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Monday, June 28, 2010

Taking a Break: Brief Thoughts on Weddings, Families and Friends.

Starting last Thursday, I spent the 4 days away from all things imagine/Northampton. I don't do that very much. I don't take vacations as a rule, and since coming up this way, the task of planting has required virtually all of my time.

So these last few days have been an anomaly, I suppose.

The back story is we had two weddings to attend: Thursday was our niece's (the daughter of Tricia's brother, Steve), in Boston. Friday was a picnic in Beverly, MA for the newlyweds, their families and friends. Saturday we headed to Wickham Park in Manchester, CT for the wedding rehearsal and then rehearsal dinner in South Windsor. I was giving the Welcome, Invocation/Prayer, then Charge to the couple (young friends of ours who we'd done premarital counseling for, and hope to collaborate with in Northampton under imagine). Sunday was the wedding and Reception back at Wickham Park. All the events were lovely.

Now as some of you well know, Tricia and are are dyed-in-the-wool introverts, so gatherings of even people we know well and love much can be taxing. It can even be a bit awkward when you have not seen folks for a while. Awkward tends to be something introverts experience frequently in social settings. Awkward doesn't feel very good.

Regardless, I have a few thoughts from the last 4 days.

First, I am always reminded at weddings there is a complex mix of joyful beginnings and a bittersweet endings in play. A new filial relationship is created, melding two family histories into a new expression of them both; one which will carry the family lines forward in a unique way. On the other hand, old relationships change: the parent/child-brother/sister connection alters because a third person is brought into the dynamic. While most of the time, relatives are happy the new couple is joined, everyone knows the relationship has changed because the two have become one and must be related to accordingly. Sometimes that adjustment is just bittersweet and hard.

I'm also frequently reminded of family dynamics when extended family gathers for the celebration of a wedding. Because of personal history with one another, the time spent together can be a rich reunion of catching up, sharing memories and just enjoying the chance to be together again, even for a few hours. Or, sadly, being together can reopen old wounds and unsettled disputes which make even a few hours feel strained, or worse, re-fire into fresh conflict (liquor can  open that door). Family dynamics subtly assign people to fixed roles which are hard to break, and thus, make gatherings awkward for people hurt by such assignments.

Lastly, weddings are prime events for inviting friends to celebrate in support of the happy couple or just because they are together in a festive atmosphere. Because the mood is celebratory, friends seem all smiles and conviviality. Together they are sharing one of life's greatest celebrations especially for Jesus-followers. Friendship already healthy is only solidified on such occasions.

Even though I am an introvert, I do like experiencing wedding celebrations. I always feels uplifted after such an occasion. I usually begin them a bit on edge because I'm an introvert, but I often feel refreshed after a lovely time with friends and loved ones. However, no matter how pleasant it all was, I'm also exhausted and ready to go home with Tricia.

That's just the way it is.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Suffering and Planting: A Daunting Necessity.

"Thousands of missionaries have lived difficult lives of sacrifice in relative poverty and deprivation as God expanded their work and ministries in the places where they served. God doesn't promise that all of His followers will be protected from hardship and suffering. Christians get cancer, lose loved ones, and suffer financial setbacks just like everyone else. But God can also use our tragedies to expand our territory in ways that show a skeptical world a different way to live." (Richard Stearns: The Hole in Our Gospel.)

One of the fiercest mental battles I've had to endure as a rookie church planter centers around the reality of the suffering involved in planting a church in a tough place. Mind you, I was no star-crossed "we're gonna kick some Kingdom butt," triumphalist thinking the way forward would be paved with lilacs. I knew the challenges would be many and great, and was well aware of my untested abilities in this mission.

Having that said, I have to admit the suffering we've had to go through has exposed naive assumptions about God's protection in such work. He also exposed my pride in thinking after two years we should surely have all sorts of success stories and Northampton is changing because of our work. More about that in a minute.

