Search This Blog

Thursday, October 28, 2010

An Attempt to Illuminate the Invisible Door of My Hesitation.

I can feel more than see it. Sometimes my mind pictures what it conceives to be an invisible door, but of course, it's invisible, so no real help there. As I said, I can feel it as a diffuse barrier preventing me from going through. I bump into it when I try to head in a certain direction missionally. My mind sees something like a force field, superimposed on a background, an opaque portal, undefined, but there. I know, it's obtuse, but that's how my mind tries to conceptualize what I experience.

Last night part of the conversation Jim, Tricia and I were having precipitated my talking about the invisible door. I experience it whenever I have the opportunity to engage a stranger in Northampton, or when I set out to connect with people on the street or in the neighborhood. The simple fact is, while I'm completely sold on the mission of opening people to Jesus, especially those who don't see or know him, I encounter an internal barrier I've come to recognize as an invisible door. I head in the direction of connecting, but bam, I hit it. It feels like a tension or agitation, a spiritual/cognitive dissonance, if you will.

The counselor in me says "Duh! You're an introvert. Of course, you have trouble here. Time-alone is your esteemed habitation." True, but that's not the invisible door. I do see my introversion clearly as a factor which steers me away from time to time. The counselor in me also recognizes fear felt as an irrational chimera when I embark on talking to strangers about being a Jesus-follower and why. The fear makes little sense given the task, but it's felt as a stout barrier more often than not. I feel the jangling anxiety sometimes almost like a "Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!" experience, and want to flee an encounter in the worst way when it happens.

I also realize the invisible door has power. It feeds off my pride. I'm designed motivationally to impress or make an impact. Part of that comes in the form of being different from others, going beyond where they are. So when I'm in charge of my "presentation" I want to be liked, and held in high regard for the grandeur that is me. Yikes! At my worst, I'm in the spotlight and want nothing to tarnish the image I've nursed and created over the years. It's sinful pride in all its absurd ugliness. So heaven forbid I be seen in public as one of those idiotic Christians. Well, yeah I'm a Jesus-follower, but different, hipper, more savvy than those other guys. Ugh!

I still don't think the very real factors above define the invisible door sufficiently. There is one more force at work. I know the invisible door is a spiritual barrier designed by the Terrorist of all terrorists to keep people out of the Kingdom and to keep Christians avoiding walking through it as a way of life. While I (we) might experience it as hesitation, a lack of confidence or even anxiety, people who can't see Jesus experience the invisible door as irrational antagonism, indifference, or ignorance. What it really amounts to is utter blindness - dead spiritual eyes and scarred-over hearts. They're held captive behind the door unawares, or as a result of willful rejection (even there, they really know not what they do, no matter how vehement their rejection of Jesus). Jesus is not real or compelling, and Christians, especially those who seek after them for the Gospel, are an annoyance at best, or worse, the hateful enemy. 

The invisible door keeps out the freeing light and truth. It impedes and imprisons. People can't see Jesus because the door hides him from view until the Holy Spirit busts through and their eyes see. I bump into it because it is there to deceive, discourage and turn me away. So both sides of the invisible door are designed to block entrance.

As it pertains to me, the invisible door, in reality is a false, rice paper barrier held in place by my acceptance of it. I am duped by it into hesitation and frustration. As with fear, the only way to overcome it is to head right into the door. I have to trust and make a move, make many moves into the deception. I'm aware and will be working to blow the door open from my side with the help of the Spirit who makes me able to do any of it.

So, have you experienced the invisible door I describe? How has God helped you go through it as a missionary in the service of Jesus? Where have you seen growth and success? Where have you been frustrated or discouraged? Let me know. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

21 Thoughts on Planting imagine/Northampton after 27 Months.

Recently, Jim, Tricia and I were chuckling over all the wide-eyed assumptions we made in our living rooms in Simsbury about what planting imagine was going to look like, and how our little missional church was going to function. We had charts and diagrams. We wanted to be ready for the people God was going to send us; not a bad thing, just largely irrelevant to what we are experiencing in Northampton so far.

