the next 24 hours I continued to get varied updates. I had just been in Michigan less than two weeks ago to help my mom get my dad into a long-term care facility. He was very confused mentally, but his body seemed strong. How did this happen so quickly? Should I jump on a plane (or a bus) and head back to Michigan again…so soon? The rational part of me said that this could be the case for the next several years. Can I rush home every time there is a medical crisis with my dad?

This was my mental dilemma throughout the day on Monday, April 6. I tried to work, but found myself checking airfares throughout the day, hoping they would magically fall dramatically in price. I still didn’t know if I should go, or how I would even know if I should go.

Later that evening, I got another call with more detail. He had pneumonia, had suffered a mild heart attack, and was in full renal failure. My sister was driving from St. Paul. One brother was driving down from Elk Rapids. They were going to bring him home on Tuesday for hospice care. He was not expected to live long.

There was a bus leaving NYC on Tuesday evening at 10:15 PM. It was a 14 hour trip, and would get me in around noon on Wednesday. And the price was right- $48 instead of $848 to fly. I still felt uncertain about leaving New York again, but finally, with the nudging of Chris, decided it was the right thing to do. So Tuesday evening, with my 16 year old son, Caleb, I left Manhattan on our first (and last?) Greyhound trip back to Michigan to see my dad before he died.

The bus was very uncomfortable. I think I finally fell asleep around 2:45 AM. I was awakened by my phone vibrating in my pocket. I glanced at my watch and saw it was nearly 3:30 AM. I knew it could not be good news. Before answering, I looked at the caller ID. It was my mom. “Hi mom, what’s going on”? (I knew). Her first words: “God was merciful. You father went to be with him about an hour ago.” It was a brief conversation that I will always remember- marking the end of my dad’s life here on earth- April 8, 2009. Caleb and I talked for awhile as the dark bus rolled through the hills of Pennsylvania in an April snowstorm that eventually brought the bus to a complete stop. All my 5 siblings had made it home in time. I was the only one not there. I admit to feeling angry- at myself for delaying the decision to leave, and perhaps at God for not helping out a bit and letting me get there on time.

But God was merciful. My last conversation with my dad had occurred just 12 days earlier. I was trying to get him to dinner in the nursing home cafeteria. He wouldn’t come. I told him that I was his son and that I would take him. He hit me and said “you are not my son.” He was suffering and all of us were suffering watching him gradually withdraw into a reality where we could not go. Since that day, I had been asking God to take him home. I never imagined it would come so quickly.

The funeral was on April 11- the day before Easter. The words of Paul had special meaning that weekend:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory. Where, O death, is your sting?”

As we grieve the death of my father, and feel the sting of death, we also celebrate his life here on earth and the life that has now just begun and will never end- a life without tears or pain or sorrow, and without death. Jesus overcame all of these- for my dad, who received these by his grace. As Paul wrote elsewhere, we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Our hope (certainty) is Jesus.

My dad has left behind a great family- pictured below on the day of his funeral. Never has Jesus meant so much, nor my family meant so much to me.

He is Risen. So is my dad!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


One of the things I never thought would happen when I left last summer for NYC to plant a church is that I would become an associate member of the Estonian Educational Society. In fact, I am not sure I could have located Estonia on a map. Of course, you have to remember that when I studied geography, the Soviet Union took up a large percentage of the globe, including what is now, or once again, the country of Estonia. But as you can see by my membership card, I am a member.

You might be asking yourself, “what does Estonia have to do with church planting? “ Nothing, except that Communitas’ third meeting place is in what is called The Estonian House. About 2 months ago we saw that we were outgrowing our space at 61 Gramercy Park North. It had served us well since October, but we were getting a little tight with our modest growth over the months. So we began to pray about the next space. After a number of dead ends, costs too high, wrong location, etc. we found this in our back yard- two blocks from where our family lives. To be eligible to rent the space, I had to “join” at the steep rate of $50 annual dues. I may be the only member who does not speak a word of Estonian- is that a language?

There are many buildings like this in our area due to the United Nations, which is just 10 blocks north. It is a kind of community gathering space for Estonians who work and live in the area. It turned out to be totally available every Sunday, at a great price, and is large enough for us to double in size before we hit the road again.

This space not only gives us more room, it also gives us more space to do things like have music and worship. Of course, it helps to do those things if you have musicians and someone to lead worship, which we did not- until a few weeks ago. A couple walked into our Sunday evening gathering in mid-February and after that first visit felt totally drawn to become part of our community. Turns out Neal plays guitar and sings and Val sings and plays the piano. In fact, Val is in New York as a musical theatre grad auditioning for parts on and off Broadway. They are both very gifted, love Jesus, and have years of experience leading worship.

Sunday evening, April 5 was such an encouraging night. As I looked around at our community gathered together in our new space, led in worship of Jesus by our new friends, I saw God’s gracious hand who gave us these gifts when we did not know where or how to find them. I don’t know what is in the future for Communitas, but my suspicion is that God is going to lead and provide.

Well, Nägemiseni for now. (That’s Estonian for “goodbye”.