Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting Saved

I spent this morning helping out at one of the truly great compassion ministries in NYC- St. Joe’s Soup Kitchen in Greenwich Village. As I walked to the subway heading home in the early afternoon, I encountered a heated exchange between two people on a street corner. Being nosey, I slowed down my walking pace to catch the drift of what was going on. One man, holding a stack of papers in his hand, was insisting loudly to another man that he needed to be “saved”. Then I noticed the other men, and the t-shirts bearing the name of some man who has a “worldwide outreach ministry.” Street evangelism. Cold turkey street evangelism. I wanted to observe for a while, but didn’t want to be evangelized myself, so I pulled out my cell phone and pretended to be in conversation as I watched the drama. Anyone who would take a paper, or stop for a moment to talk, was told that they needed to get “saved”. Not one person showed any interest , and the response of most ranged from irritation to anger. As I watched, I recalled having tried this form of evangelism in my youth, and also recall being equally ineffective. I still believe that to follow Jesus means to make disciples (of Jesus), or as Jesus also put it, to be fishers of men. And while I admire the conviction and the courage of these men, and their willingness to take verbal abuse, I am not sure this is what Jesus intended. And yes, I know that some people do come to faith in Jesus through cold turkey in your face evangelism. It’s just that I cannot recall any examples of Jesus doing this in his travels. It seems as though the “confrontational approach” was reserved for the religious. I had sensed Jesus at work among the poor at St.Joe’s that morning. I wasn’t sure he was present at the corner of Broadway and Waverly.

As I continued on to the subway, I had not gone 10 steps before I saw a man sitting on the steps of a building with the familiar cup out for spare change, and words scrawled on cardboard asking for help. What Jesus might do in this situation seemed clear. I pulled out a $5 bill, put it in his cup and as I turned away I said “I wish I could do more.” Immediately, a voice in my head, I presume it was God, said, “Oh, you could do more.” I turned back and read his sign- all of it, and sat down and asked him what was going on. Nathaniel has been stranded in the city for two months. Something about a girlfriend being why he came here, and that not working out, being kicked out, no job, no money, and no way back to Charleston, SC. And his family had told him not to go after this girl, but he wouldn’t listen. So he made his bed, they said, and now he can lie in it. Except he doesn’t have a bed.

For nearly 2 months he has been trying to raise bus fare. He has been chased away many times for panhandling. He makes enough to eat and get subway fare so he can sleep on the subway cars- but not enough to get ahead and get home. As we talked, I tried to image that since June, he has been in this city trying to get about $100 to get home, and he is still here. So I asked him if he would go with me, right then, to the Port Authority, and let me buy him a ticket to Charleston, and get on the bus. At first he didn’t take me serious. But once he understood that I intended to get him on that bus today, we headed off to the subway that would take us to the Greyhound Station. (BTW, Communitas has a benevolence fund to help out in situations like this- so I am not suggesting that this involved any personal sacrifice on my part.)

As we traveled on the N Train, a thought came to me. Nathaniel had sat all morning within a few yards of the street preachers. Did they come and talk to him? So I asked him. Nope. Now, I know I am judging my brothers, but I how else am I to think about it? I reviewed the scene in my mind as I rode along with Nathaniel. “You need to get saved…” the voice proclaims. “I need help getting home to my family” the sign proclaims. And somehow, the connection is never made.

As we waited in line at the Port Authority and then made our way to the Gate 75, where the bus will depart NYC heading for Charleston at 4:45 PM, we had a conversation about many things, including God. Maybe I didn’t say enough. I did not tell him he needed to get saved. Instead, I told him who Jesus was to me, and what he has done to change my life. He spoke of a hunger for God, and I encouraged him to pursue that- that God had a desire for him. It was a far different exchange than the conversations about Jesus I eavesdropped on a hour or so earlier. As we parted and I made my way home, I asked Jesus to reveal himself to Nathaniel in the days ahead…perhaps on the 23 hour bus trip.

