Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Whatever You Do, NEVER Do This in New York

Rickshawing our way up busy 6th Avenue.
That's Radio City Music Hall up ahead.
Having lived and worked in New York back in the late 90s, I'm well aware of that sucking sound the city makes as it wraps its big fat lips around your wallet. I had no expectations that our 26-hour stay would be on the cheap. But this? This was something I didn't even see coming.

We were sauntering up 6th Avenue, somewhere between 49th and 50th St. With backpacks, shopping bags and 3 kids in tow, we must have looked a bit like the children of Israel wandering through the wilderness. I was unsuccessfully attempting to hail a cab (clearly, I have lost my touch). Sam just kept looking at me, then asked, "Dad, why do you keep holding your arm out when cabs drive by?" I was about to give up when a Palestinian man rode up on a 3-wheeled bicycle.

"You want ride?"

I squinted in disbelief that he would even ask.

"What's the fare?" I asked.

He didn't speak, but only pointed down to a white sticker affixed just under a soft black pleather bench. It was about wide enough to hold 3 adults. The first line of text on the sticker said something about $5, then there were a few more lines I didn't really read.

We had fully planned and promised to take the kids in a real New York City cab. I knew the cabs all took plastic. This guy clearly didn't have a card reader on his glorified rickshaw with hand brakes. But I knew I had an envelope in my backpack with about $20 in one dollar bills. Joy and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and piled ourselves, our bags and our kids onto this little thing, smack dab in the middle of everything.

We went right up 6th Avenue, which is at least a 4-lane road. As the sun beat down, traffic was moving like cold maple syrup. We smiled as this guy showed amazing skill weaving us in and out of taxis, limousines, delivery trucks and charter buses. Yes, inches from charter buses. At times, he would even make 90-degree turns to go between cars and into a more open lane.

Here we are - blissfully ignorant,
just minutes before the hammer fell
At one red light, he turned around and said, "I take picture for you?" I handed him my iPhone and he jumped off the bike. We were wedged diagonally between 2 cabs, and here was our bicycle driver standing in the middle of the street taking our photo with a big smile on his face.

The ride was equally horrifying and thrilling. You have to understand, this guy did not have rear view mirrors. And he rarely EVER looked back when he changed lanes. He would even throw out his hand at cabbies and scowl at them as if to say, "Stay back. I own this lane."

This is where my mood changed.

We turned left onto 54th. Our hotel was 3 blocks down on West 54th. But if you know anything about New York City geography, you know that 1) the east/west blocks are LONG blocks, and 2) the strip of 54th between 7th and 9th is almost all uphill. We had a ways to go, and it was not going to be an easy ride with all this payload.

Our cabbie, er, bikey, stood up on his pedals, downshifted and pumped up the hill, his lean legs dipping, and sweat dripping off his nose. It was then that I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach. Would my $20 (if I even have that much) be enough to cover this guy's fare?

As he scaled that hill with all his might, the 5 of us and our gear making his leg muscles burn like fire, I considered asking him to drop us off short of the hotel. I kept scoping the streets for an ATM. I kept smiling, but inside I was thinking this had to be the dumbest thing I had ever done.

At one light on 54th, he turned around again. "Hotel is between 9th and 10th. Right up there."

OK, I thought. Not far now. Breathe, Scott.

As we approached the hotel, he cut the wheel into an empty stretch of curb on the opposite side of the street, just in front of a black limo. He helped us unload ourselves, and our gear, onto the wide sidewalk.

That's when I asked.

"So. What's the fare?"

Again, he pointed to the sticker, as if it were easy to understand.

"So what do I owe you?" I said, this time a little slower.

He stared into space for a second, doing math in his head.

"For this number of blocks, would be 50 per person. But for you, with children, I only charge for 3 people."

"You said 15 per person, right?"

"No. Fifty."

This is where I almost blew chunks.

"One hundred fifty dollars?!?!"

"Yah yah."

Holy Schnikeys.

I pulled the envelope out of my backpack, hoping for a loaves and fishes moment where the dollar bills just keep multiplying themselves. I counted 20, and looked up. "Look, I'm going to need to go in and see if the hotel has an ATM." He nodded as I sprinted into the lobby, leaving my family and all our gear behind.

In God's kind providence, an ATM stood in a little alcove right inside the entrance. I took out $140, shaking my head the whole time. Within seconds, I was holding out $150 to the pedaling Palestinian, who had just scored a major sale. He wished us well and sped back up 54th.

Speechless, I gathered up the gear and led everyone back into the hotel lobby to check in. The nice lady at the desk said, "Well, it looks like you already paid for your room when you made your reservation. Do you plan to use any of our amenities?"

