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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

10 Days Ago imagine/Northampton Reached the End Of Its Journey.

Eight years ago, while sitting in the living room at the Center For Renewal in Simsbury with Jim LaMontagne, Catherine Chhabra, and Tricia McDermott talking excitedly about the intriguing possibility of launching a church plant, I never imagined I'd be writing today about it's unceremonious end yesterday. Eight of the ten remaining members gathered at our place for lunch to see if there was enduring interest to hang in and try again in Springfield where some of us reside. After lunch and an earnest discussion around the table, we took a vote. It was unanimous that we'd reached the end of the road.

If any of us were sad, we didn't show it particularly. There were no tears. Our numbers had been dwindling the last year or two even in Northampton. When we moved to Shutesbury in the summer of 2014 we were down to 14 people or so. We tried to gather fairly regularly, but the passion in many if not most of us seemed waning at best. No clear vision or direction flowed. While we liked being around each other, (and still do) it didn't have the spark of anticipation we were heading somewhere and it was going to be good.

I haven't had much time to let the reality of "no more" sink in. I know I was plumb out of any vision of the future toward which we'd head. Nothing sparkled or beckoned. And the church took a long break for a number of months. The Leadership Team met sparsely and our gatherings were only a few.

So I know our decision was right to call it a day. At the same time, I could never say our 8 years as a missional community was a waste. It was not! We did so much ministry I had not done before:

  • Getting to know and serving the homeless on the street: feeding them, giving them gloves, scarves, and hats, taking them to the hospital.
  • Doing the Christmas Bag Giveaway to people on the street in Noho. 
  • Having a plot at the Community Garden in Florence and giving the food to a shelter.
  • Cooking meals for the homeless at the Drop-in Center.
  • Opening our space for Halloween and having large crowds of non-Christian families attend for more than one Halloween.
  • Launching and running the imagine Art Gallery for 14 months; creating relationships with townfolks; making friends and supporting artists, including non-Christians.
  • Creating 1Flight Up, a working jazz group; performing out.
  • Having poetry readings and Deb Davis's Children's Book Reading, and a dance performance.
  • Creating and teaching the Inward-Outward Spiritual Formation Workshop 3 times.
  • Discipling bright and talented Smith Students who've gone on to continuing service in the Lord
  • Serving in September at the Smith College Ice Cream Social put on by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
  • Tricia and I counseling many individuals and couples toward healing.
  • Offering spiritual direction in and out of the Imagine community.
  • Teaching  the Scriptures and worshipping. Jim LaMontagnes's excellent and faithful teaching week in and week out, especially the Heartwood Series for Lent.
  • Putting on Feast at Easter for townspeople.
  • Participating in the Hot Chocolate 5K run in Noho.
  • Being a member of the Chamber of Commerce. The first church to do so in Northampton.
  • Purchasing and sending diapers to poor, young Native American mothers at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
  • Discipling a number of young men and women within our church.
  • The Sacred Pause Advent Reflection opportunity.
  • Pot of Grace Community meals.
  • The Place and Possibility Seminar conceived and led by Brad Davis.
  • Training up young leaders through mentoring
  • Baptizing three people. 
  • Writing the Old Man Planting Churches blog; my first blog ever.

I also need to say we had the privilege of a great team as the idea took shape in Connecticut. It began with the folks I mentioned in the first paragraph, but I must add Matt and Karen Bayne who pulled up stakes from Simsbury and also moved to Noho where they still reside. They were the first to plant the idea of a missional church at the end of a teaching I was doing. 

Our wonderful friends, Jim and Karin have stayed the course through all the ups and downs of our journey together. We couldn't have lasted this long without them. They are loving, gifted and generous people. Jim was on the Leadership Team from the beginning. We spent many a Tuesday night working on how to do what God had given us to do whether it was the next sermon series, a new missional project, how people in the church were growing or struggling, and how we could be more effective as a community of Christ-followers with people who weren't Christian. The challenges were great, even sometimes mind-boggling. Jim and Karin were a part of all we did; they supported Imagine's ministry in every way possible.

Our LT also included Kevin and Janet Williams who live in Shutesbury but trekked to Northampton each week for meetings, missional events, and Sunday Worship. Our work was made  better by their service. When it was time to leave Northampton in the later summer of 2014, they offered us a place to live at Pine Brook Camp in Shutesbury and even gave us a purebred German Shepherd puppy we named Marley who is now serving a vet through Rebuilding Warriors. Our time in Shutesbury enabled us to decompress and heal far away from the city. The Williams were the great blessing in Imagine's dedication to helping people discover and the God who is far more than they imagine. Our work together was made better by their dedication and giving spirit.

I would be shamefully remiss if I didn't mention our generous financial and prayer supporters. Some had been supporting Tricia and me as Klesis

So as we move into 2016 in Springfield,  we'll not easily forget the laughs, the tears, the praying reading, talking and doing missional ministry in Northampton. We were stretched and exasperated. We were excited and frustrated. We were fulfilled and discouraged. We were pushed out of our comfort zones and discovered fresh comfort zones. God was faithful, patient, kind, generous and always there even in our most forlorn times.

So we want to thank everyone who supported imagine/Northampton by:

  • Helping us move to Sunderland, then Armory Street, then Main Street in Noho then Shutesbury, the Springfield.
  • Donating boxes of diapers for poor native American women in North Dakota.
  • Making gloves, hats and scarves for the homeless on the street in Noho.
  • Helping fill our Annual Christmas Giveaway bags to hand out on the street.
  • Playing on the Worship Team.
  • Helping with the imagine Art gallery on Opening Night and during the weekends
  • Donating food on for Sunday Morning Worship.
  • Cleaning the carpets in Imagine's offices and worship space. 
  • Serving meals at the Drop-in Center.
  • Fixing our computer issues. 