Tonight as I write these words I am not sure how to interpret or think about these events. In the morning, I served the poor, but more or less anonymously. I did not have one spiritual conversation, but I loved them in Jesus’ name by serving them. Then I witnessed sincere men trying to talk to people in the street about Jesus, with what I would call disastrous results. And finally, in the afternoon, I came face to face with a man in crisis- and rather than just dropping a few bills in his cup and continuing on (which is what I typically do- to be honest, I don’t usually feel comfortable trying to talk with the homeless- it’s easier to just give money), I was prodded by God to connect with him. And that connection provided a context to have a conversation about Jesus.

Maybe this is it. This man needed to be saved- to be rescued, on several levels. And they all mattered to God. Perhaps the most effective way to introduce people to God’s love is to first understand what “salvation” means in terms of their present circumstances, and to offer “salvation” on all levels that addresses all the ways a person might need to be saved.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Art of Complaining

Most Wednesday evenings I meet with a couple of new friends I have made here in New York. It is always a lively discussion covering a variety of topics including pop culture, philosophy, religion, economics, politics, literature, entertainment, etc. We are literally all over the map as we exchange thoughts and personal analysis.

I should explain that my friends are a bit younger than me- actually, being in their 20’s I realize that I could be their dad. So far they have been respectful, refraining from calling me things like “pops” or “gramps” (at least to my face). I actually think the generational mix, combined with coming from Jewish, Catholic and Baptist backgrounds respectively makes our discussion more interesting.

Last night we sat in an enclosed balcony on a 15th floor apartment and talked for 2 hours as my friends shared a hookah, which is glass-based water pipe for smoking. (Don’t worry- it was just tobacco). I’ve never been around one, though I’ve seen them in movies, usually set in exotic places somewhere considerably east of here. Somehow, the device increased the sense that we were being deeply intellectual!

For a good part of the evening we talked about all of the technological improvements which have (supposedly) given us a better quality of life- things like AC, cell phones, and the world at our fingertips via the internet. And we also reflected on whether all of these things have made us more content, happy, grateful…or less so. That led to a discussion of an inclination to live with a sense of entitlement, and with that a propensity to complain. The key idea was that our expectations for life have risen over the past decades (or century) so that we have become increasingly dissatisfied with our lives. At this point, the discussion was not focused on “people out there”, but on ourselves.

One indication of high expectations, and a sense that things ought to be a certain way, is complaining. When I complain it reveals that I believe that things should be different than they are (for me), and when they are not to my liking, it is intolerable. I should not have to put up with this!!

The apostle Paul wrote that we should do all things without complaining… (Phil 2:14). At the end of the evening, I proposed an experiment. Over the next week I would try to pay attention to every complaint that passes my lips, or even occupies my thinking. Just how pervasive is this in my life?

Here’s my list so far- things I complained about:

• The slow internet
• An increase in our phone bill
• The crowded sidewalk
• How poorly I slept
• Our air conditioning
• The weather

These are the ones I am aware of- in about 8 hours of waking time.

I have been complaining about that last one a lot this week. NYC is in the midst of a heat wave- 5 days in a row now in the 90’s. And when it is hot here, it is really hot with all of the concrete and buildings. And I don’t like the heat. The subway platforms have to be 110 degrees.

This morning I went for a run along the East River early before the day really heated up. I knew when I got home it would take a long time to cool down because our air conditioning is not working as well as it should. I thought complaining thoughts about it for about ½ a mile before I became aware of what I was doing. As I ran, I noticed the homeless men who live along the river- trying to find some shade from the brutal sun. And I was running with thoughts in my mind about our stupid air conditioning that costs too much and doesn’t keep our apartment cool enough, I was not thinking at all that at least I had a place to live. Absent was any gratitude that, unlike these men, I have a place to come in out of the heat- a bed to sleep in, a refrigerator that keeps my food cold. Imagine if I stopped to talk with one of them. When asked how things are going, what if I complained to them about the weather and my poorly functioning and expensive to use AC? Not sure I’d get a lot of empathy.