"No, oh no," I said. "No thanks. That'll be all."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Musings from a Moving Train

As I type this, I'm barreling along at about 120 miles per hour. At 9:45 am, we boarded in Saratoga Springs, NY. Amtrak 261, also known as the Ethan Allen, is snaking me and my family south along picturesque pine forests along the Hudson River, which looks like a choppy expanse of chocolate milk. In a couple of hours, we will step onto a platform in New York's Penn Station, where a fun-filled day awaits.

I just had one of the most exciting games of checkers ever with my 9-year-old boy. Joy and I love making these kinds of memories with the kids. I'm sure they will never forget the summer we took the train to the big city.

While the kids now stare out the window at the green blur of nature, between Nintendo DS duels with green monsters, I find myself with some time to reflect on more serious things.

Back home, the church search awaits. We're still rolling the dice each Sunday, looking listlessly for a new core of Christians who will welcome us, and with whom we can give our all to serve. I know God will work that all out. But at this moment, I feel like I'm staring at a closet full of ill-fitting garments.

I was once a pastor, albeit in a bi-vocational capacity. Even though it was very hard, I still have a lingering sweet taste for what it felt like: wrapping my arms around the hurting, bearing long with those who were battling sin, teaching God's Word week in and week out, and watching new Christians grow in grace.

Pastoring is by no means a romantic or enviable office. Its fruit grows far slower than we would want it to. It is not glamorous, or good for the ego. But it was something I earnestly enjoyed for the 5 difficult years I did it.

The thought has crossed my mind to invite some of the others who left our church to our home for a Bible study. Most of them are feeling the same sense or futility about their own church search. We have been praying together for the Lord to bring us to whatever new church is best for each of us. But I keep wondering if I am somehow part of our collective future.

The thought makes me tremble. I love to communicate Gods truth, but I love the Bible perhaps more than I understand it. I know it has unmeasurable power to change people when it is unleashed. Churches are tying it down and binding it with man-made rules. And in the process, they're tethering their people to terrestrial hopes that will be eaten by moths within their lifetime. People are gathering around a wooden kitchen match to get warm, trading the white hot warmth of God's glory for passing fancies.

We're almost to Manhattan, so I need to wrap this up.

Unlike this train ride, I have no idea what our destination will be for this church search. But like this train ride, I didn't build the tracks. I have to commit my spirit into the hands of the Builder, who has Redeemed my very life. Surely He will carry me to my next stop.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Church Search Chronicles: On Saying Goodbye

'Letters Play Important Roles in our Lives' photo (c) 2010, William Arthur Fine Stationery - license: the most difficult part of this church change has been knowing what—and how much—to say when people from our previous church reach out to us.

I've been in their shoes plenty of times. People leave quietly. Life gets busy. You don't immediately notice they're gone because of so many variables like vacations, ministry responsibilities and different service times. 

Sometimes, tragically, a month or two can go by before you realize that a fellow member is gone. As soon as it hits you, you get this dull ache in the pit of your stomach. You suddenly realize that something must have been wrong for a long time. They've been agonizing over their situation in the shadows, and you had no idea. What went wrong? This isn't how church should be.

This time, I find myself on the other end of that dynamic. Our last Sunday was about a month ago, and the email, calls and Facebook messages are starting to trickle in. We're grateful for their concern, but it's hard to know exactly what to say. So many questions swirl around in my mind: How do we maintain the relationships we have with everyone in the wake of this, without dragging them into the details? How do we assure them that this was a well-thought-out decision, without divulging the specific disagreements we had? How do we say it in a way that doesn't cast doubt in their mind about whether they should stay? Should we say anything at all?

This morning, something happened that I wish happened more often. I woke up at 5:59am with a fully composed message in my mind. I didn't ask God for it, and He didn't speak it to me. But it's the message I've needed to say to everyone in our little church who may have been wondering where we were—and even those who hadn't yet asked.

I sent it out, in individual messages, to everyone I could think of at our former church with whom we hadn't directly spoken. I've decided to share it here, since several of you have contacted me who are in the same situation in your own church across the country, or the world. I hope you find it helpful as you struggle to find the right parting words for those you love so dearly in your former church. I have removed any proper names.

One last word of advice: if you are not emotionally in a place where these words are true of you, wait until it is true of you to send it. For me, it took about a month to arrive at a place where I could honestly say everything in it.

* * * * *

Dear [name],

By now you are probably well aware that we have been absent from [our church] for a few weeks now. Having been in your shoes—watching people leave a church and wondering what happened to them—I wanted to reach out to you so you don’t wonder what happened to us, or where our relationship with you stands.

