Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Give Recognition to Such Men: Gifts of Refreshing in the Buckling Over Times.

I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such men.
1Corinthians 16:17-8

Yesterday I had two wonderful "hang in there's" from God. One was expected (not the refreshing, but the meeting), the other was a surprise. I desperately needed both. I was weighed down after a weary Christmas, and sorely needed refreshing.

The first one came in the morning as I met with an old friend and Board member. He is a man of wisdom, a Jesus-follower with great integrity and godly influence. He is a Barnabas to me. Over breakfast, we talked of the many rigors and frustrations of church planting in New England, battling discouragement and financial pressure, dealing with meager returns despite great effort, and the need for discernment in the face of great challenge. His willingness to listen in support, and offer generous words of refreshing lifted my spirit. He made a difference.

Later in the afternoon as I was at my office working, I received a surprise call from another old friend and Church Planter. He was in the parking lot and had come to Northampton on an unrelated errand. He thought maybe we could catch up for a minute or two. He is a bona fide Jesus-follower, and another man of full of wisdom and grace. He has been an encourager and counselor to me from the beginning. We also talked of many things around what it is like to plant churches in New England. In the process, he refreshed me with gracious insight, laced with his signature wit. When he left I was lifted further.

Men such as these brothers (women too, of course), are inestimable gifts sent by God at such times of desolation and spiritual fatigue. They are like ministering angels, responding to a prompt from God to bring refreshment. In their presence it feels as if God is saying, " I know what you are bearing up under. I know your shoulders are bent, your knees hurt, and your back is weary. But take heart. You are in the company of friends who love you. And I love you. Don't give in or turn back. It is but a little while until I will bless you for trusting me and making the sacrifice to bring the Kingdom to a people wandering in darkness and death."

I so needed what they gave and God gave through me them.

Thanks guys. Thank you, Jesus.

May you receive such unexpected refreshing in your times of buckling over, even this day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

NOTICE . . .

Keep your eyes wide open and your heart soft toward God and people today. Don't get numbed by the sturm und drang of the last minute Christmas shopping/preparation frenzy all about you. God's invites you and me this fresh day to:

Notice His whispers (sometimes shouts) of grace all around you, his gifts to open your life in him.

Notice the subtle trace of his image in the faces of people around you, those you know and those you will pass by.

Notice his invitation to be unselfish and meet a need that will bring Christmas into someone's life even if unawares.

Notice God's laughter in the unexpected, (thanks, Jen).

Notice the weariness and stress of those near you so you might be a bringer of light and rest, even for just a moment.

Notice how God desires to free you from self-absorption today; lift up your head . . . listen.

Notice how his love for you can be wrapped in the simple, unadorned and unlikely.

Notice his invitation to smile and pray and sing in your heart.

Notice Jesus, adore him in your own way.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Following Jesus the Liberator Is Our Primary Identity.

Last Sunday I was set to give the message for imagine/Northampton's Very First Christmas Celebration. But due to the threat of the heavy snow we were supposed to get (which turned out to be only a dusting even though the radar showed it snowing over Northampton for 24 hours), we canceled Sunday's celebration on Saturday. Oh well.

Anyway, I thought I would share briefly what I was going to say.

Some background, first (I know this is not a complete sentence, by the way). Over the last
several months due to my reading of Ken Bailey, N.T. Wright, and John Howard Yoder, as well as Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis earlier, I am being changed in how I view what Jesus came to do and how the Kingdom of God is to operate in my life and the lives of others. Almost 100% of my ministry before coming to Northampton was to Christians, teaching them to hear God and helping them heal. It was about liberation, but the focus was on people who already acknowledge Christ. All of it good stuff.

My change has come in two forms.

First, I realize increasingly Christ's liberating revolution was as much about overthrowing and neutralizing the universal Powers (Satanic rebellion, sin-infected cultural institutions, social conventions and traditions) that crush people, lull them into trifles, or destroy their lives as much as it is about my personal salvation as a sinner in need of the liberation of the cross. I have zero doubts I need Jesus's substitutionary atoning for me. But it isn't merely about my personal need as desperate as that is. I am just one tiny part of an astounding Creation-freeing Story, the likes of which is beyond our imagining in its scope and import.

So the collective witness and work of Christians demonstrates that the stranglehold of the Powers can be defused without violence or anarchic rebellion. We can live differently and demonstrate a freedom from oppression no matter how enticing. Our Holy Spirit infused values can transform what the Powers commandeered:

Love undermines fear.

Sacrificial service subverts pride.

Grace deflates hatred.

Generosity shames selfishness.

Jesus's revolution seeded at his birth, created at the cross, launched at the Resurrection and spread at Pentecost irrevocably severed the root of "the sickness unto death" in the universe. It is finished at the heart. It is the Story of all stories without which would make all of life "sound and fury; the tale told by a fool, signifying nothing." Jesus liberated the universe and his revolution is well underway.

Secondly, the Church, you and me, has been given the divine mandate to spread this subversive liberation. We are to head out all the time and work patiently to make disciples. We are to love and serve the world, witnessing to the transforming power of Jesus to free the captive and overturn the Powers. By our ordinary and simple lives we gain a foothold and establish life in midst of death.

Your primary (first order) identity as a Jesus-follower is that of a liberator and revolutionary. What? I know that might sound over-blown, but is it? What other primary identity could possibly trump it for the Christian: being an American or other nationality, your profession, the local church you go to, who you voted for in the national election, your ethnicity, financial or social status, what town or neighborhood you live in, or whether you are a Yankees or Red Sox fan? Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 25:31-40 that our primary identity centers on incarnating the his life-giving love to the least of our brethren. and anyone else he puts in our path. We are to spend the rest of our days so doing. We are servants (actually bond-servants, if you will). Nothing we do or can do is more important. Matters of eternity command our closest attention and our deepest daily loyalty, do they not?

Jesus liberated and sanctioned us to go about every last one of our days bringing the kingdom into the lives of people we meet, care for, work with and live around. Each day affords us the opportunity to unlock someone with a word, gesture or act of service that opens them just a little to the Gospel. How we do so does not have to be spectacular or clever. It will be merely the expression of a person who has been undone by the loving liberation of Jesus, and desires the same for everyone else who will listen and see.

Do you see yourself this way? Are you paying attention? Are you holding back? Is it your primary identity truth be told?

I have a long way to go in being really useful to his revolution, but I want to be.

I ask him to sovereignly make it so. I am more of a mess than I like to admit or show publicly, but history testifies he uses messes like me way beyond what they could have imagined.

May what he started in me years ago in Boston be completed such that his revolution is more and more my way of living and that of the McDermott household.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Witnessing History Being Made

There are times in every person's life where if we are paying attention at all, we will realize we are witness to something monumental unfolding in history. It can happen on the world stage or it can happen in our own "backyard."

I and 6 other members of the imagine Team were privy on Wednesday to an extraordinary event with far-reaching implications we all can merely glimpse now. We were invited by Stan Mattson, Founder and Chairman of the C.S. Lewis Foundation to attend the Press Release, Reception and Dinner celebrating the launch of the first C.S Lewis College in history right here in New England. The Foundation with the help of Hobby Lobby, a large retail chain of stores in the Midwest, was able to purchase the lovely Northfield-Mt. Hermon Academy, a school D.L Moody founded to train and send young men and women to be missionaries all over the world.

We spent a good part of the day there mingling with old friends and others gathered for the auspicious occasion. All of us there were struck, I think, by the importance of what was happening, that God was doing something which would have far-reaching consequences for the Kingdom, not only in New England, but beyond. Remarkable too was the amount of prayer that had gone into making it all happen. People have been praying for revival in Western New England for decades, including Christians in Korea. There is a persistent longing among Christians in these parts to see God move in the Pioneer Valley as he did when Jonathan Edwards was here.

We have been told that imagine/Northampton has a part to play in all of what God seems to be doing these days as well. It is no coincidence that we are here. It's hard to see it now because we are so small and just finding our way, but oh that we might play a role in bringing the Kingdom along with our brothers and sisters who have labored here for many years.

The day ended with a lovely dinner together at the home of the Woods who live on campus. The conversation (especially being able to chat with a wonderful Korean Pastor named Chung Ha who has been dedicated to revival here for many years), and food were wonderful. The night ended with a mini-concert by Michael Kelly Blanchard, an old friend, and I got to play a tune with him we had recorded many years ago. It was utterly unexpected!

We finished the evening with Stan telling us of the incredible journey of faith it has been for him and the team to finally arrive at this point. God was glorified in his telling. I was heartened and inspired to hear it because of the challenge it has been to work in Northampton.

I am grateful to have witnessed what transpired on Wednesday and hope it is just the first days of Kingdom marvels to come!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When a Simple Conversation Freshens the Journey.