So in the nether world of half asleep/half awake this morning, a number of thoughts drifted through from our experience here for a little over 2 years.

1.  Planting a missional church is much harder to do than we could grasp (and we did not think it would be easy), and will take focused patience and persistence for many months. I think we thought more people would've stuck at this point. Keeping after it for the long haul will be required.

2. God brings the people and moves them to stick around or get involved no matter what we do or don't offer on Sunday morning.

3. Focus on mission is how all Christ-followers should live. We're all missionaries and the Kingdom of God is our prime directive no matter our jobs, talents or resources.

4. As an introvert, one of the ways I'm summoned to carry my cross is to engage people I don't know, and open myself to what others need of my time and energy.

5. The challenge, pressures and stress of planting imagine/Northampton are forcing me to fan into flame gifts I've let sit dormant and exercise public leadership beyond where I'm naturally comfortable.

6. The strategies and methodologies I studied in the church planting books I read have fallen by the wayside in favor of simply engaging people on their terms and listening to their hearts with the possibility of sharing the hope that's in me because of Jesus.

7. Being involved in imagine/Northampton has opened me to all sorts of experiences I never had in my previous 20+ years of ministry. At the same time, the training I had as a counselor, spiritual director and retreat leader has been extremely useful to God's purposes here.

8. My drumming is deepening technically well beyond what I thought possible. God is opening and returning creative/improvisational  sensibilities I let go of when I laid down music as a profession at age 30. I don't know why God is doing so just yet.

9. I'm supposed to write at least one book.

10. My understanding of church has been revolutionized and drawn away from cultural trappings I took for granted for 35 years.

11. We have miles to go as a church, but all of us know we were called here and have a desire to see people open to Jesus. All of us are being stretched, and are learning to keep going in the face of substantial and persisting difficulties.

12. People consistently affirm what we are doing which buoys our spirits.

13. We still have gifts missing in our community and wait eagerly for them to arrive.

14. We've made a tangible difference in the lives of some folks here.  There is much more to be done, but we are doing some of what we purposed to do. That's wonderful.

15. Money is a great lever for ministry. It expands the possibilities. Lack of money increases resourcefulness and sometimes creativity, but its lack does limit range influence at any given time.

16. Prayer opens the way and creates possibilities beginning only as dreams and wisps of visions.

17. I still can't believe we are actually here after all we've endured, and still endure, but here we are!!!

18. My love for the people God has brought to imagine deepens. I want them to know Jesus and be alive in him. I've gotten to know some amazing folks.

19. I still believe that creativity must be cultivated and unleashed in the church to reflect the wonder, beauty and truth of God. We have the sensibilities and gifts to do so, but need more courageous creatives willing to make a new way with us. We need fearless "wonderers!"

20.  If we do not engage people who do not follow Christ, we miss the point of imagine/Northampton. Our call is to them and to broken believers who need time to heal and re-focus.

21. imagine/Northampton is still a wicked cool name for a church!

Them's my thoughts and I'm stickin' to 'em.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What "Going Missional" Is Doing To Me.

It's a cloudy, Friday afternoon and in a 21 hours or so, Tricia and I will head down to Ventnor, NJ for a much needed rest and refreshing. We will be there 4 days. The house we'll stay at belongs to her mother, and it has been a place of many growing-up memories for Tricia and for our family as well. The walls bear witness to the memories of summers, and holidays.

We're only a block from the Boardwalk and beach. It's a time of year when the place will not be swarming with sunlovers unless we head up the Boardwalk to Atlantic City, about 2 miles, I think. We'll walk the Boardwalk and beach with our old dog Tiger. We'll read and talk. I plan to outline the concept for a book I will write over the next year. The project is one percolating in me for a year or so, and I've been getting encouragement to undertake the task. I think I have the words in me to do so. God will need to help me collect and line them up into something useful for his Kingdom. I really desire for such use to be so from the words he's entrusted to me.

