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.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The City That Never Sleeps

I live in a city that has been called "the city that never sleeps." Tonight it lived up to that reputation. I headed out on my bike around midnight (because I don't sleep much either). A couple of my friends really wanted to get free tickets to Saturday Night Live and I guess because Justin Timberlake is on the show, they figured they needed to get in line early- like a couple of days early. Normally the line begins to form at the NBC studious at the Rockefeller Center sometime on Friday. So to be sure- they sent up camp on the sidewalk on Thursday- intending to remain there until Saturday morning. I thought I would pay them a surprise visit- maybe ridicule them a bit.

I love riding the streets of New York City at night. There is still traffic, but it is very manageable. But tonight, the city was wide awake. What should have been a simple 10 minute ride covering about 24 blocks became a bit complicated. I was flying down 33rd Street and as I hit Park Avenue I realized a bunch of people were yelling at me. I had apparently ridden onto the set of a film crew filming a scene for an upcoming movie starring Nicholas Cage. I was forced quickly up onto the sidewalk and out of the way. Then I noticed the two Lamborghinis, the lighting cranes 60 feet up in the air, the truck watering down the pavement, the camera on a boom mounted on the back of a car, etc. I was stuck against a building until there was a break in the action. Look for me in an upcoming Disney Film.

As I neared the NBC studios I came across hundreds of people camped out on the sidewalk on 49th Street, 4 deep and stretching an entire block. They were in sleeping bags and cots and covered in plastic to ward off the heavy rain we had earlier. I went up and down the block several times looking for my friends with no luck, and thinking all the while how crazy they were. I finally asked a NYPD officer if these people were waiting for SNL tickets. Nope. They were waiting for Friday's "Today" show, and the outdoor mini-concert at the studio featuring New Kids on the Block (are they still around? They sure aren't new). The officer told me that many of them have been living on the sidewalk for 6 days. It has been a horrible week of weather- heavy rains and thunderstorms. These fans have been enduring all that for one shot to see the New Kids up close. Hundreds of them.

I found out where the line was for SNL and on my way passed the trucks and crew setting up the concert for the New Kids- at 12:30 AM!. I arrived at the NBC Rainbow Room entrance to find one tent and three people in line. No sign of my friends. Turns out they figured they didn't need to be there that early, so they went home and to bed.

On Monday this week my friend Timm invited me to join him at a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman. I have been a Letterman fan for a long time, so it was pretty cool. We were chosen to be in a group that sat in the front row. The Ed Sullivan Theatre was amazing. David was great. My favorite comedian, Brian Regan, was on the show. It was a really fun experience. But that's all it was- 60 minutes of laughter and good music, and then back to life. Can't see how it changed my life, and I wouldn't have waited 5 hours on the sidewalk if that's what it took. But thanks, Timm, for the tickets (see his blog about it at

As I rode home I tried to imagine what would compel people to endure 6 days on the sidewalk for 5 minutes of live music by a boy band. Will they go home satisfied? Will it have been worth it? I know they will post pictures and words on Facebook- telling everyone who cares to listen how close they were to the band. Why do we worship celebrities? In the end, what does seeing or meeting or being near someone famous actually accomplish? Whatever it is, the expectations must be pretty high for people to endure the kind of discomfort I saw tonight.

Well, it's after 1 AM now, and I can hear the noises outside the window telling me that the city is still awake, but I am tired. Plus, I better be rested in case Disney calls asking me to reshoot my scene tomorrow night.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sunday In NYC

I love this city, and love living here. I don’t know where else I could have a day like I had today.

It began with an early morning 4 mile bike ride in light rain with my friend Dave from my apartment to Central Park. We met Keith and Ralph, and completed a 5 mile run, also in light rain. But what’s a little rain to New Yorkers? The park was full of life, including thousands of bikers who were participating in a bike tour through all five boroughs of New York City- in the rain!
After the run, we biked home through Times Square, dodging the tourists and a parade of Scottish men in kilts playing bagpipes- in the rain! Don’t know what the occasion was; there is always interesting and sometimes unusual stuff going on in this amazing city. We sped down 7th Avenue to 34th, dodging the tourist busses and bagpipes and the constant flow of bikers racing up Broadway.

After a quick shower and a change of clothes, we headed out on the subway to attend services at the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. The “we” included Timm Kelly, who is on our team and will be moving to the city with his family this summer.

The trip to the church reminded me once again of the immensity of this city. We took the 6 train to the N train, traveling under the East River to the R Train- and finally to our destination- about an hour later- still in New York City.

We got to the church early to meet with the guest speaker for the day, Bishara Awad. Bishara is the President of Bethleham Bible College. He had spoken last Wednesday at Kensington Community Church. He was making a stop in Brooklyn to visit with his daughter and her family before heading back to Israel on Monday. Steve Andrews had called me and suggested that we try to connect with Bishara while he was in town.

The Salam Arabic church service was in Arabic- go figure! My Arabic is worse than my Estonian (see earlier blog). Most of the time Dave, Timm and I were lost, but even with the language barrier we knew we were worshiping God with our Arabic brothers and sisters in Christ. Fortunately, Pastor Khader El- Yateem (who happens to be a graduate of Bethlehem Bible College) translated Bishara’s message for us sitting in the back pew. He taught from the Sermon on the Mount about what it means to “go the second mile.” It was a very challenging message about finding the “second miles” in our lives in which we follow Jesus, sometimes at great personal cost, and always only in his strength.

During the service I was struck with the diversity and the beauty of the varied expressions of the community Jesus has formed and is forming around the world. And I realized again that most of the world is within reach right here in New York City. We sat together for 90 minutes with little in common- different language, culture, and how to worship God- but with the most important thing in common…Jesus.

One of the intriguing side notes is that this church is in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn. Timm Kelly is coming to start a new charter school where he will serve as principal in…guess where? Bay Ridge! Perhaps today was the beginning of a something God has for us in terms of building a relationship with Pastor El-Yateem and the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church.
The day ended with Communitas’ weekly gathering. We talked tonight about the kind of community we trust Jesus is forming us to be as we lock arms together. Jason shared his story of how he found Jesus- or rather how Jesus found him. Keith led us in communion as we remembered Jesus love for us.

After the gathering, a bunch of us hung out at a local diner just around the corner as we do most Sunday nights. I eavesdropped in on conversations around the table- the laughter and the struggles and the insults- mostly directed at me!
A pretty full day- bikers and bagpipes, long subway rides- receiving communion in the morning in Arabic in the evening in English. As I said, I love this city, I love living here, and I love this group of people who collectively are Communitas.