Yesterday I had a phone conversation with a friend and someone I have had the privilege of being a Spiritual Director to over the years. I have watched her grow in depth of faith, and love for Jesus and his Kingdom. She has come far in her journey with him.

The phone call was one of those check-in-with-one-another varieties. In the course of so doing our friend began to talk about how what she was doing was "wrecking her" with regard to the way she has been living the Christian life. Jesus is "radicalizing" her understanding of what it means to follow him wholeheartedly She related her life will never be the same. She knows she can't go back to the old ways of being Christian. This awareness both scares and inspires her. Indeed.

In the course of the conversation she also related how what we are doing in Northampton through imagine has been pulling at her of late. She has followed our journey here since its inception and now God seems to be whispering to her about more than following from afar. It is still a whisper to be sure, but clearly something is up.

After our exchange, I noticed I was pleasantly bouyed and refreshed for a bit. The day had been what I referred to on Twitter as "crazy-quilt" with all sorts of interruptions from every which way, and no real sense of momentum materializing. I was a little unnerved at times. And frustrated.

What I realized when I thought about it was how refreshed and motivated I become when talking about imagine/Northampton with someone who is getting it: the dream, the vision, the struggle and challenge of trying to plant it in this tough town. When I get to do so the enterprise feels real and substantial. When others respond with interest more than "Wow! That's cool," I get excited because perhaps they are going to get into the fray, and help shoulder forward the mission. Now we're getting somewhere.

I am also heartened when I see God percolating in them the same desire he percolated in me and Tricia, Jim, Karin, Matt and Karen back in Simsbury a few years ago. He is at work behind the scenes birthing this mission. Such awareness braces me.

So thank you, Father, and thank you, Ms. Smith, for the conversation.

May it be a piece of the gloriously redemptive Kingdom of God taking deeper hold in us, and in Northampton, Massachusetts!

Maranatha for real!

Monday, December 14, 2009

What Writing Seven Blogs in Seven Days Taught Me.

Most people who write consistently recognize that doing so gets words on the page: the more you write . . . the more you write. It's a truism. Writing solely from inspiration or waiting for "the magic the to happen" slows the writing process. That's what I was doing prior to the Seven Days initiative.

Last week I noticed a particular dynamic at work. Writing daily opened me to paying more attention to how an ordinary day is packed with intriguing stuff to write about. Every day is full of interesting ideas, encounters with people, creative opportunities lying in wait for expressing, natural wonders and weird confluences of events, thoughts and experiences just showing up.

In the process, I also realized my "noticing apparatus" was dulled and needed tuning.

It became clear to me that when you have to write to be read, you start to look for what might be interesting. You become more mindful of the treasures lying camouflaged in the mundane and ordinary. I realized this noticing is similar to the way visual artists see light and shadow. They look at a scene and notice what is there in a nuanced way well beyond what the untrained eye sees. Similarly, musicians hear sounds and rhythms in daily life the untrained ear never notices. It is a matter of paying attention and learning what to notice.

I started to notice more because I had to. It was stimulating and refreshing.

Secondly. I am becoming more in touch with my writing "voice," more at home with it. I am noticing I have something to say and a way to say it. I like watching the words unfold on the page in a design that says something. I notice how I use words and structure ideas. I love being surprised when I stumble into a turn of phrase or way of thinking about something fresh to me. I love the creativity of it: empty page, then full page. And seeing my patterns of thought centers me. Having ADD, I need such focussing.

Lastly, I am always heartened when someone reads what I wrote, connects, is challenged or encouraged. Connecting and making an impact which moves people beyond where they are is how I am wired. It is deeply fulfilling when my words mingle beneficially with another person's life experience. Man . . .

So I am going to keep writing frequently and let the discipline shape me. May Jesus guide the process. May Jesus shape me for his use in it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

There Are Times When the Kingdom Just Needs to Kick Your Butt.

I have been reading Ken Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I am slowly being changed by the book. Bailey does a bang-up job giving the reader a birds-eye view of the religious and political culture in which Jesus inaugurated his Father's redemptive Kingdom.

Most impacting is how his examination of the ministry of Jesus has opened me afresh to the confrontive nature of his brief 3 years of ministry, and the how the Kingdom is designed actually to operate in the world. Jesus and the Kingdom are far more gritty and demanding than I think many churches teach.

Redemption is not nice or polite. It is a flesh and blood confrontation of life against death in all its insidious manifestations. It is not pretty, or politically correct. It fiercely crosses boundaries, exposes sacred cows and vigorously upends dead traditions. It flies in the face of prejudices and undermines cherished conventions that insulate people from getting into the mess of making things right in people's lives.

And it confronts leaders who help people stay in soul-smothering safety and security.

So, I'm having my butt kicked by the Jesus I am seeing in the book. It has been revealing that the cross he fitted for me to carry often stays in the closet, out of sight and less threatening. Bonhoeffer's dictum that Jesus and the cross bid "a man (and woman), to come and die has never translated into radical steadfastness in my life. For me, it have been more like, " I'll really pick it up one of these days. And I'll know where to find it."

I hedge. I procrastinate.

I distract. I get fascinated with trifles.

I hesitate and hide: "Tomorrow, Lord . . . no, really, tomorrow. Yup."

Through Bailey's keen cultural examination of the life and words of Jesus I am continually exposed and confronted with how much fear and wanting to be likable infect me. I'm a proud son of a gun. But sadly, I am of little use to God if I will not be graciously (not politely) bold and assertive in confronting the death and blindness enslaving so many in Northampton and in the world. Merely going about and being nice just sucks. Ugh!

You see there is an "in your face" urgency to the ministry of Jesus, Peter and Paul. What crushed/stole life from the poor, defenseless, voiceless and powerless required truth-telling which offended the Roman occupying Empire, and religious establishment of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin. It wasn't about being obnoxious or rude. It was not full of fleshly pride or lust for dominance. It was about the Kingdom truth that looses chains and leads people toward forgiveness and freedom. It was about confronting the powers that be and throwing them down. The virile, loving truth they all lived subverted and overturned the dominion of death, and began the Reign of God through the Church . . . then and now.

Last night, I caught the last half hour of CNN's special Homegrown Terror. While deeply troubling on a number of levels, I was struck by the depth of dedication - maniacal and evil though it is - of the young men (some only teenagers), willing to give everything for their beliefs: single-minded dedication, even fanaticism. They follow their leaders as if these men are speaking the very words of God. They know the teachings under which they have been indoctrinated, and are completely about the business of violently changing the world according to them.

Their misguided example summoned me to think: "Shouldn't the Kingdom of God and the example and teaching of Jesus compel me(us) to the same degree of loyalty?" Isn't the urgency of the hour worth me speaking boldly with people about the truth no matter? Shouldn't my love be uncompromising and changing the world on my heart all the time? Shouldn't fearless serving be what I spend most my days doing, especially toward people far from the Kingdom, even antagonistic to it? Shouldn't I be willing to suffer whenever asked by my Lord for this most precious Treasure?


It is the normal, biblical Christian life. Anything less is counterfeit ersatz, and pointless no matter how good it feels or important it appears. Jesus-followers are to be about just this: constantly following Jesus, incarnating his values and example as he continues his redemptive work through you and me in our neighborhoods, workplaces, homes, towns, and cities.

I more and more want it to be so in me, and in the life of imagine/Northampton. Anything less is bilge-water compromise in my opinion.

So if you think about it when you finish this, pray for yourself and then pray that I would begin today to bold in Northampton. No compromise; only following.

Jesus give me the grace to should my cross with joy and affection. Let my life be characterized by love for you so strong that the cost does not matter. Grace me with single-hearted devotion to you, and for your Kingdom. Fill me with the joy set before me that I might endure whatever lies ahead in your service. Let people see you in me because I am emptied of me. Give a boldness that changes lives, gives sight to the blind, frees the captives and proclaims the Year of the Lord's favor in Northampton.

I have no idea how many days I have left, but make them be the most redemptively fruitful they have ever been.

Make it so as you desire.

Soli Deo Gloria!

And, oh, yeah . . . Maranatha!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I Experienced Conviviality Last Night

Late Latin convvilis, from Latin convvium, banquet : com-, com- + vvere, to live; see gwei- in Indo-European roots.]

I love this word, although, I rarely hear anyone use it. In a nutshell, it means festive or merry. Someone who is convivial has a fondness for festive social occasions. I also love the Latin root "to live the banquet," to experience full merriment and festivity. I think most people enjoy a festive occasion with friends and family. Even people with social anxiety have a longing to be able to participate in fun occasions when they get the anxiety under control. We are made for joy and being intertwined. Especially pleasurable is when everyone has a great time in the process.

I think that happened last night at our Christmas Party. There were 15 of us: 12 adults and 3 kids. We planned an evening of relaxed hanging out: sharing food, offering Christmas memories and traditions, and having an informal conversation about what helps us connect to the Christmas story.

