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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Weird Interrupt.

As some of you know, even if you have not been reading my blog, Tricia and I have the role of forerunners or pioneers in launching imagine/northampton. Of the 5 families on the Launch Team, all from Connecticut, we moved to Northampton first. As it turns out, we are still the only ones living here from the team.

The reasons are simple: selling homes in this market, and, for some, finding work. The home selling issue seems the most stubborn so far. Given the state of the market and the time of year, it has been a pretty exasperating situation.

Although Tricia and I harness the mules and make the trek to Simsbury most Sundays to hang out with the team for prayer and conversation, and they do the same on Monday nights for the LT world summit, I have been experiencing this weird “interrupt.” I know it happens naturally when people live apart, have different cultural experience, but it feels very frustrating to me nonetheless.

To give you some background: Northampton is not Simsbury. The difference between the two is marked, especially in terms of cultural attitudes, expectations and behaviors. I see things in Northampton I never saw in Simsbury. Northampton is educated, arty, fiercely-liberal, overtly political, proudly diverse, independent, even peculiar at times. Simsbury is educated, traditional suburbia, staid, conservative, family-focused and respectable, not particularly peculiar.

So as I think about it, this weird interrupt turns out to be how different the weekly experience feels for Tricia and me here, and the rest of the team there. Obviously, there are some similarities, but it feels often like we live in another country from them. So when I try to describe what we are experiencing, I feel frustrated, not because they can’t get it – these are bright, savvy people – they do get much of it. But because they are not experiencing daily how different Northampton is, it feels something gets lost in translation. It’s sort of like: “You really have to be up here to fully grasp what I am talking about.” Being up here is just that different and hard, at least for me, to translate.

I realize that slowly I am being changed by what I am living. I am loosening up in all sorts of ways. I am getting used to being among people who are cut from another cloth, counter-cultural, even radical in how they come at life -- people who before made me uncomfortable just being around because I was immersed in the suburbs near the “Insurance Capitol of the World.” I am learning a new language culturally, and having my assumptions rattled around a bit. What I say and how I say it is changing too.

For me, Northampton culture, before the astounding explosion of technology, feels much like who I was in the 60’s in New Mexico, and the early 70’s in Boston. There is a part of me still most at home in that creative cultural territory. Maybe it’s the jazzer and improviser part of my personality.

I know its my issue, but my weird interrupt with the team remains unsettling for me. I want them all up here soon so we can share in a common experience. I know they will be changed in their own ways when they finally live here. I look forward to walking that with them. Until then, some of the weird interrupt will linger, I suspect causing me to keep looking for ways to bring them into the world we now inhabit.

The Mystery of Persons

The Mystery of Persons.

I wrote earlier about the fact that I am praying about loving Northampton and the people of this city. I need Jesus to give me his heart in the matter. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem. He loved the city and its people. He gave his life for it and for all the nations of the world. He has put me in this city. I need his heart for it.

As I have prayed, something unexpected has been happening in me. I am not sure I can explain this adequately, but here goes. God is showing me sometimes as I look at people the deep mystery that is a person. I understand more clearly the reality that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I join David in exclaiming, “what is man that you are mindful of him?” We are a “royal priesthood,” “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” “sons of God through faith,” “heir(s) through God,” and “children of promise.” Our status is elevated beyond mere existing in the here and now.

Every person we see is an astonishing mystery: flesh, bone and spirit—temporal while eternal. Do we really grasp that? Most times, we just categorize and label people from what we see and assume about them to “get a handle,” on who they are, but we miss the gift, a chance to glimpse the unique and numinous living just below the surface. When we catch that glimpse, we “see” into them as God must, I think.

Here’s what’s been happening to me. I will be counseling someone or see them on the street, and suddenly I am briefly aware of the extraordinary being I am looking at…just for an instant. I don’t try to do it. When it happens my eyes will well with tears or I will see exquisite beauty beyond our physical idea of what that is. The glimpse lasts only for a few seconds, but the effect lingers. I am struck by the mystery of what is at the heart of being a person.

I am struck by the fact that persons are God’s creative idea, the exuberance of God’s love and astounding insight. We bear his image encloaked in flesh, personality, race, gender, imagination, will and mind. In him, we live and move and have our being…our person. In him, we are inextricably connected but free to choose as if it is all about us. We can even reject our Maker and pretend he is a fantasy.

