Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A New Home for Oaks

God has given Oaks of Righteousness a new home.

Oaks now owns the former St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in North Troy and its sturdy brick rectory to the south -- just a half a block from our current rental location in the old M&M Diner (where we've been since 2012). We plan to transplant our ministry into the remodeled rectory building and to give the church building -- which is far too big for us to handle -- to a local philanthropist who plans to repurpose it to bless the community.

Meanwhile, we finally get to tell you incredible God-story about how this has taken place. You may want to sit down.

It all began with the faithfulness of a little church across the river from us. Beginning as far back as 2013, Mother Hannah Mudge and I began asking God for a bigger building -- we were often crammed with wall-to-wall kids (making it hard to play, serve food, and simultaneously teach Bible classes), and it proved to be tough to convince adults to worship God in an old diner. In June 2014, God answered our prayer through the faithfulness of Trinity Church Watervliet.

The parishioners at Trinity have a deep commitment to giving and outreach. Fifteen percent of every dollar that enters their coffers goes right back out the door to bless others. So, when the parish received a generous bequest from a parishioner who went to be with the Lord, they asked God where the roughly $100,000 tithe/offering should go. God told them. Just imagine our surprise and joy when Fr. Marty Wendell called us out of the blue and said, "Our parish would like to buy you a building."

Our building search began. We limited our search to the local neighborhood, not wanting to lose any of our parishioners (many of whom are children and/or are without cars). The result? No luck. Month after month of dead ends. We searched foreclosure lists, called realtors, prayed and prayed again.

Finally, we shared our frustration with Bishop Love. He suggested we give the owners of the closed-down charter school a call, just to test the waters on what they might charge us. The school was once owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, so I gave them a call. Found out they'd sold the school.

"While I have you on the phone, I wondered if you'd be interested in what you'd ask to sell us the rectory of St. Patrick's," I said.

For a good price, I was told, although I'd have to take the church building along with the rectory. Both properties for, say...$100,000?

I was floored by the price. Thought and prayed about it all day, on and off. Ended up that night at a session of School of Healing Prayer I was taking at the time. We all began to discuss how we wished there were more places, outside of a traditional worship service, where people could access prayer. Like an urban prayer center, right on the bus line. One of my classmates said she wished Oaks could accommodate such a center. I said pray for it -- we're looking for a new building.

"How about St. Patrick's?" our instructor said, with a smile. He was joking, but I stared at him. Before I could tell him about the phone call I'd made earlier that day, another classmate piped up: "Yeah, what ABOUT St. Patrick's? I was on the front steps of that church two nights ago, praying with others that God would re-open it for his glory."

Stunned, I shared with my class what was going on. We prayed. And, days later, Hannah and I shared with some local intercessors what was going on. We prayed again. One of our intercessors said, "Let's be bold." And right there, she asked God for another $100,000 to do repairs to the rectory. I thought she was a little nuts.

We toured the properties. The rectory was so perfect, it was like it was made for us. Room for a chapel. Room for designated youth space. For food space. For offices and a meeting room. For prayer rooms. For living quarters. The church? Structurally pretty great, but a big, very expensive mess inside. We were deeply discouraged and figured the deal was off.

Then, the Roman Catholic Diocese called me. They explained they couldn't separate the properties -- we still had to take the rectory and church together. But, they would "sweeten the deal" because of the longstanding goodwill between our Diocese and theirs.

"How about we give you both properties for free?"

And, in that instant, the hutzpah of our intercessor was rewarded. We could have the rectory building with $100,000 from Trinity that could all go to much-needed remodeling and repair. We told the bishop and went to our Trustees. But, there was still the big, beautiful, expensive mess of a church that we couldn't take on.

Then, one afternoon outside Oaks Cafe as Mother Hannah was giving one our kids a talking-to, a man she'd never met walked up and asked if she was the one looking at St. Patrick's. Because, he wanted the church.

And so, we met our philanthropist. As we discussed the terms of handing the church over to him, I admitted one qualm -- I envied his bells. I wished we had a bell like the glorious old bells in St. Patrick's to ring each Sunday and let people know God is alive in the neighborhood.