We got to know each other better, I think. For some, faces and names became people with shared experiences.

At one point in the party, I looked into the living room from the kitchen and heard people actively "living the banquet" with each other. They were talking and laughing, paying attention, and connecting lightheartedly. There was palpable energy flowing from the room. If you saw the scene you would have felt these folks liked being around each other. It sure looked and sounded like they did.

It was sure a pleasure for Tricia and me to see and be a part of.

The thought occurred to me this morning that conviviality is a gracious gift of God for the journey which can be outrageously taxing at times. To make merry with friends at a festive occasion or celebration takes the edge off. Such occasions are like oases where people can set aside the pressures and strains of life for a few hours to just enjoy a nice time together over food, drink, music and lively conversation. We all celebrate too little these days.

It also occurred to me that convivial occasions are a foretaste of not only the astounding Wedding Feast of the Lamb, a banquet beyond what we can imagine, but the atmosphere and culture of heaven where the general mood will be that of joy and creativity. Laughter will be viral and being together will be an easy preference. The New Jerusalem will be abuzz with culture and gatherings and celebrating in the midst of work which enlivens and blesses everyone everyday.

As I alluded, we had a little taste of that last night with really wonderful people.

I think I can say for the team we hope that imagine/Northampton will be characterized as a church where the atmosphere and culture of relaxed conviviality will be the "way we roll."

Friday, December 11, 2009

It Will Always Be MERRY CHRISTMAS For Me

My post is a simple declaration:

You will never hear "Happy Holidays" coming out of my soul patch-bedecked mouth. It ain't gonna happen. There is no reason for it, political correctness notwithstanding. It is insipid and impotent. Blah!

At this time every year the McDermott's celebrate Christmas along with the Church in the world and those who have gone before us in heaven. It is a Creation-wide event transcending human tradition or cultural innovation. It marks the astounding beginning of the redemption of all Creation through Jesus, the Christ. A deeper, more profound REAL trumps popular cultural sensitivities around what is correct to say at this time of year.

Even the phrase "Merry Christmas" is richer and more evocative than the plain-jane (no offense to all the "Jane's" who might read this), "Happy Holidays" we are supposed to mouth sheepishly to everyone. Making merry is about light-hearted celebration over Emmanuel (God has come to be with us) and transcendent joy. "Happy Holidays" is vague. What exactly are we supposed to be happy about: having a vacation, getting new stuff to add to our bloated menageries of things, not having to work for a few days? Really, that's it?

Now, it is well-known that depression heightens during this season. It is the very antithesis of happiness and making merry. Great expectations over warm family times, reconnecting with friends, experiencing joy and having wonderful Hallmark moments for many are never met. The complete superiority of Christmas over Holiday is that Christmas promises new beginnings, the reality of redemption , the invitation to be glad because help is on the way, and everything will be made right someday and someday soon. The Christ around whom we should be merry is with us. He has been born to us, a son has been given. We are not alone or left out. Christ is cause for merriment.

Holiday schmoliday, I say!

It is and will remain "Merry Christmas" for me. I will not be silenced by the pressure of merely fitting in.

After all, saying "Merry Christmas" extends a blessing to people I want to offer them. It says God is very near you. Take a minute to be glad.

So, the Merriest Christmas to you all and to those you love. Do me a favor and give a "Merry Christmas" blessing to someone today. Ask Jesus to show you someone who could use it. You are blessing them even if they don't realize it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

When God Calls You Out

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking with an old friend who has been a partner in ministry and a spiritual directee. He lives in another state, but from time to time we get to check in with each other. He is the real deal in terms of being a Jesus follower, a man who has given his life to him and his Kingdom interests. I have always known my friend to be fierce about Christian spirituality, maturity and mission.

A few years ago God began to unsettle him. He was deeply involved in leading a local church and serving the city in which it's located. The unsettling started with a persistent desire to be more authentic and connected to the Spirit in his ministry. As long as I have known him, he has wanted more of Jesus. He was struggling with the endless minutiae of running an organization and trying to turn it toward deeper Kingdom relevance. He was game for the struggle, but sensed God wanted to take him into new territory as a disciple. He wanted to be more and more out amongst the people who did not have much idea of Jesus, but needed to.

The long and the short of it is God called him out of where of he was. After a time of wrestling and discerning, he left his role with no clear roadmap of how God was going to fill in the picture for him, other than he needed to move away. So he did.

Since he left, he has been ushered deeper into life with the Spirit and life as a missionary to people who need to hear of Jesus. He is tent-making and spending time building relationships with folks. He also influences the believers around him to go deeper into life with Jesus. He is keeping his options open for where God will direct him next. He is more connected to the Spirit than I have ever known him to be.

After our conversation, I got to thinking about when God calls people out of the familiar. He did it with Abraham, Moses, Gideon, David, Nicodemus, Paul and Peter. He's done it with people from every corner of the world throughout the centuries. He did it with me and everyone on the imagine/Northampton team. He is doing it with people now gathering around imagine/Northampton. God calls people out.

Here are a few things I have noticed about when God calls us out:

1. He tends to create a restlessness in you, a "holy discontent," if you will, a frequent whisper of a new call, a nagging desire for something different, more or sometimes less. While it may not be a clear snapshot of anything concrete, the sense won't do way; something has to change.

2. Sometimes the familiar just seems to lose its sparkle. As people say today, they are "just not feelin' it," anymore. Other times, the scent of change is unmistakable, but unwelcome. Things are humming along nicely in your life, but something is up and it won't go away. Grrrr. Or, the longing for change is welcomed and eagerly cultivated when the inkling of change surfaces. How it happens wikk most likely be different for each person, but the call to change is in the air.

3. It seems the final destination - if there is one at all - has no discernible shape, at first. You just "know" something is percolating and your life must shift because of it. God is saying "pack your bags (literally or figuratively) and go," but he is not forwarding you an itinerary. He just wants you to go. The journey itself seems the reason for going at all.

4. If you respond to the new call, you will be taken deeper into relationship with God, and the opportunity to have a redemptive impact or make a difference becomes more substantial. The calling requires greater faith, trust, courage and freedom to respond to his promptings, but your world expands markedly.

5. When God calls you out, you become more who you are intended to be if you follow and trust him. Calling out is a maturing, refining, "aging" process. You get closer to your own person. The change will change you.

6. When God calls you out other people may or may not affirm it. They may be bewildered by it or threatened. They may be unbelievably supportive saying things like, "I wonder why it took you so long to see this," or "Man, you are made for what you are going to do!" Not everyone will get it or care. Some will be stunningly supportive.

7. When God calls you out, you may never see the ultimate reason why. You may even feel the call ended in failure or seemed, in the final tally, "much ado about very little." No matter. God calls you out for reasons envisioned before the founding of the world; your works were "created in advance for you to do." The point is you followed the Spirit's promptings or your "holy discontent." It is in obeying that the possibility of living a real life is found: life to the full, life well-lived and headed for a "Well done, good and faithful servant," from the mouth of God at the end of your days.

So I thought it might be helpful to ask you these questions?

  • Has God been whispering it is time to leave your Ur, or your Egypt and head for parts unknown? Are you listening for that?

  • Are you sleepwalking through most of your life content to be secure, predictable and happy?

  • Are you restless with God and don't know why? Are persistent thoughts like "What am I doing here?" or "Is this all there is for me?" showing up?

  • Have you felt discontent, but are too afraid to act on it? Have you ignored the Spirit's promptings because they feel too scary or impossible? Have you let the dream God gave you die?

  • Do you have your own story to tell about being called out? Have you ever told anyone? Why not?

May the Holy Spirit unsettle you as much as he needs to fulfill the Father's Kingdom initiatives in and through you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Grace and Gut-checks Paid a Visit Yesterday

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of meeting missionaries Peter Noonan and his wife, Rachel. A mutual friend from College Church - veteran missionary Don Lundgren - linked us up. As it turns out, Peter and I have a number of friends in common from the Barn and beyond. He and they were a part of a now-defunct church in Amherst called Agape Fellowship. As the saying goes "it's a small world."

Striking to me in meeting and talking with them was the fact they are missionaries to the Middle East: Egypt, Kuwait, and especially Iraq, their current post. I was fascinated to hear their stories of working in Muslim cultures, and living as Christians in a troubled part of the world (although Peter said more than once it appeared to him inner city ministry in the US is equal to or more dangerous than ministry in the Middle East). We talked much of the unique challenges they face in bringing the Gospel to people who can be killed for converting.

Most fruitful was our conversation about the contextualizing of ministry to the people and place in which one lives. I am well aware of this principle, but hearing their experience of negotiating thew subtleties of Arab culture in the countries they lived was instructive. The Noonen's reinforced the reality that patience and perseverance are necessary for engaging people through the lens of their cultural norms. We have had to learn Northampton culture to even begin having any sort of impact on people here. We are still learning nuances and shadings.

