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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It is for freedom....

For many years I have been captivated by one verse in Paul's Galatian letter. It helped solidify in me what I am convinced is very near the heart of the wondrous Gospel of grace and Kingdom life. Writing in chapter 5, verse 1, he makes this simple but elegant command: 'For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." The context for the verse is a long entreaty to the Galatian Christians vehemently instructing them to live by faith in the finished work of Christ, and not in the redundant futility of working to keep the law. They and we are heirs to the Abrahamic covenant fulfilled in Christ. They and we have been set free.

The first two words, "For freedom," or in the NIV, four words, "It is for freedom," have often caused me to pause and wonder why human freedom is so valued by God Almighty that he chose to wound himself by afflicting his Son to set us free? More importantly, doesn't their unfathomable rending and sacrifice necessitate a fully-in response on the part of his followers? Shouldn't we eagerly embrace walking by the Spirit in grace-filled freedom, and then extend this freedom to all who are broken, bound, blind and beaten down? We think it does and are convicted it is a key mandate of the Church universal. Imagine/northampton's 4th Core Value expresses how we see it as in our cultural DNA.

As some of you know, last Friday night, Tricia and Catherine helped us glimpse how we understand it. We chose to name this Core Value EMANCIPATE: Loving Sacrificially to say that as a mission-catalyzed church we will model, teach and motivate true freedom in our midst and for everyone around us. To that end, we will view loving sacrificially as the way of Kingdom life. It won't be a mere slogan or wall hanging. Extending grace toward freedom will be practiced every day with God's help.

Maybe an easy way to get at how deeply infused emancipating people will be central to the life of imagine is to compare it to the centrality of worship in any church. On any given Sunday, 99.9% of the churches in the world worship in some fashion. No one who goes to a church every week wonders if there will be worship that day. It is expected and seen as normal because worship is what churches do. In the same way, the daily work of emancipating and loving people sacrificially will be what we do. It is our mission, Prime Directive, Magna Carta and main thing.

Another way to look at it is we are committed to being a people dedicated to getting into the slop of people's lives, whether they created the mess or it was forced on them. A person does not have to look very far to recognize so many are bound and blocked. So many are perplexed and detached. So many are crushed and disappearing. So many have surrendered themselves to pleasure, sensation and addiction. Others blindly think rebellion is a badge of honor.

The needs are legion, and we recognize loving sacrificially is often inconvenient and doesn't fit neatly into a well-ordered schedule. Desperate needs show up when you are dog-tired and begging to chill. They don't just send an e-mail or text message. They are sometimes not even respectful of your space. They need what they need and they are staring right at you. When people are terrified and at their wit's end, or in excruciating pain what they need is right now. "I'll get back to you," does not cut it.

If imagine/northampton is going to follow Jesus in this world and be where he is (John 12;26), we will be up to our eyeballs in life not prettied-up. The reality of the deal is:

Someone's going to need a counselor for problems so entrenched and tangled it will be hard to see even where to start sorting it out.

Someone's going to need a fearless advocate because everyone who should have spoken up has fallen silent even though injustice threatens to still her voice for good.

Someone's going to need a friend to sit right next to the cancer with him, deep in the pain, loneliness and fear . . . . and never look away.

Someone's going to need help in trusting humanity and the nearness of God again after the hitting has stopped and the abuse has been handcuffed.

Someone's going to need a rescuer who can help her leave the streets and try again.

Someone's going to need a warrior who will fight the addiction(s) with him like a paraclete.

Someone's going to need a faith-filled Christ follower who will point her to Jesus no matter her religion, sexual orientation, race, political affiliation, color or hygiene.

Imagine will be a missional community where we will strive to be all those "someones" and more as Jesus helps us. We will learn it, preach it, model it, motivate, and pass it on to everyone who joins us in this noble adventure. And you can count on it being sloppier than all git out. We will be perplexed and stretched taut at times. The cost will seem high because it is. God showed us that by what he did...he set the example, then said, "You do it too in my Name." This God we seek extends his hand to us. We must follow.

NOTE: Someone wisely mentioned at the last Conversations that the freedom Jesus calls us to has with it a high responsibility; it comes with a yoke. To be freed into Christ is to be yoked to him (Matthew 11:28-30). Paradoxically to be freed in Christ is to be his slave. I know we all hate that word because of the repugnant evil it represents in this world, but to understand Christian freedom rightly is to understand this deep yoking. Ponder what Jesus says in Matthew about the nature of the yoke. The responsibility of our freedom is whole-hearted, no turning back surrender of ourselves, lock, stock and barrel. But in so doing, we are truly free under this yoke right next to him . . . . truly what we are meant to be.