By God's protection I'm really referring to being kept from any hardship serious enough to impede or delay what I envisioned was reasonable progress. So God has allowed the injuries, illnesses, constant financial pressures, and lack of people joining the cause (that's in no way meant to demean the wonderful people who are with us), job losses, and long, dark nights of the soul we have all  experienced in Northampton as a church plant. I have never assumed we would be protected from any trouble or hardship in this mission. But I need to say also our suffering has left a mark on us and at times been both bewildering and deflating. Par for the course, I understand.

Here is what I've realized about suffering and planting from being in Northampton almost two years:

1. Expect substantial and relentless spiritual obstruction, confusion and attack from an adversary hell-bent on derailing God's Kingdom initiatives, especially in places of long-established demonic strongholds. Planting is a fight on spiritual, emotional, relational and physical/practical fronts; sometimes all at once. Chaos will show up in surprising ways and create setbacks threatening to wear down your resolve. The pain of the fight is real.

2.  Expect to have your faith tested beyond what you have experienced in the past. Church planting requires a strength of faith and trust equal to the Kingdom weight it must carry. You need to believe when the money is not there; when the people are not there, where the way is frequently blocked, problems cascade and you are spiritually, mentally and physically drained. It could all fall apart, but you must hold fast to God no matter. He will make a way where there appears no way. In the meantime, it feels like muscles being stressed and strained to be ready. Sometimes they tear.

3. Expect God to expose and work on your weaknesses through trial. Character flaws, relationship tensions, unhealed wounds and areas of spiritual immaturity will be brought to the fore so God can create a pure heart ready to produce Kingdom fruit. It will take time and is a critical part of the planting process: God plants his Kingdom more deeply in you so you're more fit to do the same in others.No one likes having to look into a mirror of sin and weakness. It hurts, but is necessary.

4. Expect the re-tooling of your expectations about what your mission is going to look like. The vision may or may not reflect where you end up. What sparkled off the page on the drawing-board may evaporate when real life takes over your days on the mission ground.  Again, he's focusing your effort around his will for what he's called you to do. We see in part; he sees exactly as he desires it to be. You might experience frustration as God goes to work. No one likes having to re-do what seems a winner.

5. Expect periods of second guessing and questioning. As you run into delaying obstructions which persist, you very likely will ask questions about whether God called you to do this in the first place. You might wonder if you are the right man or woman for the task. You may question your gifts or spiritual fitness. You might feel you are disappointing God because you're not making more headway. Questioning is good if it brings you to your knees and opens you to God's wisdom. This kind of suffering can be excruciating because it calls your sense of value and competence into question. Confidence in God gets built there.

6. Expect periods of discouragement even disillusionment. There are countless stories of missionaries and planters suffering great long, dark nights of the soul where it feels all has failed, God has disappeared (or worse yet is really ticked), and its might be time to abandon ship. Sometimes it will be accompanied by excruciating stresses and strains physically, financially, relationally, emotionally and spiritually. Being overwhelmed for an extended period of time can produce disillusionment also. These periods will come. You are being tested and made durable like a marathon runner. It hurts because you feel let down or you are letting down others who put their confidence in your mission.

7.  Expect training in humility where much of what you stood on in the past is removed so you have nothing to toot your spiritual horn about. If anything happens of any real import in the mission you've been summoned to it will be God's doing and his alone . . . period. Humility is prized by God. Suffering creates humility because it puts us in God's hands with only him to hold on to. Pride puffs us to blindness and missional impotence. Our initial, grand designs for God need some cutting down to size. Suffering gets the job done if we keep our eyes on him in the ordeal he fashioned for us.

I have changed because of what we've had to go through. I am more reliant on God and have few illusions about making anything of value happen unless he does it. I am trying to be faithful each day to staying the course even if I do not see what I did as having anything to do with the mission. I am still expectant, but have tempered it with the real possibility I will not see the fruits of my labors here until the Kingdom comes at the end of the Age. And what God sees as missional progress or success may have very little to do with how I think it should be. That has come to be enough . . . most days anyway.

Monday, June 14, 2010

How Intimacy With Jesus Leads to Living the Mission of the Kingdom.