My experience with them reminded me that I have always been humbled by Christians called to leave the easy familiarity of their own culture to minister in foreign lands. To a person, these folks demonstrate a humility and authenticity which marks them as followers of Jesus. They have sacrificed for the Kingdom often at great cost. And yet they have a vitality of faith and love for God quite winsome and charming. They seem cut from another cloth while they are also very much you and me in our ordinariness.

We talked for an hour and a half, after which I felt bouyed and encouraged about our challenging mission in Northampton. The Noonan's faith and vibrancy was a breath of fresh air.

Grace paid a visit yesterday.

As did some gut-checks: Am I willing to leave everything to serve Christ's redemptive Kingdom, sparing no cost and joyfully embracing sacrifice to bring the Gospel into the lives of the people here? Can I be single-hearted in devotion to making him known? Would I embrace death in order to do that? Am I all talk and all show, artifice enfleshed? Do I protect rules of engagement that preserve comfort and control? Or am I just a 60 year-old weenie satisfied with going about on the surface of this mission?

All good questions . . . They remind me:

Gut-checks are blessings.

Gut-checks reveal counterfeit loyalities.

Gut-checks show the true condition of the heart.

Gut-checks cut through posturing and lip-service.

Gut-checks make us spiritually naked pinpointing flab and flaws.

Gut-checks offer the best chance live past mediocrity and superficiality.

Gut-checks get us to the sobering truth of our deepest loyalties.

A simple conversation I didn't realize I would be having a few days prior refocused me a bit. It re-tethered me to why I am here in the first place. Their example became my missional GPS.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

When Discouragement Comes Calling

Someone very recently said to me that if I am feeling discouraged almost daily it is a true sign I am a church planter. His words, coming from someone who successfully planted one, were a great encouragement to me. I felt less alarmed and guilty about feeling discouraged in the often crazy-quilt experience of this work-the ups and down can come fast and furious more often than I like.

I realized that a big part my struggle with discouragement comes from expectations I place on myself and what I think others are placing on me, however innocently. When they ask with good intentions, "So how is the church going?" After I sheepishly tell them where we are in the mission, what I hear in my head is, "Really, that's all the further along you are? Um, what's wrong with you? Maybe you shouldn't even be doing this? In fact, maybe this was a fool's errand in the first place. What were you thinking . . . someone like you?" I want to slink into a hole and put out a sign saying "I am so sorry-really I am." Crazy, I know, but discouragement shows up quickly to reinforce the questions, and if I listen to what I am feeling at that moment, I get bushwhacked.

A part of me, truth be told, when I hear the progress and fruit of other planters wonders why we are not making "better" progress. I know we are under-resourced which creates a constant uphill battle. I realize we are learning how to do this as we go. It is true we are working in a tough place where obstacles are formidable. There are tangible reasons to work through. The problem is discouragement often blows past those reasons and wants to lure us into hopelessness. If it can gain a strong foothold we are effectively neutralized and rendered impotent for the task.

I have to admit, sometimes I get near the threshhold of hopelessness. I can see its dark ruins staining the distance and get a whiff of the death it represents. Not good.

But not the end of the story either.

Eventually, the Holy Spirit leans in and reminds me I am being fitted for a depth of trust and faith I have never experienced. I have been fitted similarly for the ministries God has invited us to shoulder, but not anywhere near this level. There is a very real "Will you believe and trust anyway even if things get bleak or the struggle never abates? Will you?" pervading each day in Northampton. God offers steel-jawed tenacity in this struggle, big-league faith and perseverance. Oddly enough, discouragement is necessary to achieve this degree of faithfulness. I don't like that to be honest, but I know it's necessary, even desirable (even if we fail ultimately in launching imagine/Northampton in the process, by the way).

I know discouragement will continue to come from time to time. It may even knock me off my feet once or twice. No matter, I want to know the depth of faith and trust God beckons me toward. Right now trying to launch imagine/Northampton is his vehicle for creating it in me. I am going to lose some days and I am going to break through into new territory some days. My hope is that imagine/Northampton will be planted and I will lay hold ofwhat God has been working to teach me.

The right perspective in this struggle I suspect is that in all of it, God is fitting me for the "weight of glory." The endgame defines and focuses my struggle toward eternity.

I like that.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Prayerwalking and Church Planting

Since coming to Northampton to help plant imagine/Northampton I have grown to see the value of prayerwalking on the streets of this city. I am finding there is a clear correlation between how connected I am (both in feeling and action) to this city, and how much I prayerwalk. Here is what I have discovered so far:

1. By walking around the city as I pray and observing its people, rhythms, visual artifacts (signs, grafitti, etc.), and eccentricities, I am able to better understand how Northampton sees itself and then pray with alacrity and wisdom.

2. As I walk, God talks to me about how to pray for a certain neighborhood, business or person I walk by. Sometimes he is very specific; always he desires to be "found. "It is for freedom" that he desires to free Northampton.

3. As I take more prayerwalks, I better sense how God wants to transform this city and its diverse people through the Kingdom and its redemptive values. I understand how much he loves Northampton and longs to see it "open the eyes of its heart."

4. As I walk, I become more and more aware of the hard spiritual darkness that subtly enshrouds the city in oppression, and blindness. I notice the cruel effects of sin, addiction, mental illness and spiritual depression in the eyes of people I look at. Many are trapped and have given up. They have a liberator or champion, but don't know it at all.

5. As I walk, I feel less distant from the people around me-less disconnected from my neighbors and the people I walk by and live amongst, less afraid of them. They have become more human, less a face and more a person with a heart and soul like me - with dreams and hopes, pain and promise.

6. Through my prayerwalks I am changing: I long more and more to make a real difference here. I want people to know and surrender to this God who is immeasurably more than their deepest hopes and strongest longings. I want to know how near he is to them, how forgiven they are, and how much he treasures them. I want them to see Jesus and be captivated.

7. As I pray and walk my love for God grows because I see the goodness of his heart and the greatness of his promise. I see the grandeur of his Kingdom where the lost are found, the broken are healed, and the forgotten ones are given a true place of belonging.

8. My prayerwalks are where I feel the most hope that real Kingdom change can happen in Northampton in my lifetime. Praying keeps me focused on the mission and the potential. It makes the "not-yet," feel "but soon, maybe even today."

Anyway, I hope you who read this blogpost will be inspired to get out and prayerwalk your own neighborhoods, towns and cities. Maybe commit to once a week for 6 months and get others in your family, small group or church to do the same. You will not regret it.

Then let me know how things are going. I really want to hear from you about this. It always encourages me when you respond:

Call or text: 860.729.2549.
Make a comment on the blog.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

To Help Us Grow Into the Missionary Mindset

Being here in Northampton working to plant a church has taught me many lessons, some of them pleasant and some of them very challenging. A prime one has been that it is one thing to talk about being a missional church, or being a missionary trying to plant a church. It is quite another to actually live as a missionary everyday. I have found I need to keep a missional mindset at the forefront each day or it slips into the ether and I go about lesser things.

In order to help me and others in the imagineGroup become more aware of what it means to be a missionary each day, I have created a series of questions we will reflect on beginning today, and discuss weekly when we meet with one another. I hope it will ignite us in our mission to extend Jesus's redemptive impact on the folks of Northampton who do not know him.

I am including the questions here to help you do your own reflection and perhaps become more missional than you are currently. You might even form a group of like-minded folks around this spiritual exercise and use the questions to encourage a more missionary lifestyle in your spheres of redemptive influence. Tailor them to your challenges and needs.


1. Am I praying daily for people around me who don't know Jesus?

2. Did I make a connection or have a conversation with someone I didn't know this week?

3. Did I take the initiative to love and serve someone new to me?

4. Did I leave my comfort zone to connect with a person normally I wouldn't?

5. Am I building a relationship with someone who doesn't know Jesus?

6. Did I invite anyone to a small group or worship gathering I attend?

7. Am I seeking to get involved with a service organization in my town or city?

8. Where am I struggling with being a missionary? What weaknesses are being exposed by the Holy Spirit?

The goal of the questions is to allow God to develop your primary identity as a Jesus follower committed to his mission in the world. Such identity requires personal examination as to the actual allegiances of your heart. Is God's redemptive Kingdom and its realization your deepest longing, and the growing focus of your life: how you invest your time, talent, money and material resources?

I hope you undertake this exercise with someone else for 6 months. If you do, let me know what you discovered, how your life changed, and how God was glorified in the process.

Peace and soli Deo gloria.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Early Thanksgiving Morning, November 26, 2009

It's just dawn now. The crib is mostly quiet, filled with sleeping daughters and friends. Tricia is in the kitchen beginning the climb to the sumptuous feast we will have later with the rest of the family including grandchildren. I am a little sleepy, but will wake up soon with a morning walk around Northampton.