So, if it is for freedom Jesus wants to set free others besides us, then we need to be about that all the time, if we desire to follow him. The glorious upside is that when broken people are freed by Christ their existential beauty surfaces. They come alive and take up residence in their true selves little by little. Northampton is full of people out of phase with their true being and need to be freed. They are phantoms awaiting a heart of flesh. They don't know it. But we do and it matters to us. We will go in after them with Jesus.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Uncovering Our By-Line

Those of you who have looked into imagine/northampton, either through the Prospectus, website or Facebook group page, are aware the by-line for the church is “Discovering the God who is far more than you can imagine.” We picked it for reasons more substantial than the “hipness” factor, although admittedly, it is hip. We are well aware by-lines should capture something of the essence of an organization by definition. In our case, we think it does. More importantly, we did not just hunt and peck for a scripture (Ephesians 3:20), that would fit the name of the church and then paste it on.

Before I get more into this, let me take a step back and first aver that through the by-line we are not meaning that we will be in constant search to uncover who the real God is among the many options out there. We have settled that as Christ-followers. The triune God of the Old and New Testaments is at the Alpha and Omega of imagine/northampton and will always be.

Nor will we be perpetually “Waiting for Godot,” hoping beyond hope that he or she will show up in a way recognizable to us. We have a pretty clear idea how God shows himself to people earnestly seeking him. We also recognize how he surprises people by being many times hidden in the ordinary and unlovely. Then there are those remarkable moments when he shows up even when we aren’t looking. Our God is near and can be found as such.

Lastly, we will not be about the business of inventing our discoveries in order to fit an agenda or program. We never want to manipulate a discovery to serve a preconceived notion of how they should happen at imagine/northampton. While doing so may be clever, even superficially effective, it woefully misses God’s mark and betrays the trust placed in us by people he has gathered in our midst.

With those things having been said, exactly what are we trying to communicate with the by-line we have chosen?

We want to know and follow God on his terms always. We realize we will constantly need the help of the Holy Spirit to do that. So, under his guidance, we will always be exploring how we should understand him and looking for ways to relate to him as he desires. We never want to deliberately pigeon-hole God into stereotypes or categories comfortable for us, but missing him in the end.

We will work to create an atmosphere in the church, whether in worship, caring for each other, or serving Northampton where the freedom to discover him is paramount. Sometimes that will be very focused as in studying the Scriptures together or teaching about certain life realities and how he calls us to walk in them with him. Other times, it will be in the midst of taking action together and then reflecting on how we encountered him, or where it appears we might have missed him. Regardless of the venue or means, we are committed to being open to discovering this God who is infinitely beyond our conception of him and yet reveals himself to those who persistently seek him.

We want to create a fecund culture of surprise and delight where, even in the midst of trial or setback, we will be freshly captured by wonder because of God’s magnificence, beauty, compassion or faithfulness. We will strive to never settle into a ho-hum, “business as usual,” life together where predictability, and human control underwrite laziness, cynicism and cowardice. We want to upend complacency. We want to provoke courage and hope. We want to unsettle spiritual myopia and traditions of men which mute redemptive imagining.

We will poke people to open to and follow this God who can do far more than they imagine because of the death-beating resurrection power animating them. We will look for possibility, and dream for more than seems to make sense at the time. We will invite innovation, and listen for new thinking about old truths and well-worn paths. We will always be asking: “What if?” and “Why not?” Sometimes that might even sound like: “Who says we can’t?” We want the greatness of our God never to be far from our hearts or lips.

We will seek to discover the hearts of the people God sends to imagine/northampton in order that we might ignite in them this same hunger for going beyond their safe conceptions of God, especially when those conceptions prevent them from knowing him better. We will also seek to discover how we can learn about God from how they have experienced him, never assuming that we have a lock on him because of our experience. Discovery for us will always be about learning and growing into more of him and more of how he desires us to serve in Northampton or wherever. People we do not know yet will help us all do that.

Lastly, how we will push past thread-bare imaginings into new discoveries will come through how we worship, create art and music. Art and music have unique ways of opening eyes to possibility and break people out of being set in lesser means than God would have for them. We know art provokes and can free people into discovering truth they might ordinarily miss. We want to push back the darkness and expand the boundaries of encountering God through these means. Also, every new idea about how to do ministry or teach or serve the poor or expand our service to the community will be explored that we might know more of God and what he desires for us.