We are the “crown of creation” able to destroy and create horror for others without mercy, or we can dry tears, bind wounds, free captives, feed the hungry and change the world. We are an enigma, a puzzle to each other and yet God breathes life every instant to each of us whether we are vicious tyrants, impenetrable narcissists or angels of mercy. What we do is this life for good or evil does not lessen the mystery. It remains until the end when we are revealed as we truly are.

From what I have seen, I know a little more clearly why God became one of us. He gets the mystery and wonder of who he has made. He has lived it, died for it and set us toward freedom, if we choose to see him. Jesus became one of us that we might become like him…the mystery is completed and perfected, or wasted and lost forever.

So God let me “see” behind the screen a few times and my heart softens. I find I cry more easily these days because of the sheer beauty of those I love, and the sadness of the world with its jangling hatreds that shred people with no remorse. I see the miracle of persons. It leads me to wonder more and more how I can motivate them to be found by this Jesus, the Author of this mystery of all persons. I know such finding will make the mystery of who they are luminous, “shining like stars” amidst the spiritually near-sighted who have no idea of who they are, or for some, gave up caring long ago.

Question: Do you “see” this mystery in you, and those around you? If not, ask Jesus to open your heart and your eyes to see what he sees. You won’t be the same after that.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I am having conversations these days with all sorts of Christ followers who have been in Northampton for varying lengths of time, some for many years. All of them, though, have grown fully aware of the thorny challenge of working through resistance, and sometimes a downright “we don’t like your kind” disdain. Some have used the word “hatred” regarding what they have experienced. It seems to have become for many a stymieing quandary.

For a new guy on the block what I have heard can feel chilling, like, “And exactly what were we thinking in coming here?” I hear the hookah-smoking caterpillar ask me what he asked Alice, “And who are you?” Indeed!

At the same time, I am growing more convinced that this living Jesus is the salve to the wounds of people angry with anyone bearing the name Christian. Who he is; what he did; and what he does now hold the keys to calming the angry and lowering their hyper-guard. I grow more sure I must reveal Jesus in how I love and care for people who don’t like me because I say I am a follower. He is the way and the means through this.

Right now, I am irrelevant to most of the wounded angry ones around me on the streets of Northampton, a late middle-aged face in the crowd, ambling about with no cause for alarm. I pose no threat in my anonymity. Yet, I am watching and praying, looking for his invitation to open to him and them in Northampton. I don’t recognize the door with my name on it just yet, but I am getting closer. When I do, I will go in. And they will need to see Jesus. For that to happen, I will need to be humble and real for him to be seen. His love for them must be mine no matter their response to me. And I will need to persist in vulnerability for them to catch a glimpse of him. That glimpse could make all the difference.

I find I am also of the mind that seeing Jesus will face them with truth, because he is astounding Truth, unadulterated, unfettered, and staggering. No way around it. He can be gentle in truth-telling, but he is always fierce for freedom and true life, a searing, purging Fire for anyone who looks closely enough and sees his or her heart uncovered: bored, foolishly proud, limping, resentful, anxious, weary, scarred, scared or terminally distracted by chasing trifles unawares.

The thing is, there is really nowhere to hide when we come near Jesus. He sees it all and gets it all. And if people have the gumption to look long enough they will find the way to healing and real freedom, the kind that cuts through the crap and bathes the still-borne heart in light: revelation. . . . the sick are healed, the blind see and deaf hear, buckled-over captives are released, and refugees become cherished guests. Joy finds a way to overtake numbness and despair. Jesus does that. Jesus is that.

So I must learn to surrender and humanize enough to stay near him and what he loves so scoffers and the truly offended might find him in ragamuffin me. His redemptively subversive whispers and touch will have to be recognizable in what I say and do over and over again. Anything less and I sorely miss the point of being in Northampton at all. I do not want to be successful at missing the point. I know that tune only too well.

Jesus is all I have to offer. He is all that matters. Just him. Jesus. Only him. Jesus.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What a responsibility.

Last Friday night at the Friend's Meeting House in Northampton, our Launch Team hosted the first evening of Conversation: Discovering the Heart of imagine/northampton. The event was really the first true public meeting for the church. In a way, the mission was launched, even though we were not offering a worship service, prayer meeting or bible study. Nevertheless, there we were in front of a small gathering of curious folks -- 23 to be exact -- apparently open to finding out about us.