We'll also catch up on some sleep and just lollygag, thank you very much. Ministry leaders need oases of time to lollygag. It's good for the ministry and marriages and spiritual well-being.

So lollygag we will.

But before we go I want to reflect on how I'm experiencing the imagine/Northampton mission of late. I've been noting to others what seems to be changing subtly in me because of planting imagine, and learning to interact with the people of Northampton and the Pioneer Valley. In general, it feels a deepening as in growing closer to what it means for someone like me to follow Jesus. I'm gradually beginning to get what it might mean to care more for his interests than my own. I've not arrived by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm closer; its in view with a distinct shape.

I'll give you a few examples to explain.

I've noticed I don't really care about whether imagine/Northampton becomes this big church with all the trappings of big church. So, it's not about programs or yowsa-yowsa Sunday morning gatherings. Sunday service is not the spiritual bulls-eye of the week in my mind. Nor are great programs and activities the life of the church. Actually, in my mind, what happens during the week are the most important days in the life of the church. It's what we Jesus followers do out in the company of everyone else that is the heart of our following him.  Worship happens daily by giving our lives as a sacrifice of praise. I want the Kingdom to come in a way that truly settles into the lives of the people who are not spectators or spiritual consumers. It's the Kingdom which matters most to me; the lived-out Kingdom in the midst of people who can't see Jesus yet.. These days, I think, the Kingdom outside the walls most reflects the Church of it's life and purpose. I didn't always.

Something else that has gathered my attention repeatedly since being here is the pain and sorrow of peoples' who've been deeply wounded and scarred by injustice or oppression. I feel the sadness of lost dignity, trampled dreams, smothered identity, and the sheer rapacity of human pride and lust for power. I get with more acuity Jesus living amongst and ennobling the least of his loved ones. I notice the ways people are dehumanized by prejudice and sheer meanness. I feel it all more in my gut. I find myself looking for ways to be a part of healing and restoring. I'm not particularly interested in the politics of it, just the offering of  grace and drying of tears; the unlocking of a person who's disappeared sometimes for decades with no one noticing. I see now to a depth I'd not before.

I want imagine/Northampton to be full of people who lost their way or left their hopes and dreams on the trail years ago. I want them to discover this God who is far more than they imagine and calls them to a way of life full of meaning, freedom and worth, just waiting for their gifts to be given in the manner only they can.  I feel a strong longing for these people's unlocking and opening into life. It's like a straining toward their unbinding.

Then there's the matter of what's happening to my faith and trust. I've become aware of my faith being tested to limits, and with an intensity different from what I've experienced. Like all believers I've been tested many times before in my 37 years of learning to follow Jesus, but never with such a relentless frequency or to the degree I now experience often. It feels almost as if what lies ahead will require a vigor and durability of faith unlike what I've known. I am having to hold fast to my faith almost everyday in ways not required of me before. Tricia and I are brought to the brink, and I must fight to believe in the face of what sometimes looks like potential ruin. Jesus keeps up the pressure, and provides the release for a time, then we're back at it again. It's not fun or "awesome, dude." It's hard and spiritually hardening (as in how muscles harden due to being stressed by exercise), for the journey ahead.

Lastly, I have a growing love for the people God has gathered in our little band of imagine/Northamptoners, the team and new folks alike. I like being around them. I want them to flourish in their following of Jesus through this mission. I'm enlivened by watching them when they have the courage and faith to step of out of safety and connect with people. I have great compassion for the sacrifices the team has made in moving from Simsbury to the Pioneer Valley. I respect that no one up here has decided to leave even though they all are being "sorely tried" in our mission together. These people are what Samuel Chadwick called "saints of the fire-heart." Their sacrifices help me shoulder my own.

I need to add, my wife, Tricia, is one of the most gifted people I've ever known. This mission has only highlighted that reality. Her courage and mental toughness is humbling to me. Watching her shoulder the burden of our call with grace and spirit is one of the greatest teachers of my life. She's a true Proverbs 31 woman. I don't deserve her.

