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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When a Friend Steps Up.

"A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." (Proverbs 18:24)
"A friend loves at all times . . ." (Proverbs 17:17)
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
"In prosperity our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends." John Churton Collins
 I have such a friend. I've known him a long time. He's a Jesus-follower of great heart. My friend is a unique man who's had more than his share of suffering and sorrow . . . way more. He stills goes through it and sometimes feels beyond what he can bear, but bear it he does. This friend of mine is also generous of heart, wisdom and wallet. His giving is borne of compassion, and I think, joy. In the midst of his trials, he gives.

He's also a man who loves and serves the least of God's children: the throw-aways and cast-offs who offend our culture's delicate sensibilities. I've not known anyone who lives such a fierce love for the severely broken and disfigured. They are "his kids." He is Jesus to them, even though I suspect, some are utterly unaware. 

I'm writing in profound gratitude because a few days ago this friend stepped up and walked into the middle of our pain bringing relief. He offered it in response to questions about persistent financial struggles and the strain it put on us in the midst of trying to do ministry here in Northampton. He felt compassion and as is his way of living his faith, he responded by lifting a substantial burden from our backs.

When he told me, I was speechless and overwhelmed by what he'd just done. Some stumbling words came from my mouth in response. I'm sure they were inane. He was matter-of-fact when he told me, not wanting accolades or drippy words of appreciation. He's not of that ilk. He wasn't helping to play the hero; he was helping because that's his way in response to his love for God and his friends. He showed genuine concern and acted to do something about it.

Curiously, his phone call (we'd talked earlier and I let him know our need), came at the lowest emotional point of the day for me. I was disoriented and numb, beaten really. I think I'd been so ground down to emptiness in this fight over the last few months, as had Tricia for that matter, that I couldn't leap for joy when my friend told me the good news. I wanted to, but it just wasn't there. Later that evening, I lie on the floor in our worship space. The lights were off and I needed to have a heart-to-heart with my Abba. I poured out all I was feeling, confessing my fear, sadness and sense of abandonment. I needed to be real in crying out to him. I'm not sure it helped anything, but I had to do it. I was grateful and told him so, but I was just spent. I gave him what I had in me to give.

The long and short of it is because of my friend's stepping up, we get to fight another day. While we aren't out of the woods by any means, I still have hope because people like my friend respond when we're in the slough of despond. And I'm repeatedly taken by the reality that in this often bewildering journey, there are other friends who stand with us in support of all kinds (and have since we arrived here. You don't realize how much we appreciate your care and service!), including the marvelous wild-at-hearts on the imagine/Northampton Team. They've all voted with their lives and families, leaving the familiar for this crazy missional adventure we are shouldering together. I'm so proud to be associated with people of their stripe.

Real friends are pearls of inestimable price. They reveal the heart of  their friendship when the bottom drops out and your life becomes tenuous, sometimes frighteningly so. I hope I can be that kind of true friend someday.  In the meantime, I'll continue learning from the friends God has put in my life to show me the way by their beneficent, selfless actions. He taught me huge lesson just 2 days ago through a man who exemplifies true friendship more than he is really aware.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can Art Be Kingdom Missional and Remain Art?

I grew up around and have been involved in art since I was 15, as a drummer/musician and writer. My grandmother was a big band singer and grandfather, a maker of weird wall collages. My first cousin was a painter (until he was mugged and murdered in NYC). My dad was a mechanical designer, jazz guitarist, singer and furniture maker; my mom painted icons and furniture. My brother is a guitarist and singer/songwriter. My wife, Tricia, is an illustrator, designer and chef. Her older brother is a painter and her younger brother, a film director, writer and photographer. My son is a drummer; my oldest daughter is a singer, artist, writer and chef. My youngest daughter is a singer. Almost all my nieces and nephews are artists in one way, shape and form as well. It's in the blood, stitched into the fabric of my family's life.

As a Jesus-follower immersed in Kingdom mission, art shapes my sensibilities to a degree nearly equal in depth and passion to my Christian worldview. They've walked hand-in-hand for decades. Over the years, I've had scores conversations about what art is, and how the contemporary church used it in its life. Often they've been tough conversations about the scandalously poor quality of much "art" done by Christians over the decades. There are many notable exceptions today, and artists who are Jesus-followers have had the benefit 40-year dialogue over the issue. Believe me, in the 70's when I was in ELAN, a touring Christian band, the topic was a hot one around the country. Ours' was an innovative group, ahead of its time, and in our travels we ran into all sorts of aspiring Christian writers, dancers, artists and actors who could find no place in Christendom for their work. People like Frank(y) Schaeffer, Hans Rookmaker, Calvin Seerveld and Bill Edgar were at the forefront of learned discussions over Christ, art and the Church during those days. People were asking very important questions about faith and art.