I guess by way of ending, I am most blessed by the fact we held to and worked hard to offer the wondrous reality of grace in Christ to anyone who crossed our doors. We saw it as the normal Christian life as a Church community and as individual Christians. We didn't always get it, right that's for sure, but persisted as far as we felt we could given a particular challenge. There were times it was far beyond what others would've done.

So thank you all for praying, supporting and serving with us. Every bit mattered. Every bit.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Imagine's Chapter Two in Springfield?

I think it's helpful to see one's life journey in chapters.

After all, your life and mine are stories revealed in the flow of living from one moment  one day, one week, one month, one year, and one decade to the next until we breathe our last breath. If you've spent time looking back at your life's unfolding you can see the design of those chapters. Therefore, I think it's not too far a leap to envision the life of an organization as a design of chapters unfolding its life and work.

As some or maybe all of you know, our church imagine/Northampton moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in September. Prior, Tricia and I lived for a year in Shutesbury, a much-needed change and rest for us. When it became time to move and through series of gentle taps from God, Springfield was one of the options to choose from in our relocation. Some of you know it wasn't until three days before the moving van was to arrive to fetch all our worldly belongings did we know we'd be moving to 96 Byers Street.

We've now been here for almost 4 months. Chapter Two has had it's ups and downs:

Ups: We've been able to relocate our counseling ministry to 3 locations: Maple Ridge Community Church in Sunderland, Southwick Community Episcopal Church in Southwick, our home office in Springfield. We're profoundly grateful.

Downs: We lost some clients in moving from Northampton to Shutesbury, then from Shutesbury to Springfield. We have one car,  so scheduling Tricia's and my appointments has been tricky at times.

Ups: The church while very small has managed to stay together through all the moves.

Downs: We have not been able to settle into a groove with meeting together. We've met for fellowship in homes or going to events together, but not for worship.

Ups: There are possibilities for ministry galore, especially in the mixed-race neighborhood where we live (lot's of young families with little kids), and we're gradually extending the hand of friendship to folks.

Downs: We have no clear vision yet of how God wants our church to connect deeply with Springfield. We know we're supposed to be here, but the Holy Spirit hasn't revealed His strategic plan yet.

UpsIt's clear to us no matter how we move forward into 2016, we desire to be a multi-racial church with a multi-racial leadership. 

Downs: It's going to take a long time and win the trust of folks across the racial divide that we are serious about being a church serving everyone, no matter what racial or ethnic background someone is from.

Ups: We have the opportunity to join forces with and an existing Christian community in the city ministering for 13 years. We have much to learn from them.

Downs: There is no guarantee this will come to pass just yet.

From where I sit now, I recognize Chapter Two as a time of resettlement, praying, and discerning. This great city needs revival and we want to play a role in that along with other Christians dedicated to "freeing the captive, giving sight to the blind and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor" before He returns.We want to be servants.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

If I Knew Then What I Know Now, I'd've Developed imagine/Northampton Differently.

Hindsight: n.

The ability to understand, after something has happened, what should have been done or what caused the event. 

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

By 1841, "backsight of a firearm," from hind (adj.) + sight. Meaning "seeing what has happened" is attested by 1862, American English, (in proverbial "If our foresight was as good as our hindsight, it would be an easy matter to get rich"), probably a formation on the model of foresight.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
In the last 7 years I've many times related the story of reading Frost and Hirsch's The Shaping of Things to Come, while recuperating from my first and only bout with shingles, then inviting a group of friends from CT and MA for seven discussions around the book's intriguing main ideas. At the last discussion, a young couple came up to me and said: "If you ever do anything like what's in the book, we're in." Soon after' I realized from a conversation at one of our Worship Design Team weekly meetings at the Barn that we might actually be able to plant a church. We didn't know where, but we felt the conviction it was possible, and it went forward from there until moving to Northampton a year later.
What motivated my writing about this is the question of whether I'd've gone ahead and headed north if I knew then what I'd experience in the effort. At the very least, I may have been more prudent about the substantial challenges we'd continually be grappling with, and what it would take to succeed through them. 
From hindsight, I've picked a few of the most significant factors influencing where we are today. 
1. The need to have been better funded from the git. 
Clearly, we began the journey very underfunded. In reality, we needed 4 times as much as we raised. One of the members of the Leadership Team at the time (who subsequently chose to remain in CT) warned us repeatedly we'd run out of funds quickly if we could not grow the church soon after moving to Northampton,. He was adamant about it and he was right. Our costs were too high and we had a too small pool of donors to sustain us for very long. I was optimistic, but it was more like whistling in the dark than being prudent - the bane of rookies.
If I could roll back time and start from scratch, I'd have a much larger pool of donors and a bi-vocational job to support Tricia and I apart from the church. As soon as we moved to Noho, we were working to build a client base for counseling, inner healing and spiritual direction, but that takes time and our office space was expensive. It took months to build any sort of sustaining client base. While the church began to grow it was, and still is not anywhere big enough for full salaries, renting a space, and paying other bills. Sadly, before we left last September, we'd fallen into debt for the office. We told our landlord we would and with God's help have been able to pay him back in full. Tricia and I have a way to go with our apartment back rent, but are chipping away at it.
Money does not make ministry, but it does provide a secure base from which to operate with consistency. When it becomes a stubborn issue, the stress and anxiety which follows can deplete one's energy and divert one's focus on ministry. It was painful.

In hindsight, I would have been much more patient building the funds for what was actually needed.
2. The challenge of introversion.
Six of the eight original members of the imagine planting team from Simsbury, are introverts of varying intensity. While the lion share of introverts are not recluses or hopelessly awkward and "shy", they tend constitutionally not to voluntarily engage loads of strangers, or freely initiate and build relationships with new folks as a matter of course. They can do it, but then need plenty of down time and individual space to re-center or even recover for some.