From our vantage point it was a pretty good first start: low key, but authentic, relaxed, but stimulating, honest, but trying to be sensitive in the best sense. We had met most of the folks, but not all of them. Some had heard from others about the event and came to see what might be happening. It felt we engaged many of them and they engaged us us.

Jim LaMontagne, our teaching catalyst, did a nice job of setting up the evening with thoughts on who we are and where we want to head through the Conversations. He set the stage well. I talked about our mission to help people engage God at a deep level of the heart, and then live in trusting surrender and in the freedom of loving what Jesus loves. I then led a conversation around what it means to have Jesus forming in their hearts. Tricia, our spiritual formation and creative arts catalyst, ably closed the evening with a reflection project. She brought in a whole bunch of items to spark contemplation around engaging what God wanted to say to the folks in their hearts after they returned home.

After the evening ended, I was struck by the sacred trust God places in people when he gives them the mission of launching a church. I looked into the faces of folks sitting in the room with us. Each person seemed to be desiring to experience God in a way that moves and frees them as they live the realities of their everyday. I saw a simple longing for connection even if they couldn't name the exact connecting point they desired. There was still hunger amidst real-life disappointment, tiredness, sadness, responsibility, and brokenness. Some that night wanted to hear something different or fresh, or they were curious about how we might move forward and what it would look like. Everyone was looking for something.

The evening has caused me to wonder how imagine will carry the responsibility God has given us with his people and his family in the days ahead? I wonder how we will enfold the folks who do not know him yet and see no reason to know him? I wonder if our words will outstrip ability to love and actually serve people?

And I wonder if I can do this at all sometimes. Maybe I am too selfish, too fearful and weak-kneed, maybe more enamored by the idea than the reality which will surely require depths of spirit and freedom I have not accessed.

I know for sure this responsibility will need Jesus to transform all of us where we are both piddling and assured. If he does not show up 24/7, our handling of what he has entrusted to us will be misguided fits and starts, rabbit-trails, and much ado about glittering trifles. Or as Gary Haugen refers to in a story from his book "Just Courage," maybe we will prefer to stay in the safe Visitors Center rather than make the demanding climb to the top of the mountain he invites us to. Don't know for sure yet. Hope not.

I really hope he teaches us bone-deep humility, true compassion, and tenacious Christ-hearted love...the kinds that turns a mission into a roaring fountain of life way beyond our best imaginings. He can. I suspect he wants to. I hope we all get to be a part of that in Northampton. I suspect he wants that for us also.

So, again, what a responsibility! Help me, Jesus!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What's a Spiritual Formation Catalyst Anyway?

While I have not been asked this question yet, I seem to enjoy answering questions no one is asking. That way I know I have things to say from time to time.

Here's one: why do I refer to myself as a Spiritual Formation Catalyst? Why not just Counselor, Counseling Pastor or Spiritual Director? Those titles have meaning readily attached to them for most people. Why be obtuse or weird about it?

Well. the title I chose for my work with imagine/northampton captures, I think, the essence of what I do with people God sends my way for help. It is more focused and defining in my mind.

Take the words "spiritual formation," for example. For the Christ-follower, it is the process of having the living heart and mind of Christ forming in his or her heart over a lifetime. In other words, gradually thinking like Jesus,having a heart surrendered to him and resonating with his concerns and convictions in everything. It means caring for what he cares for, and desiring that people "see" him in one's self. even if they would not necessarily characterize it that way.

To be formed in Christ is to be increasingly captivated by him, desiring to be fully transformed to his heart. In short, "Christ living in me," becomes the a person's passionate personal anthem: "For me to live is Christ," . . . . and "I have decided to follow Jesus," matures resolutely into "I will be mastered by nothing, save Christ."

If someone stays the course, by grace and persisting hard work (often in fits and starts), it slowly results in a person being able to say humbly, but with joy, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal.2:19-20) Ultimately, such deep forming ends in a person whose chief pursuit is the reflected glory of the risen Christ in all of life.

Secondly, the word "Catalyst" means "the igniting or accelerating of a change." Because a catalyst is involved, change occurs or occurs more rapidly.