Thank God much headway has been made.

Given the fact that imagine/Northampton, the church I am helping to plant in Northampton, has as part of its mission to engage and serve the artistic community here, it follows we are deeply interested in the intersection between being authentically Kingdom missional and making art. We think much about whether the two can coexist beneficially without adulterating one or both? We want to be faithful to our missional call to bring the Kingdom through loving and serving, and we want to make or support great art if it is in us to do so. We desire neither mediocrity nor artifice.

Before I get any further I need to say the art I will refer to is never deliberately formulaic, cheesy, kitschy, propagandist, corny, mediocre, contrived, simplistic, maudlin, commercially-driven or "the Emperor's new clothes." Kingdom missional art will be able to stand on its own merit as art: thoughtful, well-executed, perhaps as good as anyone's art in the world. It will be a product of skill, even mastery, careful thought and hard work. It will be of substance, even if it makes you laugh. 

So here are a few thoughts on the matter:

1.  Art is Kingdom missional when it hints at or points to the transcendent STORY of the Creator/Redeemer God who became one of us - the STORY beyond everyone's stories, and in which our deepest meaning resides. Whether music, visual art, poetry, theater, or dance are the media through which the STORY is revealed, God's STORY of creation and redemption is brought into view, evoking or provoking engagement beyond mere entertainment. People can peer into the revelation of God With Us. God's STORY becomes the context in which we can frame and fill in our stories to get our surest bearings.

2.  Art is Kingdom missional when it tells the truth about the human story/condition against the backdrop of the design of life God is creating, and the Trinitarian culture of love he summons people to embrace. Art which uncovers horrors crushing the human spirit, which unsentimentally portrays human inhumanity and obdurate selfishness against the cross of Christ serves to marry the reality of death to the reality of LIFE overcoming death. If art never pulls the mask off the reality of pandemic sin infecting each person in the world, causing untold misery, it's in danger of misleading, or ends up being merely whistling in the dark while dancing on the head of a cobra.

When art arouses in people a deep empathy causing them to feel the pain and horrors of human cruelty or indifference, and moves them to do something, it reflects the essence of the Kingdom. Art which motivates people to action fulfills a major facet of God's purpose for art. Sure, art can be sheer celebration; it can be whimsy; it can be pure expression in abstraction; it can even be gesture reflecting creative impulse. God gave artists complete freedom to express what they think, dream, hear, see, taste, touch, and feel without alluding to his STORY. Nevertheless, I think when artistic expression creatively aligns with Kingdom values, however directly or indirectly, it fulfills the redemptive Kingdom mission right near the heart of God. 

3. Art is Kingdom missional when it elevates forgotten and despised humanity and offers the forsaken dignity borne of hope. Because art has a unique power to move the heart toward compassion and the mind toward justice, it can unlock people toward action or change. The missional Kingdom of God has a special place for the "least of these" of Christ's brethren so when art elevates the lowly around the world it reflects God's heart toward them. Art can courageously confront unjust power and undermine evil by bringing to the fore hidden corruption crippling entire people's. Propaganda distorts for selfish ends; Kingdom missional art exposes to free the crushed in spirit.

4.  Art is Kingdom missional when it ignites wonder because of sheer brilliance and excellence, exquisite design, intelligent innovation, breath-taking beauty which opens people to notice glimmers and whispers of the UNSEEN REAL animating all of creation. Such art captivates people because they are taken a step beyond what they thought possible. It can be exquisitely simple or dazzlingly complex, but its meaning deliciously points to something/SOMEONE infinitely greater. Wonder turns the heart to the transcendent and ineffable. Kingdom missional art so well executed can bring people to recognize the Author or Wonder even if they don't know his name just yet. Such art delights, provokes, unsettles, intrigues, refreshes and moves people to look past what they've been able spiritually to apprehend before. It beckons them to the Mysterium Tremendum where they can be undone and reborn.

5. Art is Kingdom missional when it motivates people to think beyond simplistic cultural assumptions and sacred cows, or the political propaganda of the day. We live in a hypersaturated media Babel where ideas, images, opinions and perspectives come at us relentlessly, 24/7, skillfully manipulating our shifting attention and allegiance repeatedly. Art tied to the STORY helps ground our attention and get our bearings focused on eternal verities which can guide us through the flood of new information and ideas. The mission of the Kingdom is redemption, vivifying relationship with the Living God, and existential freedom, now and forever. Art which creatively points in those directions, however subtly (and subtly can be astonishingly powerful), fulfills the deepest meaning for artistic expression, without ever looking or sounding "religious." It doesn't need to.

