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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wisdom Says to Bet the Ranch on the Kingdom.

I grew up in New Mexico. Like every kid at that time in the Southwest, I saw plenty of cowboy movies and television shows like The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Maverick. Almost invariably in these shows there would be at least one scene where men gathered at the local saloon to play poker. Often such play would lead to the required barroom brawl or gunfight over someone who was cheating.

Sometimes it would be because someone would "be forced to "bet the ranch," thus putting all his assets and livelihood on the table. Often he would end up being swindled and mayhem would ensue.

The term "bet the ranch" came from Southwestern ranching culture. When someone said he was willing to "bet the ranch" he was saying he was putting in all his chips, betting he had the winning hand. Conversely, he was taking a huge risk which could turn out very badly resulting in losing everything. He was giving it all in hopes of winning big.

I think for church planters, betting the ranch on the Kingdom is the reason we leave hearth and kin. The motive is not for personal gain in a gamble however. A church planter is convinced the Kingdom is a treasure of inestimable value (Matthew 13:44-5). Every jot and tittle needs to be offered in time, energy, talent and resources to give this Kingdom/Treasure to others so they might taste, see it's good, and replicate the planters example in their own bailiwicks.

Church planters also know there's substantial risk involved, including the loss of life. Success isn't guaranteed and planters may never see the fruits of their labors in this lifetime. Giving everything includes the possibility of losing everything. No matter, the stakes in Creation are high. Jesus says to go and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:18-20) It's not a suggestion among equally interesting options. True life holds in the balance.

For church planters the Kingdom embodies certain values which inspire and motivate them to bet the ranch:

1. The Kingdom incarnates the Gospel, the best news in the universe. Liberation has come and is coming. True freedom is on the way. Grace undermines and heals the human "sickness unto death." The sick are healed, the blind see, the lost are found, the voiceless discover their voice, and the weak are made strong. Humility wins! The Gospel-infused Kingdom begins to set to right every wrong under the sun from all time: erased, reconciled, forgotten and forgiven.

2. The Kingdom manifests the astounding love of the Trinity. Love is the limitless fountain from which all can drink and draw others to, especially people who have never tasted its sweetness. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in love and open all of us to it through the Kingdom. Heaven and earth are wed and will be joined for eternity in love and joy. Trinitarian love models for us Kingdom loving one another.

3. The Kingdom elevates human dignity and value to its redemptive zenith. Everyone matters: male-female, young-old, rich-poor, weak-powerful, extraordinary-average. Everyone has a place and something necessary to offer. Interestingly, the little, marginalized, abused, and neglected  have a special place of honor in this Kingdom. They are no longer shadow people easily ignored.

4. The Kingdom invites everyone to real relationship. The family of God transcends race, country, and family of origin. It's now possible for people who have very different life experiences and cultures to engage each other around a common inheritance. All are welcome at the table.

5. The Kingdom opens us see beyond our current struggles and sufferings. Life on earth is not the end of the story. We are not trapped in a tragic cycle of birth and death, or chained to the cynical maxim: Life sucks and then you die. The Kingdom lifts our heads to the a horizon of light, the Dawn of dawns. Hope is possible because a better day will wipe away all pain and sorrow. And in the Kingdom now, we are summoned to share in sorrows and hardships until the new Day arrives.

6. The Kingdom and its redemptive values motivate wells being dug in arid lands, orphans becoming  family members, urban gardens being built in blighted neighborhoods, sex slaves rescued, alcoholics and addicts  recovering, literacy being achieved, micro-businesses being created, street people being fed, and on and on. The values of the Kingdom:  faith, hope and charity live in the here and now, not just in the bye and bye.

7. The Kingdom is God's resounding yes to all the no's which oppress and destroy people.

Wisdom aka knowledge of what actually is, says betting the ranch on the Kingdom is cashing in all your chips on what Leanne Payne called the unseen Real which vivifies and gives substance/meaning to all of life. Doing so is never a fool's errand. Rather it's the smartest investment a person will ever make, bar none.