Now I expect some of what I have said may be unnerving to a few of you who love the traditions of the Church, and deeply respect what has gone before in relation to how church is supposed to be church. We do too. So while we may not look much like what you have been used to, at core of imagine/northampton is a deep dedication to living as the Scriptures and Spirit reveal is the Way. Rest assured that by God’s grace, discernment, prayer and diligence we will labor to never “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” when it comes to the essentials of the Christian message or life. We want to obey God on his terms, but we have been given the freedom to discover uncommon ways to seek after him.

We also are resolutely committed to revealing this God to people far from him and skeptical about church or Christians. We need to help them discover him in ways that will unlock their hearts, and shatter their prejudices about him. We have been given the task of connecting them by the way we live. We think growing an imagine/northampton culture which catalyzes redemptive discovery, fearless creativity, and innovative imagination is worth the cost of heading into the frontier of new ideas, even ones which might make us uncomfortable at first because they blow our church culture categories.

Our question to you remains: Want to come along and see for yourself? We hope you do.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Leading Hard After Jesus: A Simple Prelude to Friday.

I bet one of the best compliments any leader can be given is that he or she exemplifies the name leader; the person's photo should sit next to the dictionary definition. These people exude leading as naturally as breathing and it is readily noticeable.

To my delight I have been close to such people in my lifetime. They never failed to inspire and challenge me. I know what such leading looks like.

This Friday I have the opportunity at imagine/northampton's next CONVERSATIONS to talk a little about our third Core Value--EMPOWER: Growing a Culture that Catalyzes Leadership. As a prelude, let me set the stage for Friday a bit from what I have experienced being in the company of great leaders.

The first characteristic I noticed about Jesus following leaders is they lived a seemingly ingrained passion for following hard after him. They viewed leading as following Jesus with everything. No holding back, or weasling the easy way. These folks had their hearts bared to him and aligned their all with his heart and redemptive purpose on the planet: Thy Kingdom come whatever it takes:

Sacrifice was part of the deal. . . . they went ahead and got fitted for a cross anyway.

The task wouldn't be easy . . . . didn't sign up for "easy."

Everyone wouldn't get it or even care . . . . why should it be different for me than it was for Jesus?

They could fail in the end . . . . no matter. The only option is to go.

It needs to be said that these leaders were real people with sin, and blindspots. They had clay feet but lion hearts even when wrapped in a humble, gentle demeanor. For them to lead was to be where Jesus was on any day and to do what furthered his interests in the world. Their best energy was for his glory.

So they read, studied, listened and watched. They dreamed, envisioned, shaped, strategized and preached. They dialogued, invited others to follow, inspired them and gave them what they needed to follow hard also. They led people near Jesus and catalyzed passion for him and what he cares for. They showed the way by living a singular life through multiple relationships and pursuits.

The second characteristic that stuck me was their hope and resilience in the face of dissonance and obstruction. I saw a number of them take some serious hits for Jesus. They got knocked down hard. Some lost more than they envisioned they would when they started. They all bore scars and wounds which humanized them in their leading.

Yet to a person, no one gave up. They had to take time to heal and recover so they could get their bearings, but once they did they were back at it -- most the wiser for the struggle, and not daunted in their mission to lead and follow.

They seemed to have an uncommon ability to fight through discouragement, betrayal, persecution and hardship. It was as if a fire burned deep in them which would not be extinguished regardless the apparent impossibility of the journey ahead. Some fierce internal compass kept them heading due north and into the wind.

Hope rested on them naturally, it felt to me. They repeatedly looked at the bright side, counted their blessings, redoubled their efforts, and realized that as long as Jesus held his hand out to them they would take it and a better day was coming. They just believed the troubles they were experiencing were not the end of the story even if no good end seemed in sight. Jesus was here and he knew the way.

Hope always eventually silenced despair in these men and women.

The third characteristic I noticed in each of them was their herculean capacity for work. They seemed to have a vast aquifer of boundless energy for Kingdom enterprises. It looked as if their lifeblood was to bring the Kingdom into view 24/7. While I could see fatigue on their faces occasionally, I never saw it in their hearts.

The wisest of them derailed burn out because of imbalanced, stubborn overwork. Like Jesus they had an instinct for time alone with God to listen , reflect and enjoy. They took time to laugh and cry and chill. Their work was hard, but to do it well required balance.

These leaders also seemed to have an uncanny ability to set sights on something and stay focused through myriad distractions and roadblocks. They were not easily turned aside by glittering mirages or lesser destinations. Each had the ability to work hard and work smart. A single Priority drove and pulled them

To keep it simple, I have to close. However, I must say I know the current leaders of imagine/northampton want to model such leadership for the people God will send in our midst. In turn, we will work to develop a leadership culture that empowers new and seasoned leaders to follow hard after Jesus in their leading toward the vision. Catalyzing such leaders will be central to our mission, including people who do not know Jesus yet.