Mostly, I am thankful for the cornucopia of unexpected/undeserved blessings God has showered on me. I am rich with a fullness of life I barely comprehend. Let me show you:

I have Jesus for reasons only he understands fully. I know God and it was at his invitation! What?

I have an astounding eternal future free of tears, pain, regret and chronic selfishness. How can it be so? Yet it is!

I have an astounding eternal future full of joy, freedom, completion and fulfillment light years beyond my best imagining!

I am loved by one of the most extraordinary women in the world who graces my life with gifts I never expected. Her complete beauty and grace has humanized me.

I have 3 gifted and unique children, a daughter-in-law who is immeasurably more than I could have hoped for, and two (soon to be three) of the most beautiful grandchildren a grandfather could wish for.

I live in a weirdly alive place called Northampton, full of quirk and nuttiness where I get to be about the King of King's business everyday . . . I am entrusted with a treasure I hardly know how to open some days.

I am around bright, courageous Jesus-followers who are willing to sacrifice the good life to help people find REAL LIFE. They inspire and comfort me.

I have been able to play one of the most challenging and exciting instruments in the world for 45 years. To say its has been a joy and gift cannot voice the wonder of it for me.

I have had the exquisite blessing of living a creative life and being around extraordinarily creative people who opened me to dream.

With all my brokenness and sin God has been patient, kind, gentle and lavish in grace and love. He is my Abba, my friend, and my Lord. His goodness has unlocked my heart many times.

I have not lived under cruel subjugation and tyranny. I have not lived in crushing poverty. I have not had my spirit squashed, my livelihood stolen or my freedom revoked.

I have been given untold opportunities, countless invitations to life and more kindnesses than I recognize or appreciate.

I am blessed, saved, ennobled, privileged, enabled, unfettered, found, invited, welcomed, called, accepted, graced, filled and loosed.

Happy is the man who has gained what he could not find and been given what he could not take.

I am one of those happy men this Thanksgiving Day, 2009.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In the Walking Forward, There Must Be the Remembering.

Yesterday, Tricia, our son, Dan, and I went to the Barn in Simsbury, CT to attend the funeral of a long-time and dear friend of ours, Dave Ross. We met him and his wife, Phyllis, in the early '80's when we were living in Winsted, CT and attending Bakerville Methodist Church together. When we moved to Simsbury, they did as well and we attended the Barn together. While never enough, we spent many hours together over the years eating, laughing and sharing our challenges and insights as Jesus-followers.

As I sat amidst his family, and friends we had not seen much since we left the Barn in the summer of 2008, I was struck by this thought: in the midst of walking forward with the birth of imagine/northampton with all the time and effort it takes to see it through, it is critical to remember the inestimable treasure we hold in family and friendships, in people who have accompanied our lives and we, theirs'. While I know the thought of stopping to note and relish the people we know and love has been examined ad nauseum, it still caught me up short for a minute. It felt as though insight paid a visit.

In being with Dave's family and getting a chance to catch up with old friends, especially some of the guys on the Worship Team I played with for years, I realized that in the birthing process we currently undertake, our focus is constantly fixed on looking forward, creating and becoming. We gaze ahead and what could be takes center stage.

Ultimately, we are being formed by the birthing; it is leaving an indelible mark on us and keeps forming who we are.

But, occasions like a funeral, or a wedding or party with old friends also help us remember how we have been shaped by people who left a mark on us as well. Such experiences:

1. Recall warm memories of life lived together with laughter and tears such that we were left changed. We see their influence afresh and rejoice or reflect.

2. Help us remember how graced our lives have been because of these people who drew along side and added to or transformed something in us for the better. In remembering, gratitude has a chance to refresh our hearts.

3. Bring to mind regrets around opportunities for friendship lost or hurts sustained. They are bittersweet in the remembering, but offer hindsight glimpses into what could have been done differently, or might still be done differently.

4. Let us see our history and life journey in the fresh conversation with people, who while growing older, still feel that we have known them and they us. The familiarity lingers and we feel safe.

5. Remind us of the mystery of persons, the profound sacredness of human being infused with God-breathed life and sentience. We see these people who populated our lives; we remember those who have left for home with God and, if we let them, even for a few moments, wonder and longing seep up from inside us and whisper joy.

6. Let us see once again it is in relationships past that we were formed and made ready for new relationships in the birthing and growing of a church. We have become who we are and give away who who have learned to be, in part, because of the folks we have known.

These days I am caught mid-stream in birthing imagine/northampton, chasing down "what-if's" and following God into a future he is creating. It has my full attention. But once in a while, I get to glimpse into the past in the presence of someone who filled a part of it with me, and left me different because of it.

Saturday reminded me it is good to linger there once in awhile.

I am glad I did.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

When the Speed Forward Saps the Longing.

I will never forget when I was a young man playing drums in one the first, if not the first touring Christian jazz group, the frustration I felt because the longing I had to see the group attain a larger audience nationally never materialized. My longing was palpable, even physical. It was persistent and strong. It screamed at me sometimes. Other times it just moaned.

Every day when we were off the road, and there were many toward the end, I would wait for news of gigs. I would walk to the band mailbox to check for inquiries about booking a date. I would wait for James, the "famous" one in the group to tell me about a phone call that would open doors. I was miserable most of the time because of the interminable wait and diminishing opportunities over the months.

I have realized over the years that my wiring lends itself to longing especially about what could be, what might be, if only . . . I exhilarate in new beginnings, starting-from-scratch hints of something alive and wonderful, or creating from nothing and seeing new birth. I want to experience the intelligently novel, the startlingly insightful or clever. I want to taste the delight of heaven's freedom and freshness even now. I long for the "you mean it can be this way?" I love being surprised by ingenuity that transports me to a world beyond and awakens my longing for more and deeper and more real.

Longing also hints at justice and making things right too. It is not merely concerned with pleasure and delight. God-breathed longing wants the good and true to prevail. Longing says "I have a dream." If it is aimed at important things it can launch the trajectory of an entire life and save or heal many others.

So when I am most myself, I am longing.

The problem is: so much of life involves waiting and struggling to turn worthwhile longing into reality. Creation is subject to frustration because of sin. Frustration sidles up to longing and gradually saps its life if one is not vigilant and tenacious. Headway is made or thwarted, and often, if headway is painfully slow, longing becomes anemic or eventually abandoned. A vision dies, sometimes even a God-sent one.

I have found beginning new ministry, ala imagine/northampton begins with vigorous longing and dreaming. It's exciting, even intoxicating to a degree. Life abounds in the idea and almost overwhelming potential of it all. The vision is grand! But you soon learn you need to keep your feet on the ground because the way forward will be tough, strewn with obstacles, frustrations and rabbit-trails galore . . . or just plain waiting to see what God is going to bring into being. Patience will need to be of the one foot in front of the other varieties, and it will feel sometimes like climbing that last 100 feet of Mount Everest with little strength and oxygen left.

In founding at least 5 new ministries, I have seen that for energizing longing to prevail you need a "one-day-at-a-time" perspective.You keep the longing simmering by patient persistence, not expecting too much progress, but not despairing of any either. You notice the steps forward, no matter how small and you expect the progress to be modest, unless God does the unusual. You are in for the duration, and you never stop longing for what could or must be. Gratitude for the smallest openings helps as well.

If the speed forward saps one's longing to trace levels over time he or she will need to take stock with God and let him opt them out or re-fire them.

Ultimately, longing turns dreams into reality when the person entrusted with God-sized longings never lets the progress of today sap the promise of many tomorrows lived in " a long obedience in the same longing of worth." Cheesy, I know, but true.[

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why We Want to Re-tool Our Worship

Before I explain what I mean by "re-tooling," I should say what I do not mean. I do not mean we will change our worship in a way that it has no identity as worship. It will not morph into something unrecognizable. We will not try to make it merely an expression of cultural hipness or relevance to increase our favor with the surrounding community. We will not strip our worship of biblical truth, or present a tamed and impotent god. We will never compromise the essentials of historical, biblical Christian faith to make them more palatable to people. We will be sensitive to those who have no Christian culture, but not at the expense of what God has revealed as the ultimate Real underlying all of life.

The following are my thoughts, not necessarily everyone's on the team.

Re-tooling might mean the following for us:

1. Using music, art, drama and dance that is unfamiliar, might not be "Christian," at all or is neither based on hymns nor contemporary Christian songs. The art forms may be provoking, uncomfortable to look at, or challenging to experience. They will always be about truth, and at the very least, hint at redemption.

2. The worship "service" may not look like what people are used to experiencing: there maybe be no sermon or message, or no music. A group "object-lesson" activity may be the only thing we do when we gather. There may be be just a drama with a reflection, or a presentation with prayer. The entire gathering might be about praying together.