So, are you holding onto your chips in case it's all a sham? Is your relationship to the Kingdom hesitation and holding back, keeping the back door open in case you need to make a run for it? If so, you are missing out on life to the full where love resides and hope keeps it all real.

Think about it. You may not see this yet, but you really have nothing to lose and there is more to gain than you can possibly even dream of.

Bet the ranch on the Kingdom today and go make a difference because you did.

Friday, May 28, 2010

An Endearing Gift For Malarkey.

This morning as I was taking Tiger for his pre-dawn constitutional and toilet, I caught a glimpse of two men, one old and one young (but with an old and weary spirit), walking up Armory Street on the opposite side from me. I recognized both of them. They are alcoholics. Sadly, the younger one is one is working diligently on drinking himself to death. You can see the death in his face and feel it in his spirit. Pray for him.

Tiger abruptly halted, as is his want, to do his business so I turned toward him and away from the men. As I did, the older gentleman began to sing (from Oklahoma): "Oh what a beautiful morning! Oh what a beautiful day! I have a beautiful feeling, everything's going my way." He then, as I was stooping to pick up Tiger's deposit," said, "Thank you for doing your civic duty."

He's a gentle soul with a palpable kindness in him. He's a man who likes to stand on the street corner with his well-worn guitar and sing old folk songs, New England sea shanties and Irish drinking songs. His is the gift of gab and an amazing memory for songs. If he engages in you conversation, and is lit up a little, he soon breaks into a song when something you said reminds him of one. He also likes to be a little ribald in his song selection, nothing vulgar, mind you, just naughty with a twinkle in his eye.

He reminds me of my grandfather, Lawrence James McGovern who loved to sing, recite Irish poetry and Irish table graces (always with a glass held high to the heavens). He had a twinkle in his eye and the gift of malarkey, a penchant for bunkum - all of it good-natured. He could spin a tale and was seen by everyone as a "hail fellow, well-met." He used to take me hand-in-hand for ice cream when we lived in St. Paul. He also taught me all the makes and models of the cars passing by our picture window. I loved my grandfather and enjoyed his eccentric weirdness.

I have no hesitation saying I like the kindly Irish troubadour I saw again this morning as well. He is bright and engaging. He's really full of malarkey. Who knows how much of what he says is true. Still, the way he tells his stories sparkles. He entertains and amuses people with song and story, all for free. Something's unmistakably  humane about him and I suspect very lonely. He wants to connect, so I have a number of times

I appreciate his intelligent quirkiness and spirit of a quiet mirth. It lifts me.

He was grace this morning and I welcome his gift, malarkey or not.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Being Missional Just makes More and More Sense to Me

I got to be a part one of my favorite interactions a few days ago. I sat down at Sylvester's Restaurant for a couple of hours with long-time friends and fellow Jesus-followers from CT. I've known each for over 20 years. They are serious about Kingdom stuff. One is a highly experienced worship leader, the other a pastor with a deep heart for intimacy with God. Up until two years ago they didn't share ministry under the same roof, now they do.

They wanted to get together to have a conversation because God has been putting a dangerous fire in their hearts (first in the worship guy), for a number of months. He is summoning them to transform a conservative, traditional, denominational, "this is the way we've always done it, and we're just fine - thank you very much" New England, small town church into a missional movement with a vision to love and serve their community that they might open young and old to the Gospel. Now that's a sentence, boys and girls!

Because I left a ministry of 20 years in CT at age 59 to plant imagine/Northampton, I've some street cred with them. I took a big risk to do this and have learned a few things even though there is much still to learn. I've also studied what it means to be missional in the DNA of a church, and am in the midst of trying to make it happen here.