I know there will be other spiritual eye-openers down this missional road. The tests of faith will continue and if I cooperate I'll grow nearer who I'm supposed to be. My hope is that when I breathe my last breath I will have done what I was made for, or at least most of it. I hope Jesus and his Kingdom came a little into view because I said "yes" more than "not now."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Questions to Help Us Notice and Celebrate Answers to Prayer.

For the last few months we at imagine/Northampton have adopted the practice in worship of marking and celebrating answers to prayer in a visible way. The idea is not original to us. At the first part of our gathering, in the section where we focus on prayer, I ask people to tell us of how God answered what they prayed for during the week, or what we previously prayed for together. I hold a slender glass container. When they tell us, they come forward and put in a colorful marble for each answer. It is our way of acknowledging God really answers prayer. We celebrate his faithfulness and goodness as the weeks go by and the jar gradually fills: a visible, playful reminder of God's gracious care for us. It builds faith and a thankful heart.

So as I was thinking about this earlier this morning, I thought it helpful to list a handful of reflection questions so you can regularly notice the myriad ways God answers your prayers. It will help all of us not slip into the take-for-granted posture we can so easily settle into concerning God's astonishing faithfulness to us. Perhaps we can think of this remembering as a spiritual discipline, a way of paying repeated attention to the gracious activity of God on our behalf. Noticing him is always beneficial and freeing.

Copy the questions and use them weekly as a discipline of remembering to cultivate a deep heart of gratitude and praise. Such gratitude and praise should grow into another WAY OF LIFE spiritual practice.


  1. What daily needs should I acknowledge and celebrate today, for example: a full stomach, clothes on my back, being protected as I slept, having transportation, work to do, friends, the ability to think, health, a roof over my head, clean water, etc.
  2. What problem did God solve or help solve for me this week?
  3. Who did he help recently in answer to my/our prayer together?
  4. Where did he open my eyes to something I didn't see before?
  5. How did he keep me from making a real mess of something today or this week?
  6. Where did he keep me from harm this week?
  7. Did he heal me or someone I love in answer to my/our prayer?
  8. Did he answer a prayer I've been praying for a long time?
  9. Did he answer my work-related prayer?
  10. Did he provide for me in a way I've been praying about?
  11. Did he free me from something I have been struggling with or bothered by, a sin entangling me?
  12. Did he sustain me in an important or vital activity?
Do this daily or a few times a week for 6 weeks and see how it opens you to the wonder of God who answers prayer, sustaining your life in abundant grace and help. You might be amazed.

Consider buying a tall glass container and some colorful marbles to keep in your home to facilitate remembering and celebrating God.

May you notice afresh the magnificent care of God over your life and those you pray for. May you open more and more to the lavish generosity of God who attends continually to his world, and your place in it. May you be genuinely astonished by his daily faithfulness. May peace abide in you because your God never sleeps and always works for your freeing blessing and his glory in your life.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It Might Have Been Otherwise. A Poem About Forgotten Grace.

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been 
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon from Receiving the Day, Dorothy C. Bass

Recently, I've been reading of  Bass's Receiving the Day as part of my early morning. It's the kind of spiritual reading I've done ever since getting involved in helping people live intimacy with Christ. I find this genre of writing settling and freeing because it so counteracts the jangling, fractured  life so many of us have resigned ourselves to in our "I'm late. I'm late for a very important date! Hello, goodbye. Hello, goodbye. I'm late! I'm late! I'm late!" world. 

Bass's lovely book called me to back to a more humane and humble way of living my church planting existence, reminding me of gentle rhythms we lived at the retreat center in Simsbury. Those days had their share of frenetic trying to keep up, but the atmosphere of listening/noticing a house of prayer teaches always called us back to preserving a quiet heart before God. It was part of the contemplative landscape as so many of our guests attested to. The noise of life had to submit to the silence of gazing at God with a smile and a tear.