Most church planting organizations don't pick introversion as a key ingredient for being a church planter, and for good reason. One of the challenges we encountered immediately in Northampton was having to engage as soon as we walked out our front door on Main Street. We'd often leave our comfort zones and talk to folks quite different from us. Tricia was quite bold with that. As we got to know them it became easier, but because disparate life experiences, there weren't many natural affinity connections. I found living where we lived  began to feel like a fishbowl of sorts. Remember, we lived at a Retreat Center at the back of the 40-acre church property in Simsbury. I needed a fair amount of down time to recharge to say the least.

Looking back on it now, I think we should have beat the bushes to recruit more extroverts into the leadership and the initial church planting team, especially folks with church planting experience. We had a number of gifts which suited the role, but not the outgoing/initiating connection gifts. That way we could've taken different avenues of engaging folks in a manner which fit our introverted temperaments. For me, doing so would have been less exhausting over the long haul. At the same time, I have discovered much about who I am with other people because of planting imagine. I've met people I'd never would've. I still needed to recharge after being with them, but they added value to how I see humanity; not all of them, but some. The imagineART Gallery was an exhilarating zenith for hosting strangers and connecting with interesting people of all sorts. Truth be told, I miss that.
3. Trained and equipped; the need for coaching. 

In today's church planting world there are many church planting resources including some sophisticated training and equipping models and programs. One component of the best of them is the availability of coaching. We really needed to be coached, especially through the increasingly challenging, bewildering, and painful  relationships we had with a few people.

None of us were trained as church planters, and while we were equipped to teach and counsel people in our church, we lacked the ability to identify clear, realistic goals, and then strategically press ahead with clear vision to reach them. We were visionaries, but sustained execution and follow-up was not our greatest strength and we didn't have the gifts in the church to augment ours, especially turning strategic vision into Kingdom reality. We tried, but couldn't consistently sustain iterative momentum toward what we defined as vision.

Now I recognize having a wise, knowledgeable, and deeply experienced church planting coach would have ameliorated some, perhaps most of our weaknesses, blind spots and errors. Being able to receive regular guidance from someone well-versed in the struggles inherent in planting a church in New England could've saved us some pain and re-focused our energies. A great coach calls for and builds on strengths in a disciplined manner while constantly bringing to light unnoticed weaknesses or glaring blind spots.

We poured ourselves into imagine, but a great coach would've channeled our energies and gifts toward what would offer the greatest possibility of reaching our goals in light of a crystal-clear Kingdom vision which fit us.

4. Missionaries rather than church planters?

Recently, Jim LaMontagne (he and his wife, Karin, also moved from Simsbury), one of the founders and the Teaching Catalyst at imagine had occasion to talk with someone who we knew at the Barn. This gentleman mentioned he felt we really functioned in Northampton more as missionaries than church planters. My take on it was that we spent much time serving the community at large and building relationships with folks who'd call themselves "non-believers" than focusing on growing imagine/Northampton as a church.

While, I know we saw most all we did as missional service, we also wanted to grow imagine in Northampton as a body of believers: "helping people discover and follow the God who is more than they imagine." Whether it was all the hours spent counseling, or teaching or joining the Chamber of Commerce, or opening our space to families for Halloween, or serving at the Interfaith Shelter, we desired for people to see and know Christ in us and perhaps open to Him.

So I think we were both missionaries and church planters. In hindsight, I think we need to be more deliberate about growing imagine as a church community with a clear vision and an ambitious, clear-sighted strategy to bring the Kingdom into the lives of folks desperately in need of what they don't realize. At the same time, meeting the needs of the poor, weak, sick, heavy-burdened and forgotten should always be a key facet of our mission while we exist.

5. Connecting with the musical community sooner.

While we were sitting in Simsbury dreaming of the future, I know we talked of connecting with the arts community in Northampton because so many of us were artists in one way or the other. Within the last year and a half, I've made a concerted effort to connect with the jazz community in Noho. I wish I'd done it sooner.

A few years ago, Jim, Eslie and I formed a band called One Flight Up with a guitarist in our church. We played a few gigs. Sadly, we struggled to keep it together after the guitarist left - mostly because we'd not connected with the larger musical community in the area. In 2014, I got wind of a jazz jam session every other Friday at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Northampton so I decided give it a shot and have been playing there for months. It's a gathering of people who love to play jazz. They have varying degrees of skill, but a passion for learning and playing the music they love.

From playing there, I've been able to play a couple of paying jazz gigs in the area with some good musicians. In the last two weeks, I have joined another jam session with a couple of good players.

The point is we should have connected with the musical community earlier to build relationships and get them used to being around Christ-following musicians who are real people and love the music as they do. There are opportunities to open others to our faith by simply sharing life with them and breaking down their fears and prejudices against believers (some of them deserved). Establishing credibility in areas of competence opens doors to conversation around spiritual matters because you win people's trust. Jesus changes a heart, but we soften the resistance by offering genuine friendship and care.

6. Creating and maintaining a discipling culture.

Let me begin with the reality we spent much time building relationships and helping people grow in their walk with Christ: some of that came through counseling and spiritual direction; some of it came through leadership development; some of it came through cohorts I led; some of it came through Jim's teaching, much of it came through hours of relaxed conversation over food and drink. But I have to say we didn't have a systematic discipling paradigm through which to guide them. We also didn't have analytics to measure our effectiveness. I know that seems highfalutin for such a small work as ours, but over time I've become aware of the usefulness of such tools to identify if we're actually discipling people so they are equipped to do the same with others. I regret that now.

So if I have the chance to do it over again in the days ahead I will identify and make use of the most fruitful models and tools available for helping people become disciples who are well- equipped to help others become disciples. If imagine doesn't figure out how to do this through its people who have learned how to disciple, we will carry on as we have in the past in my opinion. I think we should do it and I think with some training and retooling we can.