As I talked with them, answering their questions, offering my experience and challenging them to trust God, it became exquisitely clear I'm utterly convinced being missional is at the center of being the church. We are here for "them" as much as we are here for us already gathered. The phrase "missional church" should be recognized as a redundancy: the church is a missionary, a missional Kingdom enterprise by definition.

Here is why:

1. Since the rebellion in heaven God has been on a mission to redeem all Creation. The Spirit works through the local church to make it so, one person at a time all over the world.

2. Jesus sent the disciples out with the command to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." At the heart of the church was the mandate to go to the world.

3. The missionary impetus and movement has continued in one form or another throughout the world up to this day. The Church never just dried up and blew away, even in the bleakest of times. It will continue on its redemptive trajectory until the return of Christ at the end of the Age.

4.  The will of God has never been for us to settle into a passive relationship with our communities i.e.,  our doors are open on Sunday. We have a sign and a website telling people we're here.  If people around us want to come to church we're not stopping them. Right . . .

5. The missional mandate is: we are here as much for people outside our walls as within them. The church is not ours to keep for ourselves. Our loyalty should not be merely to our local church or pastor, but to God who puts every church in communities where "strangers and aliens" may come to know him. Yes, we are to love each other madly within the church, but because love must be given away to truly be love, we are gathered to give God's love to our communities as a result of the love God has for us and we have for one another. If we keep it to ourselves it will putrefy over time, full of self-protection and self-serving rigidity.

6. Being missional keeps the church alive and relevant to the lives of people far from it. Because the missional church learns the history, culture, values and demographics of the community in which it lives, it can speak its language and serve its people in a way that wins trust. Walls and barriers get broken down because relationships are built. The church is valued because it makes a difference adds repeatedly to the common good.

7. Being missional is prime for unleashing creativity because it is challenging to make the Gospel come alive in the larger community. There is no common language between the two so the church must find fresh ways of speaking clearly to people who have no frame of reference. Therefore, the missional church must create  welcoming environments for its artists and musicians to foster exploration and innovation. Through the arts bridges are built.

8. Being missional helps us get into the mess of people's lives rather than keeping ourselves spiritually distant and "clean." Jesus went into the muck and mire of broken people's lives. He was not turned away by the vulgarity of sin. He didn't adopt an "I don't wanna know," attitude. We need to be deep in the lives of people whose language is raw, their addictions have mastered them, their values are foreign, their relationships are entangled in a cycle of using and being used, their sexual morality is unbiblical and they don't like us much. We need to humble ourselves and have our hearts broken for people who have settled for so little.

9. Being a missional church will mean we have the opportunity to break free of our cherished culture of individuality. I am free to pursue who I want to be and "ain't nobody's business if I do". The American Dream is mine for the taking. I want the good life while on earth with plenty of money, creature comforts and the freedom to come and go as I please. Oh yeah, then I want to go to heaven where the real party is. Being missional means we live in true community with one another in the church and with our neighbors.  Our strongest ethic becomes giving and sharing what we have for the blessing of all, not "I got mine" and "you can have what I don't want anymore."

10, Finally being missional will send us close to Jesus who is alive and well in the world around us, and in our midst. His values and interests will gradually transform ours. We will learn to shoulder a cross for him and learn to be where he is in our communities. We will go there as a way of life. We will learn intimacy through prayer and intimacy through sacrificial service. Jesus will be our deepest longing, our enduring love and our greatest pleasure.

If all goes well it will be said of us that we "loved God with all our hearts and with all our souls, and with all our minds, and with all our strength. In turn, it will be said of us we also "loved our neighbors as ourselves."

Why would we not want that?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An Early Morning Prayer For imagine/Northampton.

"Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; establish the work of our hands." Psalm 90:17


You alone are the Lord of imagine/Northampton. You are its headwaters and its endpoint. You are its Source, Life and Purpose. Without you it is vacant of meaning. Without you it is impotent. Without you it merely is.