3. We will make more time for interaction, participation and spiritual formation-type reflection. It may be silence and quiet reflection after the message, or a group activity that expresses a concept we are working on as a community.

4. Worship may be liturgical, or spontaneous and free flowing, depending on what God wants to do on a given day.

5. Maybe worship will be about debating an issue of concern to the community and how Christian ethics, morality and principles shed light on it.

6. Some Sundays might be about a service project together in Northampton.

7. We will change the atmosphere of the worship space from time to time to reflect what God is doing. We might add reflection "stations," creative expression labs, and prayer zones.

8. Perhaps it may be an open-to-the-community meal and celebration together.

So we are looking at how we do everything regarding worship. We want freshness and aliveness to be in evidence when we gather. We really want to follow the Holy Spirit into a fresh way of worshiping so people's imaginations are enticed and opened to the God beyond their imagination. If it all becomes so predictable, people eventually tune out and sit there passively. They expect little but predictability. They are satisfied with sameness, but deadened to wonder. Or they become cemented in only one way to worship (the way we do it here), and stay closed to other ways God might be inviting then to enjoy him.

We hate that!

Re-tooling for us is the chance to create worship that will spark people toward following him with vitality and creativity in their lives. It should refresh and refocus them because they find something new and wonderful about God each time they worship him together. It should make them want to bring their friends who want little to do with him or those who say follow him. The "hour on Sunday" should be more than an obligation or a "might was well go." We believe and are searching for how to make it a reality at imagine/northampton.

May the Holy Spirit grant us favor in finding such worship.

Pray for us!

Notes from imagine/northampton's Very Second Worship

Let's begin with weirdness: the Wednesday previous to our very second worship my back went into serius spasm. Periodically over the years it has done so. The weirdness derived from the day after the worship: it unlocked with little fanfare. The day before, I genuinely feared I would not even be able to show up on Sunday, much less set up and play my drums. Worse still, I would be of little use in schlepping and setting up any of the other pieces to our "travelling roadshow." While much of that turned out true, I was able to play my part no the worse for wear and drawing no attention to myself.. I also received generous help borne of compassion from team members.

What worked/hints of encouragement:

1. While we knew we would have fewer folks the second worship, we had 50+ with some new people.

2. We had more people to set up and take down the stuff (we have to turn an empty space into a worship space, including the imagine kids room). In being able to do so, we then could have adequate time for the worship team to run through the set without pressure and confusion.

3. The music was tighter and better done. The potential of the team was evident. People worshiped even when the style was unfamiliar at times. We controlled the sound problems in the room a bit better.

4. We communicated announcements better.

5. We were able to get people interacting more effectively during the sermon. Jim got them talking.

6. The imagine kids room was less chaotic and there was more help for Karen and Ophelia. They had a ball.

7. The room looked beautiful. We reconfigured the set-up so the worship team was off the stage and in the nearer the people. The seating was in a u-shape and facing west rather than north as the month before. It felt a little more intimate.

8. Tricia's reflection drew people to ponder the coal which touched Isaiah's lips and the nail that pierced Jesus's wrists.

9. The food and hospitality was wonderful.

10. The coordinating of all the pre-worship logistical details was spectacular!

11. Jim's talk was clear and efficient.

12. The team of people and smattering of volunteers (some who even belong to other churches), we have to work with are wonderfully gifted and dedicated!

What still needs improving:

1. The acoustics in the room still need to be controlled better.

2. People must have the chance to participate more, so there is less a spectator worship environment.

3. No one from the town came. There are still 99% Christians in attendance (don't get me wrong, we are grateful they are with us). The "service" still addresses mostly believers and has a "churchy" feel to it. No real innovation is evident. The structure is just like what virtually every church does. More about that in my next blog.

4. We need to get better at "directing traffic" to the Northampton Center for the Arts, including places to park.

5. We need to get the word out to the town more effectively.

6. We need to do the offering more effectively so that people know our real needs.

7. We need better videos to use; perhaps even create our own.

8. The entire service was a half hour too long; we must tighten it.


All in all, I'd give us a C, maybe a C+. Average is ok, but not in line with our core value of excellence. We have a way to go, but there is a growing, solid foundation to work from.

Please pray we have the resources, courage, strength, wisdom and humility to actually become imagine/northampton as God sees it . . . nothing more, nothing less.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Reflecting Our Very First Ever Worship

Someone asked me a few days ago why I had not blogged immediately about imagine/northampton's very first worship gathering. Part of my tardiness in the matter had to do with a strong need to recover from the sheer effort and hard work necessary to actually pull it together and pull it off. We knew it would be a mountain of work to be a "traveling roadshow" of sorts, setting up and tearing down everything, but "WOW!" This old man's body sat me down and had a spirited chat with me along the lines of "Do you realize what you're putting me through, cowboy?"

The second reason I didn't put down my thoughts sooner had to do with the tangle of ideas and emotions careening in my head after the event like quanta. It began on the Monday-after with being pulled every which way from, "I have to get new music together for the team to rehearse this Thursday," and reflecting on all sorts of comments people were invited to offer about how the gathering was to them, to "How are we going to solve some of the problems we encountered on Sunday?" There is so much to learn, and so much to get better at. And that's just with the worship piece of imagine/northampton! I felt that weight right away.

Gladly though, I have had time to think about the day and I have a few observations:

1. I can't say enough that even in the "hurry-up" of creating the worship space with the team that morning, I was filled with life at the notion we were actually finally doing worship, and people were gathered. There has always been something very lively to me about getting ready for a public worship event, perhaps its the wait-and-see potential of it all. The energy is infectious and uplifting. The anticipation of how the day will play out captivated my wondering and hope.

2. When the atmosphere was created it looked beautiful and different for a church "service." The ballroom was lovely and light. The tables, centerpieces, and food, and the stage filled with drums, instruments and mics intensified the energy for me. It felt good and right for that day. There was a place for the kids to go and good stuff for them to do around the idea of wonder. They would be engaged (the 20+ of them were, I understand).

When people began to come into the space, many I recognized and some I didn't, I felt the realness of what we were doing differently from other efforts we had made in the mission of imagine. People were gathering with a "come and see" anticipation and seemed engaged from the git. I was amazed people were there at all, frankly. I'm being honest.

Another remarkable part of the day for me was being once again able to help lead worship. Most of you know I had been on the Worship Team at the Barn for 15+ years as a drummer. The last 2.5 years before we moved to Massachusetts I was on the Worship Design Team at the Barn also with many of the same folks now on our current Launch and Leadership Team. Last Sunday, I was finally doing it all again, only this time with a church I was a part of launching. It felt very natural, like being in very familiar surroundings, but now in Northampton and at the very beginning.

An experience not as pleasant was the tension of trying to stay on top of all sorts of set-up details (nowhere near my gift), and last minute logistics needing attention. All kinds of work was getting done by team and imagine group members, but I was still trying to stay on top of musical details, drum equipment details, plus everything else from "are the greeters in place," to "are we going to get all the tech stuff ready before 3?" I was not at all solely responsible for that, but my mind was still racing with everything needing to come together for the gathering to go well, at least with our part of the bargain. I wasn't worried about God.

All in all, the essential minutiae were distracting me from completely savoring what was about to happen. Still there I noticed


  • Seeing people milling about before the worship eating, greeting one another and talking together.
  • Seeing the team pull it all together under pressure.
  • Having our son, Dan, daughter-in-law Lindsay, and grandchildren Conor and Taylor there with us.
  • Watching Jeanne Dubuque make her acting debut in the opening sketch (with very short notice, mind you), and do it well.
  • Seeing Tricia do a bang-up job drawing people into reflection after Jim's talk even though her mic was off, and seeing people engaged with the questions she gave them.
  • Hearing Jim preach again after almost 2 years. Seeing him in his element ably handling the Word of God for us.
  • Hearing Silvana nail the reflection song after Jim's talk.
  • Experiencing Maureen's servant heart and can-do spirit as she helped us set it all up and then greet people.
  • Watching Karen and her dad set up the imagine Kids room, knowing they would be in great hands. Having Ophelia from Amherst College help with the kids.
  • Getting to sit at my set of Gretsch drums behind a group of talented singers and musicians taking our worship maiden voyage together, and despite not having enough time to do a run-through, keeping it together and helping people worship God.
  • Getting to hear Jen and Kris play.
  • Hearing Mike pull people into worship with the songs he sang lead on.
  • Playing with Jim again.
  • Seeing Matt Bayne's smiling face at the back of the room knowing he had been substantially ill.
  • Knowing a number of pastors were with us to give support
  • Having some of our family and guests stay after to help clean up.