"Oh," he said nonchalantly. "I have a bell. Would you like it?" Apparently, our philanthropist has an unused church bell that he is willing to donate to Oaks, along with a big metal Celtic cross to hang outside the rectory. Which works pretty well since we're tentatively planning on christening the new chapel in the Oaks building "St. Patrick's" in gratitude for the faithful Christians who have gone before us in this neighborhood.

That, friends, is the story. One final note.

Negotiating the transferral of the buildings took several months, and Mother Hannah and I got discouraged. This is how God encouraged us:

In July, we were doing a Sunday morning Bible study of Joseph and were discussing his dreams. We asked our parishioners if they've ever had dreams from God. The next day, one of the teens from that study told us, "Hey, I had one of those dreams you were talking about yesterday. I just don't know what it means."

This teen, who knew nothing of our plan, dreamed about the big stone church across from her house (St. Patrick's). She had a dream people were inside, singing praises to God. She climbed up to one of the high, broken windows and looked in.

"There weren't many people in there," she said. "But they were LOUD."

Even if we are few in number, may our Lord Jesus Christ use us and those who come after us, that our sound may go out into all lands and our message to the ends of the world! Soli Deo Gloria.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Songs in Exile

People ask a lot how Oaks is going. I don't ever know how to answer that question. But here's a little snapshot of my own thoughts as we have journeyed through Advent and Christmas.


There has never been an Advent in which I understood so well the words to O Come, O Come Emmanuel. We sang that hymn the week following all of the riots and protests and racism demonstrations. I realized afresh the depravity of my own heart and that of the world around me. My heart was already broken by the world I live in - the world my kids live in - and then we sang.

    O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
    that mourns in lonely exile here
    until the Son of God appear.

Oh God, come and save us. Save us from our brokenness. Save us from our sin. Save my kids from the path that our twisted world has laid out for them. Save them from the expectation of poverty and discrimination and prison and death and abuse and drugs and violence. Put right the wrongs that are done to them, whether physically or mentally. Put right our thinking and our society. Bring justice to our class divisions and our city divides and our racial biases. Bring your love and your peace to our streets. Bring fairness to our police and courts. Break the death that inhabits our streets. Bring your kingdom - bring us back from exile.


The next week, someone threatened some of our kids with a gun while sledding.

The next week, my friend died.

The Sunday before Christmas, I ended up preaching a sermon about exile. The readings were about David and God's promise to build him a kingdom and a house that would last forever. And while that is a message of hope, it is also a promise that seems to be in stark contrast to the world around me sometimes. Terrible things happen. Cancer kills. People get shot on the corner. We are in exile. Waiting for our king to come back.

 That Sunday, we sang these words:

    Though I am small, my God my all
    you work great things in me.
    And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
    to the end of the age to be.
    Your very name puts the proud to shame
    and to those who would for you yearn
    you will show your might, put the strong to flight
    for the world is about to turn.

    My heart shall sing of the day you bring
    let the fires of your justice burn.
    Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near
    and the world is about to turn.

God is not done here. He will come. He will put things right. He is doing it.


But now, I understand our exile more. This year in North Central, Christmas was a celebration. It was also a raw cry to the living God to come and save. Come and break death.

36 kids and adults worshiped together - families whose members have murdered one another, who bully one another, who have maimed each other, who were baptized together. And we all acted out the Christmas story together. And we all prayed together for God's kingdom to come - for God to come and save us. And they all clapped and thumped and stomped a beat together as we sang:

    Rank on rank the hosts of heaven
    spreads its vanguard on the way
    as the Light of Lights descendeth
    from the realms of endless day;
    that the powers of hell may vanish
    as the darkness clears away.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tiny Redemptions from Great Tragedies

Many things have happened recently...a teenage boy we knew stabbed to death at a party, a man from the local halfway house asking for a Bible study, confirmation classes, interactions with drug dealers, prayer, money for a new building, so very many baptism classes.

This summer, I have seen two striking and tiny incidents of God taking evil and turning it into little sprouts of good.


A boy was stabbed. He's been in the cafe a few times, but he was the best friend of many of our regulars. Many of our boys vowed to kill the boy who stabbed him. One saw him when he was dead before the police took over the scene. It was "his first dead body."

Earlier this week, one of the older boys was encouraging a tiny boy to beat up on a tinier boy in the cafe. I kicked the older boy out for a bit, but decided that since everyone thought it was so funny, it needed some further discussion.

