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.