  • Terrible room acoustics creating tuning issues and making everything sound jangling and boomy on the stage.
  • Schlepping bins of stuff up and down the stairs - being rained on and getting soaked.
  • Having to go to our storage shed in Hadley before the worship to retrieve a piece of drum equipment I forgot, and the office to get the Proxima I forgot.
  • Not having enough time to do an adequate sound check and sketch run-through.
  • Not having enough help with the kids (we didn't really know how many we would have.
So all in all our very first worship in Northampton was good, all things considered. Again, nothing I said can overshadow the fact we got to do it at all, and that God did show up as only he can.

It is a wondrous thing to start a church at my age - at any age, I suspect - and a sobering privilege that God uses old guys like me to create and deepen the Kingdom in the lives of people.

I never realized one sunny New Mexico mid-morning when Jesus engulfed a then, 9-10 year old boy in light, overtook me in a flash with astounding joy I had no name for, and let me know that someday I would truly know him, that at 60, I would be launching a church in his Name and for his glory.

Life is a grand and fitting mystery, indeed.

I hope I miss none of it apportioned to me while I'm here.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Just Rehearsing . . . Relax.

As I stand on the cusp of crunch week crammed with all manner of logistical details we need to address in order to get ready for imagine/northampton's "very first-ever worship," I am reminded what a pastor-friend said to me recently. He offered wise counsel recognizing we would be caught up with the pressure of getting everything done and having a spectacular "very first-ever" corporate worship next Sunday.

He said it would be helpful to think of our "very-first ever worship," as a rehearsal. "There is always next week," he said, or in our case, next month (until January when we go weekly). Some things will go well and some things will not. We are just taking our first steps, after all. There will be kinks to work out, but it will not be the end of the world - or the end of imagine/northampton - if everything doesn't go according to Hoyle. He also referred to Rick Warren's statement that all our worship is just a rehearsal for the true worship we will be caught up with in heaven.

In other words, it was one big "I know how you feel because I've been there, but really, take it easy." I think he also meant I should enjoy the ride. God is at the helm. God called imagine into being and God will be there this week and next Sunday where the focus is really Him and not us. I know all that, but for some reason this imagine/northampton mission feels there is so much riding on it and I don't want to screw up anything, especially worship.

So I will try to hold crunch week loosely, and I will try to center into Christ each day. And I know there will be all sorts of jangling voices yelling at us to take care of this or that "must get done." Nevertheless, the true life in the week will be him, and oh yeah, he knows the way forward.

If you think of it, pray that all of us on the team will not be overwhelmed, but rather staid on him.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to the Drummer in the Tollbooth

Since I last saw my comrade in sticks manning a tollbooth on the Mass Pike a few weeks ago I have not been able to forget him. I keep thinking about his tenacity. He sits for a number of hours handing out tickets which means that during certain periods of his shift he is interrupted constantly by people needing one, and yet, he keeps practicing in the lulls. Drumming is his larger purpose. Staying fit for the art, no matter. Hmmm.

So I have also been thinking about this old man planting a church. How does he (I) stay fit so as to be tenacious in a difficult mission? My interruptions, obstacles and flitterings are many. What does this drummer have to teach me?

First, I think it means never taking my eye off the goal to which I have dedicated myself. "Dedicated" is an important word here. I have decided to give my best to this Kingdom mission, whatever it takes. The goal of planting imagine/northampton is one to which I am dedicating precious years and resources. I must not lose sight of it when the going gets tough, the fear is substantial and discouragement comes for an unwelcome visit. No room for faltering if I am dedicated. My eye must stay fixed on where God is bidding me.

For imagine/northampton to take root, my dedication needs to be fierce and tough. Planting churches is not for the faint of heart or the lightly committed. I am learning such dedication. God help me!

Secondly, I must remain flexible in how I maintain the necessary fitness required. More often than not it will not be convenient to maintain the disciplines and activities best suited to keeping me on course: prayer, routine administration, damage control, making new relationships, studying, searching, listening, writing, ministering, creating concepts, etc. I will have to find my own "tollbooths" to keep "practicing." Sometimes the most unlikely places and situations will be my only option to keep after what is needed. Being flexible opens me to opportunity I would likely overlook because I only saw an obstacle or setback.

Planting imagine/northampton requires I learn a freedom of flexibility uncommon to me. I am not rigid, but God still has work to do in "loosening" me for the mission. I want him to complete this in me. God help me!

Thirdly, I must let my love for God, people, and his glorious Kingdom fuel the drive to stay fit and ready to act regardless. Love sheds self-absorption, laziness and cowardice. Love motivates courage and invention. Love says "yes" when I'd rather say "no, not now." Love gets my butt in the chair, or my feet on the street to engage and work rather than wander in the garden of lesser delights. Love gathers passion toward worthy pursuits. Love also keeps my eye toward eternity and what is needful to be ready for it.

For imagine/northampton to take root I will need such depth of love. All of us on the team will. I want to be that loving. God help me!

Lastly, the drummer in the tollbooth reminded me that a "long obedience in the same direction," should be the prime directive of my heart and will. A will fixed on obeying God gets the job done no matter. I know grace is necessary in all of it, but I can choose to give my will to a myriad of glittering things. A will fixed on obeying what God desires opens the way for serving what matters most. When obeying is proven over a long time, God's Kingdom reign is planted in my life and the lives of others he gives me to serve.

Being made fit to plant imagine/northampton needs me obeying God consistently for days turning into months and flowing into years. I have a long way still to go with this level of obedience I'm afraid. But I desire it. God help me!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pruned to Carry the Weight

A number of years ago a friend with a giant green thumb gave us a Crown of Thorns plant. Those familiar with such plants know they can grow prolifically. Such is the case especially when they are pruned. If you have pruned one you know they "bleed" profusely and immediately a white, milky substance spills from the wound. Pruning necessitates intentional "wounding" to strengthen. and enliven the plant. You are also aware that when you prune them, they come back markedly more healthy and full than before. That's the point.

A few days ago as I was journaling with Jesus, he told me we must be "pruned to carry this (church planting) task or it will crush us." He said he is "making our faith able to carry the weight of this enormous mission." He added that if our "faith is not strong no matter the pressure, (we) will buckle under the weight of this work." I don't know about church planters 35 years younger, but what he said holds very true for us, even in the first year of our mission in Northampton.

Last week I also read an internet article about the "10 'T's' of Church Planting." One of the "T's" was "Trials." The author's point was that as with Paul's thorn suffered in the course of his planting churches around the Mediterranean, church planters will experience many trials, some of them severe. If fact, he said we should expect them, and perhaps for the duration. Hmmm.

Yesterday, I posted a new discussion topic on the imagine/northampton group Facebook page entitled, "How is God "Pruning" You These Days?" In it I listed a series of questions for people to reflect on and write about if they so chose. I think people should invite God's pruning to ensure they are fit for the weight of the mission He wants them to carry (by his grace, and with him, of course).

Here is how I answered two of them:

1. Where is he challenging you to grow especially in faith, trust and selfless love?

Jesus is continually challenging me to trust him with our financial well-being and whether our needs will be met. I am being sorely tested in this area. We have been in ministry for over 20 years, so we know the continual need to trust him here. What seems different is he is requiring a more tenacious trust as he has not provided deep financial resources to the church. Most church planting consultants would say we might be dangerously underfunded. Nevertheless, he has met our need as we have it, but not until it is required to be met.

Such tenacity requires a more vigorous and stubborn faith. He is challenging me there with "Will you believe I will care for you right up to the precipice where it all looks like it will be a disaster if something doesn't happen and right away?" Not easy, I will tell you and we are seasoned veterans. I still have more to learn here as well, especially about the freedom to keep stayed on him when the pressure rises and the fear tries to settle in.

Thirdly, God continues to show me the depth of my selfishness and attention to the unholy trinity: me, myself and I.
I relish inordinately the freedom to do as I please when I please. I can be a wanderer if I am not careful. I seem to like serving me. I am a repeat customer.

I need to shun self with a passion.

To the contrary, he wants me to be more available for his use no matter if it is inconvenient or indelicate. Loving people has a substantial cost because they will often define the terms for you. I need to be pruned to be agreeable to their terms and ready to take make the most of them for the Kingdom and thus their blessing.

The point is death to self is not a hobby for me to dabble in. From God's eyes, it is freedom that he can use. So he continues to invite me to a pruning.

2. Where is he gradually "nudging" you toward an area of persistent fear?

Jesus wants me to be more more "present" to talk to strangers about him in Northampton. He wants me to be more available for that purpose. I have always struggled with this essential Kingdom skill. My fear is irrational, but persistent. Where I live in the city Jesus "confronts" me everyday with such people. My flesh wants me to stay anonymous, independent, and invisible. My flesh is sinful and deceitful. I know His pruning will open my heart to people who need to experience him in me, even through something as simple as a conversation or small act of kindness.