 Kenyon's poem struck a chord in that I am so easily lured into forgetting the astounding grace of simple gifts and God's constant love gestures filling an ordinary (or even an extraordinary) day. Living in a bustling city doesn't help:

Being able to shower with hot water.

Having someplace to put my clothes.

Being able to walk and see. 

having money in my pocket to give away.

Having a lovely wife who gives her life to me every day.

Hot coffee.

Being able to work.

Having someplace to go.

Garbage bags, toilet paper, clean water, a couch to sit on, shoes, being able to drum, being able to think straight, books, color and sunlight, a glass to drink from, freedom to choose, someone else knows my name, etc. etc. etc.

The deal is, you and I both know "it might have been otherwise," for each of us. The disheveled people endlessly pushing shopping carts on the streets of Northampton remind me all the time.

More importantly, someday I know, it will be otherwise. This earthly plane will no longer be my abode or that of everyone I love. Perhaps today death or unexpected chaos will break down my door and change everything. It does in every person's life from time to time. So Kenyon and Bass remind me to not be foolish about the exquisite grace of what my friend recently called "the splendid ordinary." I need to recapture the blessing of paying attention to the subtle presence of ordinary grace through which God unendingly gifts my day with love and care. In so doing, I free myself to gratitude, giving back and creativity. I notice and am lightened by His thoughtfulness. His mind-boggling attention to the tiniest of details adorning and sustaining life, mine and yours, will undo us if we let them . . . if we open to and receive them.

Pay attention today to grace and peace and solidity and love and people and place. 

All of it truly "might have been otherwise."

Someday, it surely will be otherwise. But not at this moment.

So with this moment, open your arms wide to Jesus and receive the day, no matter what time it is. Then bend your neck to thankfulness as your offering of love and humility. 

While you're at it, decide to make this simple receiving and offering A WAY OF LIFE.

(it can be, you know)


Friday, October 1, 2010

Far More Than I Imagined: When God Changes the Shape of Your Life.

Most of you familiar with imagine/Northampton know our byline is: Helping people discover the God who is far more than they imagine. We think it crucial for a vigorous and vibrant following of Jesus. Always peering into and discovering the vast riches of relationship with the Living God is the normal, biblical Christian life in our estimation.

Conversely, allowing one's following to sink gradually into mere habit and routine is numbing anathema. The ravishing God who conceived, created, sustains and redeems his universal masterpiece must be the centerpiece of our daily being. The posture of open, expectant looking to discover more of God and more of what he desires our days to be about has no higher calling in my opinion.

Lately, I've been noticing since coming here how God is gradually re-shaping Tricia's and my life. He's doing far more than we imagined at this juncture of life and I suspect, similar to an iceberg, we only see 10% of it - probably God's mercy that we do!

Let me give you some examples.

1. Shifting my Christian self-concept:

Prior to coming to Northampton, I was in ministry, but almost exclusively with Christians who came to Tricia or me for help, whether inner healing, marriage/family counseling, spiritual direction or Listening in Christ retreats. They came to the Center For Renewal, or we were invited to their place of ministry and work. At that time, my sense of self was about being receptive rather than proactive. I was there if you called on me. Now, I must go out and engage people, often strangers with substantially different life experiences from me, and most aren't Christian. While we have folks who come to imagine for what we do in-house, God is reshaping my ministry focus in ways I never imagined 5 years ago. It's been both a bewildering challenge and an intriguing, inspiring adventure. I understand my being a Jesus follower differently now as being out amongst rather than in amongst. I'm going, not staying put.

2. Transitioning from suburbia to being in the middle of a small city:

We lived in Simsbury, CT at the retreat center for 20 years. The 40-acre church property was converted from a dairy farm. It has open fields bordered by forest,  a stream called Hopbrook where a baptismal had been dug. There is an outdoor worship area hugging a hill next to Hopbrook, paths to walk, stone walls, gardens, wooden benches to rest or reflect on, an in-the-woods Prayer Gazebo, and all manner of wildlife just passing through, including bear. It sits in the middle of suburbia like a park.