6.  Art is Kingdom missional when it evokes exuberant celebration of Creation and the astounding genius of its Creator. When delight in God and what he has made fills the heart of the artist with such delight that he or she cannot but express wonder on canvas or in a poem or through food design, that artist celebrates the Kingdom and the exquisite architecture of what God has made. Such art is wild applause and joyful shouts of "yes" to the God of New Mexican sunsets and Cape Cod sunrises. Gazing in silent awe at earth and sky is worship joining heaven's eternal celebration.

Celebration and tears are both sides of Kingdom missional life.

Art must speak each, and all the time.


"Lord Jesus, Brilliant Creator of the heavens and the earth, Magnificent Savior and Redeemer, Humble Friend of the friendless and forlorn, Supreme Artist of all that has been made, inspire artists all over the world this day to creatively reveal overwhelming beauty and convicting truth. Whisper your ideas into their souls and guide their minds and imaginations, eyes, and ears, voices, hands and feet to artistic expressing which will unlock hearts to wonder and celebration.  Lead them to the place of tears where people's cries will help them tell stories that unleash healing and freedom from oppression and slavery of every kind. Open us all this day, to the STORY you began telling before the foundation of the world and continue to tell humankind, and lead us to lives of deep, abiding WORSHIP such that your mission on our watch is fulfilled once and for all."

Make it so, Lord. Amen.

Monday, August 9, 2010

When You Can't Pay the Rent.

 "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him."
          James 1:12

I have to say I've wrestled for a number of weeks over writing about this. I don't want to sound smarmy or whiny. I am not writing a "please feel sorry for us" post. I would be horrified if people felt that way. Nor am I writing in some underhanded, manipulative manner to get people to give us money out of sympathy. I abhor such writing. I know I am taking the risk of sounding like I'm feeling sorry for myself. I'm not . . . really. I am angry and resolved to hang in as long as I can. I've dug in to the idea that "God will make a way where these appears to be no way."

In reality, when I decided to write this blog a couple of years back, it was for the sole purpose of exploring and documenting what it's like for me, at my age, to be planting a church, no holds barred. I'd never planted a church before, so I wanted to think and report about the experience. Seemed like a good thing to do.

Therefore, it will mean sometimes writing about uncomfortable, even embarrassing things. I see little point in candy-coating the reality of what we're experiencing in the imagine mission, even if I'm the problem. While I hope I do it always in humility and with sensible good taste, telling the truth has to be paramount or I'm merely blowing smoke, as they say.

Because I'm going to write about what many people are going through in these trying, uncertain times, I hope it will encourage them in what can feel terrifying and crushing to their spirits. Hope flows from sharing familiar suffering.

I must say too: Tricia and I have never experienced the extreme financial pressures we've faced since being here in the Pioneer Valley. In over our 37 years of married and family life we've had our share of lean times, but never to this severity. For example: the last three months we have been late on our rent, last month by three and a half weeks. We are having to pick and choose which bills to pay every month. The experience is new to us and very stressful. We've always taken the responsibility of paying our bills seriously.

I'm also writing in the context of someone whose faith is strengthening concerning the goodwill of my Father toward us in this tough place. The end of our struggle appears not in sight. Stress over this is never far away. In reality, while our struggle may get worse, I'm learning to hold fast to the truth that God is our Help and Provider no matter. He loves us with a deep affection, knows our need, and can lead us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But even if we lose everything, (I realize it would be a heart-breaking horror), even our lives (Jesus-followers can, you know), I will trust his will for us. There is no merit in me for doing so; God has given me grace to experience it.

So here are my observations borne from the pain we are experiencing:


As you begin to experience falling behind in your financial obligations, anxiety steals into your thoughts. The peace that accompanies being able to consistently pay your bills erodes gradually. You wonder if this is the way it's going to be. You begin to think about being evicted, having your car repossessed, defaulting on loans, and losing your health insurance. The unthinkable becomes a possibility. Sometimes you awaken at night with stabs of terror, like "This is really happening! What are we going to do?" The fears subsides if the rent or an overdue bill gets paid, but it has taken up residence in a way new to your experience. The only way to kill it is to get back on track financially.