7. Leadership taking more individual responsibility for ministry initiatives and on-going functions in the work.

While imagine is tiny right now, we need to create a leadership environment where every leader on the team has functional, clearly-marked responsibilities for which they are consistently accountable. We have some of that: Jim handles the bulk of the teaching on Sunday morning, for instance. In our LT meetings, we all weigh in on what's happening in people's lives, including ours, problems needing to be addressed, new ministry ideas, program and event possibilities, rebuilding the ministry, future direction, real-life dilemmas, etc. But, much of that is group think and management by committee where we all address issues and talk about projects or parts of projects. It is not common for us to delegate ownership over something.

The problem is things slip through the cracks; there is not enough careful follow-through to concrete and measurable results, and we don't hold each other respectfully accountable very much. Granted, we're not running a mega-church, but sound management principles (aka stewardship) facilitate a health organization in my opinion. We often don't check in with each other to inquire about project so and so is going, or asking the "whatever happened to what we were going to do about...?" questions with regularity.

A simple re-tooling would be to examine best practices with how we operate as a church, divide responsibilities, and then measure effectiveness from a leadership vantage point. That's not to say we never do any of that sort of thing, but it's pretty organic and informal with not a lot of deliberate follow-through, quantifiable results, or healthy scrutinizing.

Also, our LT meetings often function like a fellowship group where we check in with each other, tell stories about the craziness of our journey over the week, the last 7 years, etc. We are close friends, brothers and sisters...all good stuff, and needful. But, we can get off on tangents quite regularly and lose productive focus. Dare I say this, but I think our meetings should be more "business-like" so we fulfill our responsibilities with skill and determination.

I must add that my life-long attention deficit disorder doesn't help one bit.

8. We don't pray enough.

From hindsight I see I've neglected to systematically inculcate the rich spiritual discipline of prayer in all its many facets.. Many Christians I've known over the years said with regret that they don't pray enough. Some would say they have a quiet time in the morning where they pray. A few I've known pray as a matter of course throughout the day as they work, some even stop the work to pray.

The manner of prayer I'm talking about is persisting and prevailing in a direction until God answers or says to stop. In the retreat ministry at the CFR we learned, practiced and taught soaking in prayer meaning taking extended periods of time to talk to God and listen for Holy Spirit's whispers, to keep a prayer journal, and regularly go alone to a quiet place so as to sojourn with and seek after Him. It was our experience that many if not most Christians talked more about prayer than prayed. I certainly was guilty of that at times.

At imagine, we've had small number of mini-retreats for prayer, both as a church and as a Leadership Team. Currently, once a month we've begun a Sunday half-day retreat as our worship service. In Noho, we tried to launch a Wednesday night prayer time, but hardly anyone came. Prayer is hard work and most people do not know how to prevail for any length of time: petitioning, interceding, praying the Scriptures, listening, being silent before God (that can be an offering prayer of humility and adoration), spontaneous singing to him, praying or singing in tongues, praising and exalting him,  and lifting up His Name in prayerful worship, doing prayer walks, writing out your prayers then meditating on them, praying the Psalter, praying the ancient prayers of the Church such as the Phos Hilaron, etc...

A do over here for me would be to inculcate into the life of our church prevailing prayer with regular times of soaking in prayer together. In my opinion, being a praying church is a humble and servant-hearted church gradually growing rich in spiritual wisdom and close to God as a family who desires that His ways prevail in the world: serving God through spending time with Him alone and together, and serving the world through being prayer warriors, and disciples who go in His Name every day to bring his Kingdom.

I hope to learn from what I've just written and change my ways as the Holy Spirit leads me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Looking Back With Fondness and Gratitude.

It's been almost a month since we moved from our office space on Main Street in Northampton, the location where we prayed we'd be once we made the trek north from Simsbury. Almost a 2 months before, we moved from the apartment above our office space. Two moves, both stressful -- and for me, disorienting. Disorder loves to dance with my ADD; I'm just left overwhelmed.

As things have settled for the most here in Shutesbury, I've had a chance to start reflecting on what it meant to be able to live in the center of town on Main Street for five years. While folks have heard me say before this church planting adventure we embraced was one of, if not the most challenging, exasperating, even bewildering (at times) ministry effort we've ever been a part of, it also was exciting, fulfilling and full of delightful surprises. They demonstrated God's blessing to us. We had the privilege of experiencing new ways of connecting with folks, new ways of serving others and getting to meet lovely people who express pleasure with what imagine was about.

While I have some regrets and realized how frightfully naive I was about the challenges I'd face, I want to celebrate some things we did as a church plant which were very meaningful. I'll talk about the regrets in my next post.

Here are a few of the most notable to me.

1. Feast: Feast was the first major event we did to connect to the community. Our idea was to connect with townsfolk, especially those who wouldn't have the opportunity for an Easter dinner. We wanted  it to be extravagant so people could experience the lavish love, grace and hospitality of the Resurrected Christ. So Tricia came up with an exquisite menu. We raised funds from folks mostly not from our church, and received all we needed to put on a magnificent spread. We had many volunteers from other churches to serve food and take care of our guests. They did a marvelous job. Chef Eslie made exquisite desserts. We had gifted jazz musicians Kris and Jen Allen join Jim and I to play as people were eating. Then, Michael Kelly Blanchard shared his unique style of musical story. People feasted and were blown away by the beauty of the tables, the remarkable quality of the food, and the way they were treated as honored guests. The volunteers serving were astonished by how well it was done and they had the chance to be a part of it. The Lord was very good to us.  

2. Halloween: This was an unexpected surprise for us. We figured we'd have a few kids and parents trudge up the stairs 4 years ago for our first attempt at connecting with families this big way. I thought all the businesses on Main Street would be pulling out the stops to give kids a fun time, so we had loads of candy to give, took free pics of the kids in costume, had a crafts table as they waited to get their picture to take home, and offered various refreshments for the parents. We were mobbed! People were telling others they had to go to that imagine place because we were doing way more than any of the other establishments in town. We ended up doing 2 more Halloween events just like the first, and people remembered. Some even brought the pictures they'd had on their fridge to show us. It was just a fun time for everybody, and again people who volunteered made it a special time for the families. We'll miss that, but are grateful for "stumbling" into another means of being over the top to open people to God's unmerited favor.

