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."