So far, catching myself complaining has been good in that it immediately turns my thoughts to gratitude instead. Last night in our discussion, one of my friends said that he gave up complaining several years ago, and that it literally changed his life. Every day that he is alive, he said, is a good day. Hard things and discomfort come, but that doesn’t mean he turns a blind eye to all the good that is in his life.

Exchanging complaining for gratitude seems like a pretty good, and perhaps indeed a life-changing proposition. Maybe especially for those around me who have to endure my complaining. At least they haven’t yet complained to me about it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

NYC or Beulah

I returned yesterday from a two week vacation in a remote place in Northern Michigan. It is hard to believe that I have lived in New York City for a year now. As our family made the trip back “home”, I anticipated that there would be some culture shock. Other than a stint in Southern California for seminary when I was in my early 20’s, I have lived my entire life in Michigan prior to this move to NYC. That meant that last year, no matter how many trips to the city I made in advance, no matter how much I read about, studied, and tried to anticipate our new life in an urban and diverse setting, I was in for some major culture shock- and I was not disappointed. The people, the noise, the constant activity and busyness- it was life on steroids. Much of the time I loved it- I have always thrived on some degree of chaos. There were also times that first year when I thought I would lose my sanity- what was left of it, if I couldn’t get out of the city.

All these thoughts filled my mind as we drove to the major metropolis of Beulah, Michigan- population 450. This would be the 49th year of our family reunion on Crystal Lake, the first without my dad who passed away this Spring. All 27 of us spent a riotous week in and around the beautiful blue water of Crystal Lake. When my mind would drift to thoughts of my new life at 377 East 33rd Street, it seemed like a dream. I loved the sound of wind in the trees, the waves breaking on shore, the wide open spaces, the glorious stars at night as we sat around the campfire. New York City seemed like not another city in the same country, but more like alien life on a distant planet.

The two weeks went by quickly and in a blink I was on I-80 heading back to my new life in NYC. I discovered in those two weeks how much I liked and missed my old life. A certain melancholy and sadness settled over us as we continued east, leaving family and lakes and boats and grass and stars behind. I knew I was facing culture shock again.

I woke up in New York on Sunday morning and headed out to grab some milk and other post vacation essentials. I no longer grabbed for my keys to drive to the market as I had the past two weeks- it was a walk on 32nd Street to Third Avenue- a bit different than a stroll down Main Street in Beulah. But one similarity this morning was the quiet. Where were the people? The noise? It’s 9:00 AM and the streets were relatively quiet. Then I recalled that it was Sunday. New Yorkers observe their day of rest. God may not be a part of it, but is the one day when the streets of Manhattan, other than the tourist areas, have a relative quiet and peacefulness.

On my return, a friend asked me an interesting question. What percentage of me wanted to remain in Michigan and not return to NYC? There was not an easy answer to that question. In some respects, 100% of me would take Beulah over New York. But I am in New York in response to God’s call. Would I have liked a call to start a church in Beulah? Probably. And with a population of 450, if we could reach 10% of the population, the church would be 45 people. If we could reach 10% of the population of NYC, it would be 850,000. Or if we were content with just reaching 10% of Manhattan, that would be 180,000. That’s not going to happen. That is why God is raising up many people to start churches in NYC. And the quiet streets on a Sunday morning reminded me of the need, as did the jammed subway car later in the day. There is a church planting movement in this area with a goal of starting 50 new churches a year- that’s nearly one a week. The task of Jesus vision for this city is enormous to say the least.

So, I am reminded that Beulah, Michigan, which is just as important to God as any place on earth, probably has all the churches it needs to reach its 450 people. The same is not true of NYC. That’s why he tapped me on the shoulder for New York and not Beulah.

As I adjust again to the noise, the congestion, the 100+ degree temperatures I faced this morning waiting on a subway platform (with vivid images of sailing on Crystal Lake fresh in my mind!!) I know why I am here, and I am glad I am here.

By the way, don’t be surprised if God calls you to come to New York, the greatest city in the world, to join in the work Jesus is doing- to start a new church, or help us with Communitas. We could use the help!