3.The imagineART Gallery: What unanticipated pleasure and joy it was for us to launch and do the imagineART Gallery. We'd never run a gallery before. I was especially taken by how good Tricia was at creating the atmosphere for the space, getting the artists, hanging the work and putting on, by far, the best fine dining spread on Arts Nights Out that anybody had experienced - we know because so many told us that was the case. Some people were actually astonished! God allowed us to become a destination with a reputation for outstanding art. We were able to support the artists by having some of their work purchased. Most importantly, the gallery was by far the venue where we connected with people from Northampton and beyond. They knew or quickly found out we were Christians and our space was also a church. It made for conversation, a few uncomfortable moments and the meeting of many wonderful people, artists and otherwise. Most delightful for us was the fact we got to give some of the art its their first individual show and it inspired them to press on as never before! While it was very sad to have to say goodbye to the entire adventure, but are grateful for the opportunity.

4. Meeting and getting to know some remarkable young women at Smith College: Another very pleasant surprise has been the opportunity to meet, get to know and even baptize 2 Smithees. Many of them belonged to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at Smith, but not all. Remarkable about them is how bright and vibrant many of them are. They have a can-do attitude. One of them (Crystal) even served on our Leadership Team before going off to grad school. Some have helped with worship (Hannah, Angela and Angelica); and others have joined us serving at the Interfaith Shelter. Others (Nhung and Angelica) participated in our first Cohort. Getting to know these young Christian women as they prepare for careers and service has been a unique delight. We're not sure it will continue as we have no permanent home right now, but if it was merely for a season, we were blessed just the same.

5. Making friends with vibrant people in town: Because I was "cloistered" at a retreat center and most of the folks I knew were involved with the church where the retreat center was, or people who came for counseling etc. I didn't connect very much with anyone else for the most part. When I came to Northampton, I began to get to know people of different spiritual views or no such views at all. I got to know Christians with differing theological bents. Most were much more political than I. Regardless of all that, I was graced with new friends; many of them uniquely interesting, funny, kind, brilliant, creative, quirky, even fascinating. Their thoughts and opinions challenged me to contextualize what I hold to be fundamentally true in the world of ideas and beliefs around me. All of them are engaged in what matters to them. They have integrity. A few are very funny which always draws me. Some have become friends we don't ever want to lose.

6. Working with talented, loving and gracious Christians: Whether it was an arts event, a project to serve the poor, or people who have graced the doors of imagine and hung around for awhile, we had and still have the privilege of working with Christians of substance. They tend to be full of grace; people of goodwill who are dedicated to serving others. Beginning with the team of folks who came up here from Simsbury and people who joined us later, we have been loved well. God has sent smart and gifted people to our community, whether they stuck around for long or not. Also, I need to say we've had faithful donors who have for years always cheerfully and with grace given to our work. We have an accountant who is generous and smart as a whip. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty to help us. We've had a Board who've always been willing to help and have graciously put up with my introverted quirkiness by offering counsel and help when we asked. and I can't say enough about the current Leadership Team of Tricia, Jim LaMontagne, Kevin and Janet Williams all of whom are dedicated to imagine/Northampton and it's Christian life and Kingdom mission. Each one is a treasure. I need also to not overlook Karin LaMontagne who pulled up stakes with Jim to come up here and has made many sacrifices to stay the course. Her friendship, gifts and influence are of the kind that doesn't seek the spotlight while blessing others, which she does in her own gracious way.

7. First times and new experiences: Some of this I have written about, but I need to mention it again in hindsight because, in hindsight, I saw each one as as gift even if they ended in loss or failure. Here are just a few:

  • Launching a missional church.
  • The privilege of leading imagine's first person to Christ.
  • Doing my first baptism, participating in another, and observing another.
  • Participating in co-officiating my first wedding.
  • Meeting and serving homeless people and chronic addicts.
  • Helping Tricia launch and operate an art gallery.
  • Being a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
  • Working at the Interfaith Shelter.
  • Helping plant and cultivate the FOG Garden.
  • Speaking to a Town Council Committee about the Open Table.
  • Playing with One Flight Up.
  • Handing out Christmas gifts to homeless on the streets.
  • Being seen as a pastor by others. 

9. My spiritual growth: If you've followed the blog, you've read about the challenges and hardships I've had to face. They increased with each year we were in Northampton with the last two being the toughest. I could actually write a book about how I've grown through it all, but it will have to wait. For now, I want to mention two of the most important ways. They are related. They are faith and trust. So much of what we've experienced has been exasperating, even bewildering at times. I had very high hopes which seemed to be frustrated increasingly as the years went by. Certainly, I was naive about the substantial spiritual and practical obstacles we would face, but believed deeply, and still do, that we have an important mission to accomplish concerning grace, forgiveness and navigating mutual brokenness with love because of what Jesus did for us. In fact, as I've become aware, the result of having experienced all of it has yielded a more robust trust and faith in God's love regardless if I end my days in failure. I abhor failure, but I trust God's wisdom about what He asks me to endure, let die or persist through. I have a more vigorous faith if I can say it that way. I'm grateful for His love toward me through training me to believe and trust regardless of the messages to the contrary my experiences were sending.

For awhile now, the enduring question I hear from Him in the quietness of my heart is: "Will you trust Me anyway?" I have so far answered "yes." May He help me keep it that way rain or shine; life or death. Sometimes His love comes in ways we prefer to dash past but might cause us to rejoice in when our world is finally set to right.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Last Tuesday morning was one of those alive-feeling Fall days with a rich blue sky, a brilliant morning sun, and air refreshing with little humidity. We were headed for work in Northampton. The day held preliminary preparations for our move from the imagine/Northampton offices we'd occupied on Main Street for a little over 5 years.