The rhythm of life was slower with quiet, especially at night. We lived in a house of prayer.

Now, we live in a European-style apartment, and work in a small bustling city on Main Street at a crossroads. There are people everywhere, all the time. It's noisy, spiritual, energy-packed, weird, fun, artsy, full of itself, and exasperating at times. God put us right, smack dab in the center of it all on Main Street. The rhythm of life is wildly ramped up,  especially on the weekends and holidays. In reality, we're getting used to people on the street, the parade of people heading uphill in life and heading downhill. While living at the retreat center was bucolic and pastoral, living in Northampton is often like a carnival or relic of the 60's. Routine living takes more effort than it did in Simsbury.

In this context, God is reshaping my sensibilities and fitting me to serve here. I'm becoming a part of the life of this vibrant place. I am pacing with the rhythms and flow of urban culture and fins I love some of it. The time for retreat space living ended; the time for city space living is now enfolds my life.

3. Being church as opposed to para-church:

God called us to be a key part of planting a church, something we'd never done before. Taking on such responsibility feels different from when I started Klesis. It was ministry, but related specifically to just what Tricia and I did. We were members of a church, not looking to plant one. Neither were we looking for people to join our ministry as their church. The point was not to be a church, but to draw alongside and serve the Church by healing and teaching people intimacy with Christ.

But now in Northampton, we have a passion to establish a missional church to love and serve the people here that they might see and follow Jesus. Our time is spent on those activities needed to do our parts in the task. We want imagine to be a missional community. We want people who come on board to share our core values and engage others to help open them to Jesus. It is no longer merely about Tricia's and my individual ministries. We're part of a team and know that someday imagine/Northampton (if it pleases God), will move forward without us.

God changed the shape of our lives regarding ministry focus and format. I suspect Klesis and all we did at the Barn in Simsbury was a necessary precursor to prepare us for such a time as this.

4. Faith needing to be deepened:

If you and I were to have a conversation about life and mission in Northampton, you'd hear me tell you this is the hardest thing I've ever done in ministry and the most captivating. I'd make sure to mention the fierce spiritual warfare we routinely experience, and the relentlessness of which I've never experienced, and I've experienced plenty before. I'd also tell you of the vigor, maturity and tenacity of faith required to plant imagine is like nothing I've had to muster before, especially what is needed daily to not be filled with fear or overwhelmed by discouragement and impotence in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

Being here to live the Gospel is not for posers, flashes in the pan, or the faint of heart. You have to decide each day to fight the fight of faith and not look back. Keeping your eyes on Jesus is a real lifeline. The battle for the mind and heart greets you in the morning, wakes you in the deep of night, confronts you on the street, and in the most routine of tasks. The fact is, Northampton is occupied territory which can and does spiritually exhaust people who long to see Christ as Lord here especially when it comes to freeing the captive, giving sight to the blind, binding up the broken-hearted, and bearing loving truth in the face of existential confusion, lies and counterfeits which captivate so many, young and old.

God has granted faith beyond what I exercised before. The way I pray, think and act has a level of faith well past what was the norm for me. God is shaping my faith-life commensurate to what he requires of me here. Without such faith I'd never have a chance. Now I do, by his grace, power and creative brilliance for changing lives and drawing people into authentic, missional Kingdom communities.

I honestly never imagined much of what I'm doing here, even as modest as it still is. He's already done far more than I imagined, and we're just getting the hang of this deal from our end. My prayer has been he'd grant me the days to see imagine/Northampton settled in as an extravagantly courageous and creative community of loving, healing and freeing, especially in the lives of people who've no idea who he is, or currently want nothing to do with him or us.

For now, I put one foot in front of the other each day looking continually for him to use me to open a life of someone way beyond what they thought possible because Jesus did not have a place in their life.

Lord, keep reshaping my heart and my days to do what my imagination can't currently see.