I have felt the stabs of terror in the night, and very real anxiety as each day adds to our lateness. It persists, as does faith. I do not let anxiety get a foothold however. I will not. I hate anxiety because I have seen what it does to people, even people I love. It's a cruel taskmaster, and I will not let it rule over me. Only Christ has that place in my life.


In the midst of things going awry, you wonder how you got here. It's confusing. You ask questions like: has God abandoned us? Did we do something to offend him, so he is punishing us? Did we hear him wrong about coming up to Northampton in the first place? Is this problem just a part of planting a church in a tough place? Things just don't seem to add up. It's not like you've been sitting around drinking beer and watching TV for months. It's not like you don't want to work or haven't been working. It's just that what you're used to, i.e., paying your bills has changed because there is not enough money and some of the mainstays of your ministry have dried up. The question is: Why?

I have wrestled with this confusion, asking all the questions I listed above and then some. Nothings making  sense. We know we were called here. Many others have confirmed it since we arrived. I don't let myself wander too long in what seems like imponderables these days. I try to do what the day gives and hope for relief and I try to follow Jesus. My prayer is that of Augustine: "Ask what you will and give what you command." If I need to substantially change what I am doing, I will, as long as I know God is requiring it of me, and gives me the grace/ability to do it.


As a man, although not exclusive to men in this harrowing predicament, you feel enormous guilt and self-condemnation because you're causing suffering for those you love and are responsible for. In my case, it is Tricia, my family and the church. It feels largely my fault for getting us into this terrible shape. What kind of man am I to allow what is happening?  Not fulfilling your obligations cuts deep into a man's sense of integrity and authenticity. It is our job to provide what is needed. Anything less is abject failure. In our minds there is no excuse for this. We've been tested and are found wanting. We don't have what it takes. I don't have what it takes . . . apparently.

I feel very guilty about not making enough money, but I resist submitting to self-condemnation. I know the harm it causes. My guilt is that of most men in my predicament: "I got us here and I could be doing more to get us out." Sometimes that's true, but for the most part, it's not. I do need to make more money and will work long days to do so.


Shame is the evil twin of guilt/self-condemnation. Shame says. "you are a joke." Shame says there is something fundamentally wrong with who you are, and you're not fit to be here. Shames makes a person feel small, useless, inadequate at the core, and worthy of the garbage heap. It stings cruelly as one of the most spiritually devastating responses to life experience one can have. It crushes a person's spirit, sometimes terminally. For a man, shame convinces him he is an impotent boy and he disappears. Shame causes a man or woman to hide because if anyone knew how worthless they are, the rejection would be harsh and instantaneous.  It creates ghost-people.

I do feel shame sometimes around folks who have the blessing of meeting their obligations. There is a kind of "if they only knew how hard we're struggling and I can 't seem to turn it around" feeling pervading my experience around them. I'm don't feel one of them and I feel small and impotent sometimes. I don't like that feeling, but it's hard to fight when you're not making financial headway.


When you can't pay the rent and everything else for a period of time, people can become habitually discouraged and give up trying. They lose faith believing there is nothing they (or God will) can do to change their lot. They medicate and exist. I see folks like this all the time on the streets of Northampton, and they are everywhere in this world. All people need to feel they have the ability to meet their basic needs and those of their families. When that is frustrated repeatedly or stolen they fall into despair, a much more dangerous state of being. When that happens the game is over and only God can restore them.

I have been working hard not to let that happen because the results are too horrifying to even think about. I know what it means to be depressed - another form of despair - and I will not return. I've been discouraged by this, but I am comforted by the fact that God calls me to be faithful each day and the results are his. I have nothing I have not been given. Hope lingers in this notion of just working to be faithful. 


This frightening financial battle causes me to think differently about my relationship with God and how I need to persevere . . . a good thing. I'm forced to look for different ways of making a living including going back to things I did before we moved up here such as doing Playmaker Profiles and Listening in Christ retreats, speaking in churches, and playing music. I may find a part-time job, or I may switch careers if disaster happens and we have to leave here.

With God, I'm having to trust him for longer periods of time without seeing an answer to our financial state. God has always met our needs, but he's never taken us past deadlines where we are late with payments on more than one front. When we were younger, my work dried up for a period as I was in a major transition I wasn't aware I was in. Perhaps such is happening again. Whatever God is up to, we're being summoned to believe in his good care for us way beyond any other time in our lives, especially for such a long duration. I can't say I'm enjoying the ride, however, the pain is real and I seem caught in forces bigger than me.