Our drive in from Shutesbury was what it's been just about every day since moving there: we'd start from Pine Brook for a relaxed drive past Lake Wyola and wind down throughout woods, pastures, homes and hills until we reached Route 47. The pace into Sunderland would pick up a bit what with folks driving to work or heading to school. But it was still a pleasant drive. We'd even pray during the trip. We passed the James Taylor house in Sunderland, the first house we lived in when we moved here, and we greeted it as we always did heading into Noho. It still has our green church pew benches on the front porch. We had no place to bring them to.

Once on 91 south, the traffic and pace would pick up, but I took it easy... no hurry, most days. When we took the first exit into the city it was now time to watch what others were doing because the traffic can get crazy as you get closer to Main Street. Tuesday was normal in that regard. We went through the 5-6 lights on King Street and slowed to a stop at one of four busiest intersections in the heart of the city. There were 5 or 6 cars stopped in front of us.

We couldn't have been sitting there more than 45 seconds when it happened.

I'd turned to say something to Tricia when we heard the violent screeching of tires almost like a roar and then a terrible BAM!!! like something big, metallic and heavy had been dropped onto something else big, metallic and heavy. As we heard it, we were violently thrown forward for no more than a second. It was incredibly fast and disorienting. There was no time to brace, although our bodies tried. I remember instantaneously moving forward and being restrained by the seat belts, but from the instant of the impact, through being catapulted forward and then jolted back into the seat, my sight was scrambled and out of focus as it happened.

Then it was silent.

It took a few seconds to orient and realize we'd been hit from behind. I think I said something and then immediately turned to see if Tricia was ok. We were in shock realizing what happened to us. Tricia was holding her head which scared me because she's had head and neck issues beginning in the first month of our marriage with two surgeries since. She's also been complaining of neck pain the last few months.

So I was like "oh no!" She said she was ok, so I got out of the car to assess the damage and talk to the man who hit us. He was very upset holding his head in his hands actually saying "oh no! What have I done?" He was shaking and I was shaking. He told me he was late for a training session he was attending and got turned around, so he was looking at his GPS to get his bearings and when he looked up it was too late to avoid us. At one point, he started to cry. He asked how my wife was doing and apologized over and over. I actually put my hand on his shoulder and told him everything will work out. We'd get through it, and it could've been any one of us.

That entire exchange was a just was just a minute or so. I went over to Tricia's side the car again to check on her. She said her head and neck hurt. By then, literally just a few minutes after it happened, guys from the Sheriff's Department, the Northampton Police, a Northampton fire truck and ambulance materialized. As soon as I mentioned what was going on with Tricia these guys attended to her immediately, including putting a neck brace on her and taping her head to the board she was lying on. She was in the ambulance and on her way to Cooley-Dickenson in just a few more minutes.  I had to stay because the police had our licenses and registration with accident reports to fill out and give us. All the responders were amazing and Tricia remarked later the guys helping her were utterly kind and gentle the entire time.

When we were hit, we collided as well with a car in front of us driven by a young woman on her way to work in CT. She never saw it coming either. She seemed ok. It took about 20 minutes for all the paperwork to be completed and I was on my way to the hospital where I found Tricia in the Emergency Room section. She'd been attended to and was waiting to go for X-rays of her neck. She was uncomfortable, but calm. 45 minutes or so later, the doc told us there were no fractures in her neck, but there was evidence of arthritis, not severe, but there. Tricia was complaining about her mid-back hurting so they got her in for more X-rays and they too confirmed no fractures. A little later, we  consulted again with the doc who mentioned that if her headache persisted or she had a change in the pain in her neck or back we'd need to come in right away. So they gave us a pain-killer prescription, and after about 5 hours since the accident we were on our way home and relieved.

I titled this blog BAM!!! because it replicated the sound of impact when we were hit, but it also describes what happens when life is suddenly and radically interrupted outside of our control. Our day was going to be accident free. The drive into town would be normal. We'd go to our offices and take a chunk out of packing for our move. After that, we'd head back home just as we always do. Minor scrapes perhaps; a few unexpected interruptions, maybe a visit from someone we didn't schedule, but not BAM!!!

BAM!!! as I'm using it is chaos in one form or another. It substantially alters the course of a day or a month or a life. Injuries, death, accidents, sickness, violence; anything which intrudes and forcibly changes what you're doing or expecting to do all qualify as BAM!!!. BAM!!! also brings with it a persisting unease, even deep fear. Life is not 100% predictable and comfortably routine. BAM!!! can steal a person's sense of peace or safety or the ability to control things. BAM!!! is a thief and can turn into a cruel task master.

Interestingly enough, Tricia reminded me tonight that on Tuesday when we were driving into town,  we were praying for and talking about trusting God no matter what. In the cohort, we decided to read Brennan Manning's Ruthless Trust as a group so it'd been on our minds. Therefore, remarkable to us in hindsight, was our trust seemed quickly BAMMED!!! to the test, and yet, we both felt an abiding peace very quickly after the accident happened. You know, the "peace that passes understanding;" the species of peace that makes no sense in the chaotic or frightening situation within which you're soaking. We experienced it. It was almost as if whatever was designed by the adversary and his lot for our  dis-ease or harm would not infect our well-being with terror, or grumbling in disbelief just because it happened. We didn't like having the experience, but it was a lesson given by God's grace providing trust and peace in chaos and disruption.

It's taking a few days to recover. BAM!!! can be emotionally, physically, mentally, relationally, even spiritually exhausting. Sure, we were set back timewise in our progress to prepare for the move. Yup, it was unsettling, even scary. Tricia's had to take it slow physically and she still has some pain. Much is just now getting settled about where we'll counsel and do our work. We have to go through the rigamarole of getting insurance appraisals, filing accident reports and then getting repairs made to our car, but normal life has all sorts of interruptions which lead to unexpected, even unwanted chores. So even in this accident, BAM!!! does not have to prevail. As we invite trust and gracious order to take over, our recovery will settle in.