For 2 years I've been fully engaged in planting imagine/Northampton. Prior to coming here, Tricia and I devoted ourselves to helping people learn to listen to God, especially through Listening in Christ and Klesis Immersion retreats. In addition, we offered inner healing and spiritual direction. Our lives were completely enmeshed in the Christian spiritual life, particularly the contemplative spiritual disciplines and matters of the heart in relation to God. For ordinary Jesus-followers like us it was an extraordinarily spiritual rich life. Living at the Center For Renewal, a retreat center in a beautiful bucolic setting in Simsbury, CT, fostered the inner disciplines and opened intimacy with God that people came to experience with us.

What we came to realize and value deeply from our experience is the necessity of spiritual intimacy with God. Love needs to grow in the heart. Jesus's followers must learn to desire him above all life's treasures. Anything less misses the heart of the Gospel leaves us to chase after trifles. Without passion for Jesus, people gradually numb spiritually and sink into a religious life of spectatorship and consuming.  Religious routine supplants persistent vigor and pursuit of God's heart, mind, and will in all things. Spiritual intimacy creates and sustains hunger for the Presence of the Living God.

The truly amazing reality of learning to be in the quiet with Jesus listening for him, talking from the heart with him, and being opened to Love astonishing in its depth and generosity, is it settles in you a longing to know him so that your heart might become free to unite with his. What God cares most deeply about matters more and more to you. Listening to the still, small voice of the Spirit, and searching the Scriptures to see him as he is slowly but surely conforms your nature to his. You gradually want what he wants in who you are. It is transformation to the spiritual core. You truly become a new creation.

As with any relationship, communicating is a doorway. Listening and being listened to create understanding and identification with the other. A connection is made and people open in trust because they feel taken seriously. It's no different with relating to God. Listening and talking to God establishes a lifelong spiritual dialogue of knowing and being known. God becomes the Realest of realities to you. His nature and will frame your life and give it meaning. You find your truest self as God speaks into your life experienced from day to day - the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, victories and losses, all of it. You go through them with him because you have gotten to know his voice and heart toward you.

So how does this intimacy with Jesus lead to living the mission of the Kingdom?

1. As you experience his heart in the quiet with him, love grows and the call to "love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength" gradually becomes a way you live. You desire for him to be known because of his wondrous goodness toward you. Gratitude grows from time alone with him. Friendship takes hold.

2. Intimacy with Jesus transforms what matters most to you which means where you give your best time, effort, talent, and material resources turns toward establishing and furthering his Kingdom. It has become THE STORY giving the most meaning to your story. You want to be about his business in the world because it has become your "prime directive": family life, work life, church life and community life become "staging areas" for the redemptive Kingdom mission of your Lord and Friend. Eternity hangs in the balance for you in a way it hadn't before.

3. Because you've spent heart to heart time alone with God it has become your way of life so you no longer live a disconnect between your "normal" life and your spiritual life. Everything now has spiritual import and weight to it. Your perspective stays on "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is already being done in heaven." You have adopted a missional mindset and see all of life as spiritual opportunity for opening people to God so they can see him.

So what should you do to find intimacy with God?

1. Learn how to listen to his voice. Read Dialogue With God by Mark & Patti Virkler. Then begin this spiritual discipline and work at it daily. Read everything you can on the Christian spiritual life, including the great masters over the centuries who have left teachings about it John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, etc.

2. Find a wise and skillful Spiritual Director in your area and get into spiritual direction. Being able to talk with someone regularly who can help you learn and practice the contemplative spiritual disciplines is crucial. Tricia and I are available to do that, including over the phone.

3. Make a habit of going on at least one contemplative retreat each year where silence, solitude and listening are central to the retreat. Today there are more retreat centers offering such retreats. Tricia and I are available as well to lead group Listening in Christ retreats.

4. At least twice a year, take a Quiet Day where you can get away to listen, pray, reflect and journal.

5. Read everything you can on the Kingdom of God and living missionally. You might start with:

  • The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical - Shane Claiborne
  • Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God - Francis Chan.
  • Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope - Brian McClaren.
  • Blue Like Jazz - Donald Miller
I'd also love to hear your thoughts on anything I wrote in this post. Let's have a dialogue over this.