The good in all of this is we've put it all on the line for the redemptive Kingdom mission of Christ. It feels we are trying to walk the walk in a way for more substantial than ever. Will God lead us to relief or the "hard way" of losing everything? We don't know, but we're in this struggle. It's all on the line. I hold fast to God's faithfulness even if his mercy turns out to be severe. Many Jesus-followers over the centuries lost everything for his sake. If that is to be our lot, I hope it has been for his sake and not because of human failure.

We will see.

I'm still betting the ranch on the goodness of my Abba and my Lord. He will be with us no matter what happens. When it's all said and done, may we be found faithful in trusting and serving him regardless of the difficulty of our circumstances, self-imposed or sent from above.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Spending the Day With InterServe

I don't know if you've noticed this in your life with God, but I have noticed that periodically God opens me to people and spiritual or theological experiences that deepen my understand of him, his people and the way I come at life with him. Sometimes they are disturbing and convicting; other times they are inspiring and catalyzing.

A week ago Saturday I had one of those remarkable days.

I was invited by my friend, Dave Teague, a pastor who's also been a missionary with his wife, Sally, to speak with him on the theme of Spiritual Formation and Prayer. He was doing the keynote sessions, I would do a workshop on Spiritual Formation, and then we'd collaborate on a Panel Discussion at the end of the day.

I had never been to Toah Nipi and I looked forward to working with Dave and spending time with folks who bring the love of Christ and the Gospel to people who live in very hard places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Truth be told, missionaries have always been heroes of the faith to me, so hanging out with them looked to be a gift.

It was . . .

Perhaps the most clear conviction I settled into after spending the day with these folks was the necessity of all Christ-followers having to be global Christ-followers in some manner. Perhaps all of us shouldn't spend long periods of time away doing Kingdom work in foreign lands, but all of us must be closely aware of what God is doing in the world for the sake of the Gospel. While writing a check is an important way to fund God's work around the globe, we must see the global Church of equal importance to our local churches. We are all of one tribe as someone said to me recently. When we don't, our vision gradually narrows and ends in a sad spiritual myopia. The missionaries I was with a week ago have just such an expanse of perspective, and while it's refreshing I think it's close to where God wants all of us to be.

Second to the first conviction, and a close second, is the critical importance of praying for global missions and missionaries. Doing so should be a vital part of our prayer life. Because so many of these folks' challenges and hardships fall outside the norm they need our prayer. Because so many go to very tough and dangerous places they need our calling out to heaven on their behalf for protection and provision.We become connected to them through praying for them. And shouldn't we want to see God's Kingdom come all across the earth? Prayer opens holes in the darkness and establishes the ways and means for God's redemptive work to take hold. God makes it all happen, but we have a peculiar influence in that regard. So we need to be praying for peoples, countries, missions organizations and missionaries. If you're not already so engaged, ask God to direct your steps to the people and places he wants you to fight for on your knees.

I think our churches also must to be supporting and sending churches. I know many are, but many are not beyond the yearly denominationally-driven "One Great Hour of Sharing" events. I'm not knocking those at all. But I think it more energizing and inspiring for a congregation to directly support individual missionaries or missions organizations so they enter into real-time relationships with flesh and blood people who depend on their generosity to continue the work. It is all our obligation in my mind. My deepest hope, though, is every local congregation would create an atmosphere where the missionary-mindset is established, people go on short-term missions as part of the church culture, and gifted people are identified and sent on behalf of a local church in full-time service. I know there are churches that do all of it, but I'd like to see every church do so, no matter how small. I know part of imagine/Northampton's vision is to create this missional culture. We'll get there.

Being with the Interserve people made me aware of the cost of following Christ full-bore and the heart it takes to do so. God opened me to lift my head to look to the horizon where my brothers and sisters are laboring with love and skill and courage because God called them to it. They are walking the walk, and with the news today about medical missionaries being murdered in Afghanistan, sometimes paying the ultimate price with their lives, it seems all the more compelling to take up the yoke with them in some way.

Curiously, one of the docs killed was the husband of someone who spoke to the group last Saturday. There was another family there who lost a son as well. This woman told her own harrowing story of almost dying recently because of a surgery infection she suffered while in country. She was within a few hours of dying. She planned to return soon to rejoin her husband. 

I hope what I experienced last Saturday will penetrate deep into my heart and permanently expand my vision for God's Kingdom well beyond Northampton. I think he had me at Toah Nipi to begin just that. Now I need to follow him in the direction he leads. I want to and will watch for how he continues to open me to his global work.