Although, I have to add...a generous dollop of normalcy, and abiding stability would feel darn good right now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Here's What imagine Will Look Like Going Forward.

Last Sunday, I presented and explained the outline below. In it I lay out a rationale for how imagine as a small, missional church community will seek to REDUCE (our costs), REFOCUS (our potential and resources) and RE-LAUNCH (our mission in Northampton and wherever else God summons us). The 3-R's are necessities for getting back on our feet so we might press on in a healthy, vibrant way. 

I began by reminding folks imagine’s mission remains: Helping People Discover and Follow the God Who Is More Than They Imagine. Since we came here that mission has not changed. We've had varying degrees of effectiveness executing it, both as individuals and as a group, but we've never jettisoned it for some other mission. Helping anyone we encounter to discover Jesus beyond their stereotypes or ignorance of Him remains our "prime directive." Walking alongside those who join our Christ-loved and loving community becomes our opportunity to help each person follow him through their gifts in his redemptive Kingdom work wherever he sends us -  individually or as a group.

Next, I fleshed out the following:

I. We’ll seek for our Kingdom life with God and one another to be lived through 3 interweaving expressions:
  • Spiritual Formation: Training the life of heart, the life of mind, and the life of the spirit: teaching, retreats, spiritual direction (learning the disciplines), healing. I reiterated intimacy with Jesus was the wellspring from which fruitful Kingdom work flows. 
We'll continue to train the minds of people to think from a Scripturally-informed, practical and spiritual theology which helps each one know why they believe what they believe and are convinced it's the way, truth and the life in a world of competing spiritual/cultural world views.

We'll continue to train the heart of a people to love God and know his love. The heart pursues what it has passion for; what it loves, desires and cherishes. In turn, because God so loved the world that he gave it his son, we want people to love what is good and beautiful and worthy of cherishing. Ultimately, we'll work  to train the heart so its deepest desire and joy is what God wants. A heart captivated by God because it knows him can become full of peace, passion, and joy through all of life's vicissitudes.

We'll continue to train people's spiritual vision to discern, reflect on, and follow the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. We'll encourage everyone to become more aware of the handiwork of God in their lives; how he reveals his Presence in the ordinary and the extraordinary. We'll encourage the spiritual disciplines of spending time on retreat, listening, reflecting, journaling, studying the Scriptures, reading the great writers of the spiritual life, prayer walking - all practices which lend themselves to such training in deepening a person's openness to the Holy Spirit. 
  • Connecting With One Another: worship, teaching, getting together to build relationship. 
W'll keep encouraging imagine folks to form deep filial friendships: spiritual bonding, shared interests and passions, helping one another practically; just spending time with each other. So we get together for worship and teaching on Sundays and sometimes in workshops. We'll have meals together; go to events together. We have also formed cohorts from the inward/OUTWARD Missional Formation Workshop where we seek to know how each off us actually engages and walks with Jesus in everyday living. We;ll continue to do that also so we can help create life-giving spiritual and practical connections.
  • Connecting With and Serving Others: the missional way of life to the community and surrounding culture. (The imagineART Gallery, Interfaith Shelter meals, Feast, Halloween, Christmas Giveaway bags, Winter hats giveaway, sending boxes of diapers to poor mothers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in ND, cultivating the The Florence Organic Garden, etc.)
We will still see ourselves as a community in the midst of a larger community we are called to serve. We'll also see ourselves called to be of help to our neighbors beyond our neighborhoods. We have embraced the missional way of life as the normal Christian life and will not abandon it. Listed above are some of the efforts we have made to connect with folks in Northampton over the last 5 years. It's all about building relationships by loving and serving people that they might come to realize God knows and loves them; in fact, he made the ultimate sacrifice for them. We'll not leave that aside.

II. We'll adjust our structure:

The Leadership Team decided we needed to change our rhythm of life together in order to reduce, refocus and re-launch. Some of that had to do with leaving our current worship space because of the cost.  Some of it had to do with better integrating the facets of our life together so we were connecting internally and externally. Therefore:
  • 2 Sundays/month we’ll gather for worship in Northampton or in homes. 
  • 1 day/month (could be a week night) we’ll gather for an event of interest or refreshment: art, hiking, movies, plays, canoeing, concerts, dinner/brunch, bonfires at camp, day trips, sports events or activities, wine tasting, (all are invited to suggest an opportunity) etc.
  • 1 day/month we’ll gather for a service project to bless our communities (all are invited to suggest an opportunity) helping the poor, joining a multi-church effort, helping a town effort, helping a neighbor in need, etc.
We want each month to reflect such a rhythm so we'll have regular opportunities to connect with each other, serve together, and grow spiritually in friendship with God, one another, and folks he puts in our path.

III. We'll express these values:

Core values animate any group, whether embraced formally, or inferred from corporate mindsets and behaviors. So does imagine.