I love that idea . . . . being used by God to ignite growth or transformation resulting in stubborn faith, hope, love and courage in people. I have a great passion for unfettering and freeing people into life as Jesus defines it. And to catalyze spiritual formation in someone is to be witness to a miracle only done by God. Such a miracle heals, enlivens, ennobles and creates life where before there was heart sickness, spiritual entombment, blindness and death. I am both spectator and helper.

When I have been able to cooperate with the Holy Spirit as a Spiritual Formation Catalyst (without that, what I accomplish is mostly gum-flapping), the people have been freed to follow Jesus as a way of life surrendering more and more of themselves. A door has opened to them previously hidden or obstructed. To witness such forming and freeing is a marvel that forms and frees me as I am party to the sheer and audacious goodness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is like living near a spring of wonder.

So, I am at home with the title I have chosen. It fits me. And I hope I will not miss a thing God has for me in my forming as I am catalyzed by him and those he brings with him to my office. Make it so, Jesus!

2 QUESTIONS FOR YOU: Where is Jesus asking you to surrender to him well-defended territory in your heart to become fully alive in him these days? What holds you back? Think about it and get back to me. I'd really like to know.

Monday, November 3, 2008

For a time like this

I recently mentioned to someone that I believed Tricia and I were made for what we are now doing in Northampton. There are all sorts of reasons why I think it true:

1. We have lived long enough to know something about the vicissitudes of life and their effects on the heart. Change is the way it is. We find ourselves in it.
2. We have been weathered by trials and storms of many kinds so that the fierce spiritual battles of launching in occupied territory do not come as a surprise, and we do not wear rose-colored glasses concerning the rigors of ministry life.
3. We have been in full-time ministry for 20 years working with broken people from all over. We know the chains that bind men and women, and how they can be freed.
4. We have been involved in the arts since our 20's and in creating the atmosphere that facilitates heart and mind surrender to God.
5. We are young-at-heart, especially about living with passion and making Jesus real because of his beauty and truth.
6. We are communicators who know how to challenge people to move beyond their fears, blindspots and comfort zones.
7. We are fully convinced that Jesus is the point of everything which matters and wants to be found by folks. We have always desired to reveal him.
8. We are crazy enough to believe that getting out of the boat and walking on the water for the Kingdom is the normal Christian life. Coming to Northampton has kept us on the pond! It's just normal.

So our seasoning in ministry and life has led us here. Jesus came to do his Father's will. He said that anyone who follows him will be where he is. We are Jesus-followers. He summoned us years ago to leave our "nets" and follow him. We did, and here we are. No time to turn back or look longingly toward Florida...although I am a killer in lime-green pants and white shoes!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Loving is the first order of business

The last 2 weeks I have been prayer-walking through the Main Street area of Northampton walking a circle from Smith College to the Post Office and back to our offices on Armory Street. As I walk, I have been trying to sense God's heart for the people and how he would have me pray for them and for the city as a whole. The walks have been inspiring and deepening. God lets me see into things as I walk.

First, I have been struck by how much Northampton is an "occupied city" spiritually. It is as if the city is enshrouded and fraudulently commandeered by unseen minions of darkness, oppression and death. If you linger and look carefully this sense is palpable. My daughter, Eslie, referred to it by saying, "It is as if there is beauty underneath, but it has been covered and suppressed." I am also unnerved by the realization that most people there live unaware that a tyrannical alien army has infiltrated the city, and stolen its true Heart. A tragedy really.

The second more disturbing awareness I have as I walk is that I do not really love this city or its people. My heart is not consistently broken by their bondage and blindness. Yeah, sometimes I feel it, starting as a sadness for what could be, and then becoming a welling anger at the one who came to kill and destroy. This feeling is almost a flash of holy rage.

What I know would be better for my heart is that it be overtaken by compassion which won't leave and unsettles me to loving service and spending my best time doing good for these people. I want to, but I am still in my head most of the time. I want eyes that see and a heart that takes selfless action almost as an instinct. Their pain and oppression needs to be mine -- their despair and brokenness my passion -- their blindness and fear my call. I need to be about their freedom and life through the One who has it always near His heart and asks me to share it.

So superficial caring will not do. Its insulting and barbaric. I know I need grace and a heart of flesh if I am going to leave anything good behind in this place after my watch. Jesus has to make this real or I will be easily satisfied with my puny idea of helping. Have mercy on me, Lord.