So the next day, when he was doing something similar, I pulled him aside and said, "Look. I know it's funny to watch little kids try to fight, but it's only one step from teaching them to fight one another to one of them winding up stabbed at a party. And I don't want that for them. I don't want that for you."

And he heard me. I think that's the first thing he's actually heard that I've said to him in a year. And he stopped. I just pray that some day the voice he hears will be God's.


The other incident happened today. I have been teaching a lot of baptism classes recently (6 this week!) and one thing that we have consistently struggled with is the Sermon on the Mount - specifically with regards to understanding persecution and generosity.

Today, the persecution of Christians in Iraq was burning on my heart, so I told three of the girls about it and how even little kids were being killed for following Jesus. We talked for a bit about it, and one of the girls asked why they didn't just say they weren't Christians.

"Well," I answered, "Which would you choose? Heaven and eternity with God, or living a little longer?"

"Yeah...I'd pick God," she said.

We then went around the circle and prayed for them all and for their protection, something they have never done before...praying for someone they never met. Afterwards, I told them that I was going to send some money to someone I knew who was helping the people who had escaped from being killed and had no food or clothes or blankets. I asked if they wanted to also. Now, these kids occasionally get a dollar to get something from the store. They don't have much to work with, and generosity is a completely foreign concept. One of the girls is quite proud of the fact that she never gives anything to anyone.

So I offered them an option. We usually have them do cleaning jobs and put it in a little notebook of "Oaks Credit:" $2 for a 15 minute job. I told them I could take some of their credit money and send it to the people in Iraq. After all, which is more important: a brownie, or someone's life?

One of the girls decided she wanted to do jobs all afternoon, and just keep 50 cents for herself for next week. Her sister decided she was going to do a sidewalk sale of some of her toys because she wanted to send more money than just her credit. And, most miraculously of all, my little tightwad even contributed a dollar of her earnings.

There is so much deep and abiding tragedy in this situation with our brothers and sisters in Iraq. But across the globe, God is using it to teach three little city girls about what really matters, to the tune of $10 of love in a selfish world.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Faith and Impudence

I was asked recently, "Is there anything you have asked God for that he has not given you?"

I thought about it for a minute and answered, "No."

Faith is knowing God. Faith is knowing God to be so good, so loving and so powerful that there is not a moment of hesitation in our thoughts that God may not do what we ask when we are aligned with his will. Faith is remembering and expecting.

I forget, and therefore, I doubt.

I need to share these stories of faith so that I do not forget, and so that we all can be encouraged in our faith when there are no visible signs of God at work. This is why God told Israel to celebrate all those festivals in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy: to remember who God is by celebrating what he has done.

Because there is nothing God has not given me that I have asked for - nothing hinders me except my own doubt and reluctance to throw myself all in and give up control. But faith remembers and gives control to God. And once faith remembers, it asks impudently. Faith makes outrageous requests, just like Jesus tells us to in Luke 11.

God can do anything. And when I ask, he gives. Simple as that. Not always as quickly as I would like, but he has never failed. So here is a list of remembrances that he has given me in the past 5 years:

- Permission to start the ministry in Troy
- Ordination
- A people in North Central
- A ministry partner - actually, many ministry partners
- The cafe building
- My cat came back after 2 weeks on the streets
- Money to quit my job and do ministry full time
- Friends
- Megablocks, etc.
- An altar
- A foosball table
- Finances for 4 years of ministry
- The middle-school girls
- The kid that I baptized
- An apartment
- A car
- Money to complete my STM degree
- The teenage boys in the park
- The adult community in North Central
- Beaver Cross scholarships for 10 kids
- Money for a new building to accommodate the growing ministry
- Now I am asking for the building

God has told us to ask for the city of Troy. I look at that list and wonder how I can think that is impossible. This blog exists so that we can all remember who God is. So, let's remember and ask. Boldly. Impudently. Without ceasing. And remembering the lavish, abundance of God's goodness to those who surrender to him.
[I thought I published this months ago, but apparently it never went through. Apologies]

North Troy is a neighborhood without fathers.

Amid the drugs, despair, poverty, gangs and anger, we constantly see children and teens who don't know the faithful, loving presence of a father in their lives.