Let your gracious favor be upon us as we do the missional work of imagine/Northampton. Establish the work of our hands that we might see your Glory in the land of the really living.

Let us make a revolutionary difference in this small, historic, rebellious, wild hair of a New England city.

Let your redemptively subversive grace flood these streets.

Bring stunningly gifted people, young and old, to carry the work forward in creative and genuinely innovative ways. Yes, bring the Kingdom-intoxicated innovators whose spirits are full of love for you and for the people of this place.

Send the Kingdom dreamers who have "bet the ranch" on your magnificent vision for Northampton and the world, and will not turn back until it is realized by your gracious Hand.

Open the resplendent storehouses of heaven so we have all we need to settle a church of full-life and freedom, hope and healing/transforming love.

Establish our work of washing darkness with the light of truth.

Establish our work of creating music, art, dance, crafting, writing and film which show forth your majesty, setting wonder into place and opening a home for who dare to see and make what is not yet.

Bring your families and establish us as an estuary of disciple-making so young and old learn the joyous dignity of following Jesus with yielded hearts.

Send your poor, enchained, and abused; make us able to free them into hope and the simple grace of fruitfulness.

Bring your lion-hearted wondermakers who settle for nothing less than your Kingdom being now on earth as it is lived today in heaven, even if just a little bit - that will be more than enough.

LORD, establish the work of our small, weak hands and make them instruments of the truth that sets captives free and the creative love that overpowers hatred and deadening indifference.

Turn your beautiful face toward us today and smile like the sun warming the earth on a new morning, making all things alive with an abundance which cannot be stifled.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lately, I Have Been Wondering "Where is There?"

Any church planter worth his or her salt is a visionary, has a visionary on his team, or has done considerable thinking (and praying mind you), about the vision God has summoned her to in planting a church.

Vision points like a hunting dog to something not yet in existence. It peers into the future and there is a discernible horizon to head toward. It perhaps is just in the form of an idea or a dream or a picture, but it is out there beckoning.

In other words, there is a "there" up ahead, a destination, an of some sort. This vision is the enticing suggestion of what people refer to in church planting circles as "God's preferred future."

The particular there one sees and desires to pursue defines and focuses where here needs to aim. It is compelling potential needing to be realized. It requires passion, creativity, courage and strategic savvy. It doesn't yet exist, but, boy, it should.

Imagine/Northampton began as such a vision, a there if you will. Simsbury was a long way from Northampton. Today, we are here and imagine/Northampton is here . . . sorta.

You see the imagine/Northampton of today doesn't match the vision yet. Because of all the adversity we have faced since we arrived in these parts, the vision sometimes dims like a fading rainbow. We have had to pull back, pare down and regroup more than once. Rather than heading steadily toward there, it feels these days more like we are mostly keeping our heads above water and gasping for air. All manner of resistance and obstruction show up frequently. Apparently, we have been noticed by occupying intruders.

So, lately I've had to wonder just "where is there?" I'm not saying we've lost or abandoned the vision we were given. Not in the least; it's still welcome in our hearts. I am saying there has been very hard to hold in view because we are frequently overcoming illnesses/injuries, putting out brush-fires, trudging through relentless distractions, enduring scary financial pressures galore, negotiating a fierce mental battle, and trying to keep on our spiritual feet when we get pushed over. Perhaps the most trying of the challenges we face is we don't have all the people needed in very strategic roles to gather a true head of steam. They're just not here. Some are on the horizon, but not yet here.

For me, the question "where is there?" illustrates the unpleasant sensation of the vision fading in and out, and remaining presently well beyond our reach. There seems no closer than when we first got here. It feels unreal sometimes, and yet when I come to my senses, it pulses inside me with a longing which confirms the rightness of pursuing this vision until it becomes flesh and blood reality.

I think it is good to wonder "where is there?" It keeps me looking for the way through and the way forward. It keeps me dialoguing with God and raising questions with the team. I guess if I stopped asking, I wouldn't be much of a church planter.