Our reason for leaving centered very closely around [brief and general statement of reason], which we attempted to reconcile in the [number of weeks/months] leading up to our decision to leave. It had nothing to do with you, or anyone outside of this situation. Realizing that leaving [our church] meant leaving regular fellowship with you was what made our decision the most difficult.

Please know that even though we are no longer at [our church], we still love you very much, and think of you often. We hold no grudges or bitterness or animosity toward you, or toward the leadership. We want to stay in touch, but will leave all contact to your discretion right now given the sensitivity of the situation. If you see us in the store, at a wedding or funeral, or anywhere else at any point in the future, you can be sure that we will be as glad as ever to greet you with open arms.

Times like these give us a greater longing for heaven, where we will all be reunited in perfect fellowship at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. We would have hoped to continue that foretaste of fellowship with you on this side of glory, but we realize that these things happen for a reason. God is still on His throne when people decide it is time to leave a church. He is working all things together for our good and His glory.

Please keep us in your prayers as we look for another church home. And we will continue to pray that God’s will would be done for you, and all the people at [our church], in the weeks and months ahead.

With much affection,

Scott for the Bennett family

How about you? What have you found is the right thing to say to folks at your former church? We could all benefit from your wisdom.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hello, My Daughter Died

The best bloggers to follow are those for whom an ordinary day doesn’t look anything like our own. Caleb Wilde is one such writer. A young, married, Christian husband and new father (what’s out of the ordinary, you ask?), Caleb just so happens to be a fifth generation Funeral Director in the heart of rural Pennsylvania. On his blog—Confessions of a Funeral Director—Caleb tells all kinds of rarely-heard (yet respectful) stories from the perspective of one who both knows God and deals with death on a daily basis. I highly recommend subscribing to his blog and following him on Twitter (@calebwilde). You’ll be both blown away and blessed—and at times, horrified. I’m honored to have a guest post on Caleb’s blog today. It’s a piece I wrote on Joy's blog last year about the death of our daughter, Elli, in 2008. Since many of Caleb’s readers find him by searching for answers in the wake of losing a loved one, he thought it would be particularly encouraging to them. I’m including the lead-in paragraph here, but please promise me you’ll click the "Read On" link at the end to read the rest. I have comments turned off here as well, so you can leave your comments there.

*  *  *  *

Since Elli slipped into eternity 730 days ago, my daily reflections on her life have not faded. I still fold her pink pajamas and her flowery dresses, now worn by her little sister, some still slightly discolored around the neck from Elli’s drool. I love to watch Anna run and play in those clothes. They never moved that way with Elli in them.

Friday, June 1, 2012

"In Him We Live And Move And Have Our Being"

I don’t stop often enough to ponder that I’m able to ponder my own existence.

Isn’t it a wonder that God not only gave us life and movement—but an inner sense of our own being? It’s sort of circular; our God-given sense of being is what makes pondering it possible.

It is no small feat to create something that lives, and moves. But this state of being, this awareness-of-our-awareness-of our existence—the fact that I am musing over it this very moment—is something I can’t get over.

In God, I live. Only God can create life out of nothing. Billions of cells, each one having all the complexities of a small city. Nerve endings sending billions of signals back to the brain, feeding back real-time messages of heat and cold and bitter and sweet. That’s impressive enough. But lilacs live. Labradors live. Stink bugs live. My being alive, though wondrous, is not so peculiar.

In God, I move. God could have made me a stationary soul. But no. Bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons all work in concert to perform macro and micro movements—many of them without me knowing it. But wheat fields undulate in the wind. Dunes shift. Planets spin in strictly-ordered orbits. Tides rise and recede in cadence with lunar phases. Rhythms of movement are happening all around us in predictable patterns. My moving, though wondrous, is not so peculiar.

In God, I have my being. God has graciously given me the mental capacity to ponder a situation, to contemplate a thing—to meditate on the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

I am reminded of it when I sing of His grace, and tears come to my eyes. When I pet a dog, and feel my pulse slow. When I hear a violin concerto, and the hair stands up on the back of my neck. When I smell fresh-baked bread, and my mouth waters. When I see a sunset over the ocean, and feel so small. When I ache with the physical pain that accompanies loss.

As a human being created in God’s image, it would be a gross understatement for me to say that much has been given in the gift of being. My life and my movements are dwarfed by my God-given sense of being, which He has planted in me to ponder Him anew, and respond by “singing and making melody with all my being” (Psalm 108:1).