So we tell them about The Father. The Good Father, who isn't like the fathers or mothers they've known. We tell them the story of the Prodigal Son enfolded in the Father's arms. We tell them so they can know the Father and become true fathers and mothers in the next generation.

There's a 7-year-old boy at Oaks who's preparing for baptism. His dad is in prison, and we see him struggle with turned-in anger and telling the truth. But, he has heard of The Father.

One Saturday during dinner, a few boys asked me why I always wear a crucifix. This little boy piped up, "I know why!"

I smiled at him. "Why?"

He said with beautiful confidence, "You wear it so you remember that God is your Real Father."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Mentor is Mentored

Today, I team mentored a couple of boys from our neighborhood -- boys we've baptized at Oaks.

I had a teaching task ahead of me today -- these kids, a few times, have barged in and out of the Eucharist, interrupted everyone else's worship, and demanded communion. So the mentoring goal today was to teach them that worship is about honoring God and being fed by Word and Sacrament -- not just about the bread and wine isolated from everything else.

I began by saying, "You guys are baptized. Why did you get baptized?" I steeled myself to hear, "So we can drink the wine" -- a common initial motivation for the kids who request baptism.

Instead, their responses humbled me. "To have God live in me." "To follow Jesus."

Then I asked them to describe what we do in worship. Their answers: Pray. Eat the bread and wine. Sing praise to Jesus (here they sang a spontaneous medley of about five worship songs we do, including the Sanctus). Hear the Bible stories.

And did they know the Bible story about the bread and wine? They did -- it's about when Jesus was about to die. "It's Jesus' blood, the wine." "The bread is his body." And they pulled out our comic book Bibles and opened right to the story of the crucifixion. We talked about what it meant to remember him. And the point I wanted to make? It was made.

But my little brothers in Christ taught me today. I learned another lesson in perseverance.

Discouragement is a constant temptation in the ministry at Oaks. We work very hard, and we don't often see what the Lord is doing in the hearts of our people. It is tempting to think we're not making a difference. But the Lord condescends to my weak faith, and he sometimes gives me a morning like this morning -- to show me he's done more in the hearts of these two boys than I could ask or imagine.

Who but God can say what's he's done in the hearts of his people?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Is Jesus glorified when we only seem to be making burritos?

Sometimes, Oaks Cafe is nearly empty. We'll have five adult volunteers hanging out with two kids. But those times are getting more and more rare.

Yesterday afternoon, we had the opposite scenario. A couple of adult volunteers and 45 people (mostly kids) coming through our little building in a 2 1/2 hour period.

It was pandemonium. Little kids racing around and playing with toys. Teens congregated on the window sills, playfully trash talking and flirting and occasionally picking a real fight. A cluster of kids around a table with coloring books. And a roving army of kids of all ages, following us around and firing off questions: Why isn't my burrito done yet? Where's my brownie? Why won't you move jobs back to Friday instead of Wednesday? Why isn't there a hip hop concert tonight? Why haven't you put out more apples yet? Can I play the guitar?

And so on.

On days like this, I feel like a mish-mash of a cop, a day care worker and a short order cook. One moment I'm in the back, mixing more burrito filling together. The next, I'm getting someone a glass of water or saying, "Please watch your language" or wedging myself onto the window sill in between the teens to keep a small riot from breaking out. Some of the time, in my better moments, I'm quietly praying under my breath.

And I'll admit, I find myself asking: Why am I doing this again? Is Jesus visible in the middle of this madness? Where is the gospel being seen or heard in this place?

Yesterday, a teen who isn't in much answered this question for me. She shook her head and said, "How on earth do you do this? I couldn't. These kids are rude. They never say please or thank you."

And I said, with all my heart, "Only by the grace of God."

She said, "I guess. You gotta know Jesus to be able to do this."

And there it was. Jesus getting the glory, in the middle of the crazy. Doesn't that make an entire day worth it? And weren't there other moments -- little stolen moments when I managed to pat a kid on the shoulder, call them by name, ask how their day was?

And then there was the 5-minute prayer service at the end of the day, when 8 of us stayed behind to sing and hear a Bible story on Jesus searching for the 1 sheep in 99.

"He would look for the 1," one of the kids said with confidence. "He counts all of them to make sure he doesn't lose any, and he looks for any that get lost."

That he does.