I know that his pruning must continue as we move deeper into the imagine/northampton mission in the weeks and months ahead. It is necessary for us to be malleable enough in his hands to make any real Kingdom difference in Northampton. I want to be able to carry all the weight he wants to entrust me with, but I desperately need his enabling grace to be at all up to the task.

So may I submit to his pruning with courage.

May I be eager to be made fit.

May I not shrink back from his hand as he makes me able to carry the weight I must.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Death, Life, The Dirty Truth and a Living Disarray.

Last week, within 24 hours my Northampton life was intersected by four experiences, two were planned and two seemingly inserted - all within 24 hours. They showed up on their own; one was very jarring.

The planned experiences were delightful.

The back story: imagine/northampton has been invited by Vision New England to provide the music for and present a video about our church at their Annual Meeting in September. We will be one of 6 church plants in New England highlighted this year by them - a great opportunity we think.

To create the video, I asked Nate Oldham to film it for us. He graciously agreed, so last Friday he and his fiancee, Ashley Capozzoli came up to spend the day shooting. It was to be a short, 2 and a half-minute piece highlighting who we are and what we are in Northampton for. I had written the script for it and would be the "talking head." So we began late morning at Pulaski Park where the first two segments of the script were shot.

It went well after a few takes. I am not seasoned at this sort of thing, but with their helpful and gentle coaxing, I got the job done and will not wince when I see it on the big screen. After that portion, we headed over to shoot the last part on Kirkland Avenue, the curious, covered alley/street linking Pleasant Street to a parking lot behind Main Street. The plan was I would walk and talk the final monologue. It went well also.

As we were walking from the park to Kirkland we passed just by the parking garage and I happened to look to my right as we were talking. I noticed quickly a fire ambulance, police, and a small crowd gathered around the yellow tape people put up to cordon off crime or accident scenes. We walked a little farther looking to see what was happening.

That's when I saw him. Lying on the street, 10 yards or so from the entrance was a man. He was on his side and utterly motionless. From our vantage point we saw the top of his head, his arms bent up near his head and his shoulders. He was lying like a child sleeping on its side. While there was no gore we could see (nor did we want too, believe me), it was plain to all of us he was dead.

Out of respect for the dignity of this unfortunate person, we did not linger, but the effect of unexpectedly seeing death on a bright Friday morning with friends doing something exciting, did.

After the shoot, we met up with Tricia and had lunch together at Zen, a Japanese restaurant in town. The place is elegantly presented and the food delicious. It was wonderful for us to have a meal with Nate and Ash. After lunch, we wandered all over town as Nate took "b-roll" shots for the video. Life and creativity continued.

Fast forward to 7:15, Friday evening. Team member, Matt Bayne, and I agreed earlier in the week to meet at a local watering hole called The Dirty Truth (such a winsome name), for a grog and some catch-up conversation. He, Karen, and their boys just spent their first week in Northampton after moving from Tariffville.

The place was packed and we had to almost yell to hear each other amidst the din of conversations racing on all around us. If the truth is dirty nobody would hear it in that place! Nevertheless, as it always is with Matt or Karen, the conversation was rich, intellectually stimulating, honest, and funny. We spent a couple of hours there talking everything from Matt's work as a graphic novelist to the wildly peculiar realities of the quantum world. Life and connecting continued.

Now, those of you with dogs know there is an early morning ritual which must be performed or an unpleasant in-house incident will occur needing cleaning and disinfecting.

At the lovely hour of 4:30, Saturday morning, I trudged down our three flights of stairs with Tiger and headed out onto Main Street for his morning toilet and constitutional. As you know, it is still pretty dark. He has a tree just to the left of our front door he "anoints" every morning. Also right next to our door is the door to the adjacent building. The vestibule is quite sunken and very dark at night.

So as Tiger is doing his business, I hear a low voice coming from the vestibule. The voice seems not directed toward me. But, it is creepy and continues the entire time I am there. I cannot make out words. As I look hesitantly over my shoulder, I can make out what looks to be a baby carriage filled with stuff. Behind it, someone is scrunched up and huddled over, talking in a deep monotone the entire time we are there.

The encounter was disconcerting to say the least.

I realized later in talking with Tricia that she is a schizophrenic woman in town who spends her days wandering the streets, pushing the baby carriage and talking to herself. She lives in two worlds 24 hours a day - the one she shares with us physically, and the one of her own making.


As I thought about what I experienced in Northampton those 24 hours, I am reminded once again of unsettling juxtapositions:

1. Death interrupts days crammed with ordinary and life-celebrating experiences. It can show up with a vicious suddenness and stop life in its tracks. In those instances, death is a cruel intruder, unwelcome, but hard to ignore. Death in front of our eyes grabs our attention.

2, Death always leaves me with a sense of sadness, and sometimes, with a profound sense of waste, even though I am resolved that there is true life after this death. I know everything matters, but still . . .

3. Death discolors an ordinary day; it leaves a stain hard to get out. I had to move on, but I was marked by the death of this stranger lying in the street. I still see is body dead on the street.

4. People trapped in severely broken minds always leave me feeling helpless and uncomfortable . . . and I am a counselor! It is as if the humanity of the person has been altered so radically that he or she lives an existence locked away from me. It is frightening and always unsettling. I feel I have no way in so I shy away.

5. Doing something creative and life-giving with gifted friends always makes me want to leap for joy. I cannot get enough! Even though death and disarray barged in for me to see briefly, I was also able to see grace spill over and friendship comfort.

6. To me, a life lived well includes creating art, having connecting conversations, and celebrating the wonder of loving, fruitful relationships in the midst of death and disarray taking center stage more than any of us want.

7. Death will intrude and sting, but God created life to refuse to be silenced or stifled. It will overwhelm death, and death will be no more.

Creativity, making videos, lunch with loved ones, a grog with a friend, and the simple routines of a day all point to the God of astonishing life which will not be denied, life that will interrupt death for good.

Jesus dies for 3 days 2000 years ago . . . and he woke up.

LIFE wins; death is hamstrung and will be put down forever someday. We can all count on it.


Here's a thought: do something really alive after you read this and do it with someone else who really matters to you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

After Week One at Ground Zero.

Sometimes just showing up makes all the difference . . .

Starting from my encounter with Mike, the street person I have gotten to know, last week was a remarkable beginning compared to our previous year living in Sunderland and working in Northampton. As soon as we moved to Main Street contact with people we didn't know ramped up, especially people quite different from us.

It was exhilarating:

I am finding, given my natural motivation to pioneer, explore and go beyond, that I relish meeting and talking with new people, hearing their stories and sharing mine. Each person embodies a grand mystery revealed slowly as time is spent with him or her. Each is filled with exquisite potential for collaboration, creativity and Kingdom development. I love the possibility an encounter with the new person presents. I love the edginess pr depth they live. It catalyzes and refreshes me.

It was challenging:

Three of the four people I met are quite different from me, especially in their walk with Jesus. They have a radicality and Kingdom fearlessness stunning and humbling to experience. Each talked of living their lives free to do what is asked of them as they are asked, no matter the cost. They are fierce in their desire to be of use and to help people find Jesus. They don't look like, talk like me, or share my age. They are prophetic, street evangelists, healers, iconoclasts and redemptive subversives at heart. They are broken servants of the Most High God who live well in the unfolding unknown.

I am challenged by their freedom, but I also know we have something to give them through imagine. Each one said they are called to help us . . . in any way they can. God called them to do it. He brought us together.


It is intriguing:

As I met each one I wondered what God has up his omniscient sleeve. Mid-week I mentioned to the Leadership Team that imagine/northampton will look very different from what we suspect if God continues to draw these kinds of folks. It will be more messy, surprising and even bewildering at times. We will learn much from them.

My conversations with these guys left me with an unshakable sense that imagine/northampton really is God's initiative and he will shape it as it furthers his interests according to his will. He will do it his way, period. We got the ball rolling with him, but there are others he will gather to lend their voices and gifts to how God wants to move us forward in the days ahead.

I love that!

Add to the mix that we got to spend half a day with Nate and Ashley, a young and very gifted couple of Jesus followers from CT who feel called to join us up here next year after they finish school and get married. Then, Matt and Karen Bayne moved into Northampton last weekend. Their arrival has been long awaited. What a joy for us to have them to be here finally. They are amazing people in their own right.

I also met some young street musicians, gave money away to street performers and panhandlers, and built a relationship with a man who provides homes and work for the homeless. We are going to have coffee this week so I can learn from him.

This weekend, Tricia and I will join friends from Steiger Intl. across the street to hang out with street kids and homeless folks. I will bring my Udo drum and do some playing too.

So last week left me exhilarated, challenged and intrigued. I like living this way, and I hope it will continue. If God adds making a real difference in Northampton for his Kingdom, we get to live a life better than we could ever cobble together on our own.

Make it so, Father . . . every last bit!