  • Creativity (art, ministry, worship). We still want our life together to reflect creative sensibilities whether in and through worship, events, service or community life. We'll seek to harness the arts and creative thinking as a way of being. We need to get back to that.
  • Deepening community and friendship. We'll continue to work to experience life together as communitas: communally shared Kingdom values, and the passion for that which we've been given in one another. We have an abiding passion to live for the greatness and glory of God and his Gospel of grace. We recognize such communities of spiritual friendship can change the world and we want to be one of them, even if in a small way.
  • Growing habits of outward missional service reflecting love for God and people. We still want everyone who comes to imagine for any duration to develop and embrace a life habit of outward missional service. By use of the word habit we're describing an unfolding mindset and spiritual attitude, a growing habit of looking at the Christian life as a combination of intimacy with Jesus out of which flows the missional way of living day to day. 
  • Building up one another (and others) in the way of freedom, grace and sacrificial love. People have remarked spontaneously over the years that we are a church which extends grace to others. While perfectly, we've wanted to be such a community and still do. We'll remain committed to the notion that everyone who joins our community will experience freedom to work out their life with Christ without pressure to be perfect. We've always said we're a community of the redeemed broken. We still want our way of life to be one of building up anyone in the way of freedom, grace and sacrificial love. The sacrificial love part enables us to be sure that in our freedom we give our lives for others with increasing frequency, individually and together. Therefore, grace for us is not the freedom to do as we please no matter who suffers, but to do as God pleases in and through our lives.
Our hope in all of this is to carry-forward rather than give up or merely carry-on. As I've written many times, the challenges and difficulties we've faced since coming here have been formidable. But we love each other and want to keep our hats in the ring until God says we've completed our mission, if he does.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Path For imagine Comes Into View.

I'm someone who experiences deep soul refreshment and lightness of being when I come into a clearing such as when walking through the woods and suddenly happening upon a meadow or a lake where the sun fills the space, and I can see across the expanse and well up to the sky. It's always been that way for me.

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of my favorite short trips was to travel by car up the eastern slope of the Sandia Mountains to the Sandia Crest at the top (almost 11,000 feet) and gaze for miles to the west or north to Santa Fe, or south toward Socorro. I would feel a bright sensation of having my spirit open and feel fully alive, almost joyous; a kind of a soaring of the heart experience. I was in no way Christian yet, but such an experience would open me easily to a sense of the unseen, gracious REAL I now recognize as Jesus Christ.

For those of you who've been following along with my my last 4-5 posts, you might remember they've been about challenging chaos, moving toward hope, grace trumping stress, leaving Northampton, finding a new rhythm, etc. I've attempted to express what the changes and pressures in our lives have felt like as we journeyed with God through all of it. In my last post, I wrote of waiting. Well, it appears some of what we've been waiting for has arrived.

Last week, after our Sunday meeting time we had a bite to eat together. LT member Kevin Williams gave everyone the lowdown on changer which need to be made in order for imagine to sustain its life together.

First, and foremost, the high cost of having a space on Main Street in Northampton (even though our landlord offered to lower the rent by $350/month) was not doable for us anymore. We'd fallen behind in rent and understood it was not fair to him, or OK with God to keep the space and not be able to pay for it. As it is, we've worked a plan to pay him back over time. So our path forward means giving up our worship space, counseling offices, and the imagineART Gallery. For Tricia and I there is sadness in having to do so, but we're also very weary of the stress attached to falling and being behind. If you've not been there for any substantial length of time, you can't appreciate what that feels like and being our age doesn't make it easier.

(In later posts, I'll write more about what being in Northampton at all has meant to me. I will have much to emotionally and spiritually sort through. I promise I'll not be maudlin about it.)

After Kevin talked and made a clear case for leaving, we had a good discussion. People were in support of the move and we talked of how we wanted to continue a presence in Northampton by perhaps renting less costly spaces for worship or events we might offer in the future. The energy in the room was about continuing to be imagine and imagine in Northampton in some way. We also talked of meeting in our homes and deepening our community, including with the Smith students we've gotten to know and love.

At the same time, none of us want what used to be termed the "holy huddle"; the idea that everything is about our little community and we like it that way, thank you very much! We came here to walk the missional Kingdom way of being church. We've made some progress and had a modest impact in that regard, but we know we have a ways to go. We all want to continue heading down that path.

With the pending move, there are challenges for Tricia and I, one of which is (as I mentioned) we lose a centrally-located office for counseling. As of the end of September, the only office we have available is on the lower floor of where we're living in Shutesbury. While it should open access to folks in that part of Massachusetts where we're told there's a dearth of Christian counseling, we'll more than likely lose most of our clients from CT and south central MA where most of them have come, especially south central MA. There is a possibility of having an office in a church in Sunderland, or an office in Agawam, but the details have not been worked out. So unless God brings this part of the path into view we'll lose a substantial portion of our income.

Second, the way imagine will function as a church community is about to change - we think for the better. I won't say much about that in this post because I will flesh it out tomorrow at imagine worship, then blog about it. I can say we'll have a presence in Northampton, but not exclusively so. Our small band of believers will not call itself imagine/Northampton once we move from the office at 70 Main Street.

Lastly, those of us who came here in 2008-9 have learned there seem no tried-and-true formulas to doing what we've tried to do. Church planting is not plug and play. While any enterprise needs plans, values and structures to exist, a good bit of what we envisioned has not coalesced like we envisioned. There have been many surprises (not all of them negative by any means), disappointments (some excruciating), even desolating turns of events (especially regarding relationships). There've been some sorrowful days, but also many happy days because of wonderful new relationships (and some life-giving enduring relationships) with lovely people, and the continuing support of friends who've not given up on us. For instance, the imagineART Gallery wasn't on the radar screen when we sat dreaming, conceiving, praying about and dialoguing over in Simsbury what imagine would be and become. In my opinion, it's been the most effective means of connecting with folks here. We've met so many interesting and gracious people through that work. We've made real friends through it as well.

In reality we've stretched and grown because of necessity. Our faith has become enduring and more resilient (especially mine, never been a strong suit) because God held us near while he's put us to it. I cannot recall being tested this severely in my Christian life as I've been, particularly in 2014.

But gladly, tomorrow I will get up and talk to our small band of imagineers about how we'll regroup and work to continue the mission we were called to here. Yes, as I said, Tricia and I are sad about leaving this way, but our story is not finished, nor is imagine's.

Hope lingers. Grace abides.

Similar to standing on Sandia Crest and beholding the expanse of Albuquerque over to the West Mesa  I've experienced moments of the lightness of being I mentioned because a path appears to be slowly coming into view and I can see out of the struggle. It's not solidly so from one day to the next, but it lingers too.

More after tomorrow.