I am going keep asking, you know. I will keep trying to find our way. I will stay on the search until imagine/Northampton incarnates what it's summoned to do in Northampton, at least on my watch.


I suppose some of you have a there in your life these days whether you are a church planter or not. Maybe it's not a vision. maybe it's a tough problem you desperately need resolving. You have more questions, than answers. You are frustrated, bewildered, maybe even angry or sad about it all. There is no end in sight.

To you I say: take a breath and regroup like you mean it. Make enough time to smell the roses and get some fresh air. Laugh with a few friends who get it. Have a grog. Learn to play the drums (a noble enterprise for anyone).

Help someone who could use a hand. Take a nap. Never overlook the goofy or the silly; they are there to help you laugh. Laughing is a gift. It releases endorphins.

When your head is clearing and the dissonance has stopped, climb back in the saddle, get your bearings and head back to the trail. Keep your eye out for God. He has the way forward and he just might lead you to the there which means so much to you.

Oh, and don't stop wondering . . .  it keeps you in the search. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When the Funk You're in is Not the Groove You're Looking For.

I love funk music. Most drummers do. Playing in the pocket is like flying, I think. The groove steps up and grabs onto your soul while your body just has to keep in sync with the rhythm.

You see, it's all about the feel.

But there is another kind of funk, an insidious kind which sneaks up on you and starts whispering deadening, dark stuff. Stuff that tries to cripple hope and snuff out faith. This funk has in its rotten roots a cancer-like fear and stifling thrall of dejection. It spreads through lies whispered into the mind over days until they seize the attention of the heart. When that happens, funk takes over. Spiritual malaise digs in.

This funk feels really bad.And he funk I'm in is definitely not the groove I'm looking for.

Launching imagine/Northampton these days just has little savor, I'm afraid. It feels often ho-hum and "whatever". Sometimes it makes me angry. I also can't seem to hold the vision in view; it dissipates like a mist when I stare at it: the idea of imagine seems more real than the experience. On the surface it feels like I don't care much anymore when the truth is I still very much do. But I feel mostly in two minds and they walk parallel these days. I am in a funk and care about the mission when I allow it.

I have read enough about church planting and church planters to know that what I'm experiencing is not unique, and most likely to be expected in a place like Northampton. I also know my experience pales compared to the harsh reality of men and women over the centuries who bravely gave everything to bring life and liberty to people unaware of Jesus all over the world - places more spiritually fierce than Northampton

Still, I'm looking for a different groove! One where:

1. It's not 2 steps forward and 11 steps back.
2. The vision is actually coming into view, even if slowly.
3. There is occasional breathing space in the midst of the struggle.
4. Chaos does not take down order with increasing arrogance.
5. The heavens don't seem like brass when I pray.
6. At the end of the day, the ways of God hold sway a little more than the day before.

Sometimes in the funk, I remember my reaction when we first arrived and met a few believers living in the Pioneer Valley. They talked of deep spiritual weariness after having prayed and worked for decades that the Kingdom would break through the smothering darkness here. They seemed discouraged and resigned to little hope of seeing that happen. I taste the same funk they seemed sunk in.

I imagine what I am writing sounds like whining. I don't mean it to because I'm not. I am fiercely frustrated, more than a little confused, and in a nasty mood. But I'll tell ya: if the groove showed up an hour from now I'd be back "in the pocket" and playin' the snot out of it. (Sorry.)

I just need to be honest about what this is like.

I know the groove I'm looking for. It has a distinct shape and feel and sound. God sent it back while we were living in Simsbury. I still want to play it for all I'm worth so he is recognized and Kingdom seizes the day. In the meantime, I have to fight the funk. Some days I am better at it than others. A few days it overwhelms me. When they string together, I write stuff like this.

So forgive me. Better yet, ask God to get me to the groove he made me for. I've had enough of this other funk, I assure you.