Search This Blog

Monday, December 26, 2011

Things I'd Like to See imagine/Northampton Accomplish in 2012.

As I sit in front of the blank screen, I'm asking myself why I'm writing this post. Well, first, writing a blog helps me clarify thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams and concerns. The blogging process lets me explore and bring to the fore what's been percolating in my heart or resonating in my head. Sometimes it's cathartic; sometimes it answers questions with which I'm wrestling. Most times, I merely want to share what's on my mind.

Today's post is my way of articulating what I hope we'll accomplish, or at least, be heading resolutely toward in 2012. The list is not exhaustive nor is this my "Encyclical" to the church (as if I even had that place, authority or influence in the imagine community, or thought it important). I know, too, that imagine/Northampton is God's to do with as he wishes. I want him to be glorified in, through and by what we do: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." He's the point. He's the means. He's the end. Ours is to obey what he desires.

Having said the above, I'm just sharing my heart a little bit:

1. We'd move to a new place where we could worship through song, where there's room enough to grow, play music with a Worship Team, and have a better place for imagineKIDS.

2. imagine/Northampton would grow, especially from new believers.Those who stay would be be plugged in and using their gifts in the Kingdom mission we have.

3. Young or new leaders would emerge and be equipped to take responsibility in leading the imagine mission in some way.

4. A Creative Arts Team would coalesce, and add to the quality, beauty and impact of our worship as well as connecting to Northampton and its arts community.

5. The CHAPTER TWO of imagine/Northampton's story (CHAPTER ONE being we're planting a church - we're planted), would be told and established effectively.

6. We'd take productive steps toward the vision of a 3rd Place in Northampton.

7. We'd grow our base of supporters, including internally.

8. 1FlightUP (our jazz trio) would establish a place in the Pioneer Valley arts community and make a difference.

9. All of us in imagine/Northampton be emboldened to graciously help anyone discover the God who is far more than they imagine.

10. Our ministry to kids would develop into one of the main reasons families come to imagine.

11. All of us would have a deepened love for Jesus, his way of life, and for people who don't know him.

12. The inward/OUTWARD Missional Small Group beginning in January would launch and establish a model for imagine's small group missional culture.

May it be as He has given, and may the above, be at the very least, a part of what He's given.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tested to the Edge of Faith; Tethered to a Short Leash.

I wonder if you've experienced what I'm about to tell you?

Since we moved to Northampton, my faith has undergone frequent and substantial testing. Our task has been no easy road from the git, as I've written about before. When I undergo such testing a pattern of questions comes into view for me:

  • Will you really believe I am sufficient for your lack or what you still need?
  • Will you trust me anyway?
  • Will you follow me anyway? 

Or perhaps the most sobering, and frankly, frightening:

  • Will you follow me no matter what even if you go down in flames or lose everything?
Recently, as I've thought about  what I've trudged through, and still experience in spades, I pictured myself standing near the edge of a well-marked boundary line demarcating how far my faith actually extends. On the other side of the line is a ledge which drops off into an indistinguishable abyss. There's nothing on the other side of the ledge but drop-off into murk and emptiness. As I look at the scene, there's no sense of foreboding. The line merely accurately defines where my faith ends. I'm not able to hold fast to faith because my burden is too heavy, the difficulties are too great and persisting, or I've seen no progress or change for way too much time. So as I stand there, in the picture it appears I've reached my limit and need help to go any further.

I've come to realize since settling into the Pioneer Valley that the boundary line will move as if by some "unseen Hand" and consequently, the edge of my faith extends as if attached to the line. The reality seems I need times to stand and accept  the truth of the faith-boundary line when it appears to there's no way forward, or it feels like the bottom is soon to fall out. During those uncomfortable hesitations I remind God, sometimes vehemently, that we're in deep, and if he doesn't do something, into the abyss we'll surely tumble pell-mell. Those times cause me to really put it on the line with him, acknowledging my sheer, unending dependence on his grace and power to actually get any of this Kingdom stuff done from my side of the table.

I'll bet you've had similar faith wrestlings to the edge. Reality affirms faith untested is faith dormant or flaccid. Faith tested to the very edge is faith on the verge of deepening and extending, or tragically for some, cast off as a cruel joke,  the silly wishful thinking of children who'll soon grow up to "smell the coffee" of the wind of your own making.

It turns out as long as I'm trying to follow Jesus with any integrity or resolve, I'll be brought to the edge of faith repeatedly. You will too.

"For you know that the testing of your faith (not perhaps if your faith might be tested) produces steadfastness." James 1: 3

"So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1: 7

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes (not if it comes to an unfortunate few) upon you to test you, as though something strange (This is the normal Christian life, dude) were happening to you." 1 Peter 4:12

Faith has to be repeatedly proved and tempered in difficulty at the edge. Through faith tested, we have the chance to learn to withstand adversity with courage and flexibility -- two gifts of priceless worth. Acquiring those character essentials helps us not be easily hamstrung by sometimes unrelenting, even devastating hardship. The tempering of faith takes you and me beyond lip service, platitudes, and psychologically soothing good intentions. Resilience can be trained into us when our thin faith is stretched taut. If knocked to the ground, we find an unexpected capacity to spring back. When faith is drawn into the empty, arid places of life, it's graciously offered the chance to learn persevering, a steely, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other attitude of the surrendered will, or a stubborn waiting with rooted expectation God will bring water and oasis, as he sees fit.

There are treasures of character (a treasure in itself), to be uncovered in life's testing grounds of faith.
From 40 years of trying to walk out my faith in the real world of multiple edges, I also understand God chastens and disciplines all of us at critical points in our lives - even if we're not particularly aware we've reached a critical character juncture at the time. I also see the degree of his graceful severity changes depending on how much spiritual darkness or danger we might blunder or bull our way into. He is loving and good to those he loves, does not give us what our sins deserve, is slow and anger and quick to forgive, but he also disciplines his beloved to make each of us fit for eventually bearing the weight of glory.

So sometimes God tethers you and me to a short leash for a period so we can we learn to discern and acquire wisdom -- one of the true headwaters of life to the full. When so tethered, we simply can't wander off no matter how much we strain against the leash. We're stuck to where we have to pay attention.

For example, since mid-summer, and with increasing frequency, I've found myself having to clean up messes I made in relationships with other people, often because of what I've said or neglected to follow through on. In one acutely painful instance, I came unhinged publicly and wounded a dear friend of mine who did nothing to invite my 25-second apoplectic rant. I'd not listened to the subtle cues that something worrisome was building up in me in the preceding days, and because I did not address the dissonance inside, I and my friend paid a high price: me because I neglected what God wanted to face, and he because he just sadly happened to be in my vitriolic line of fire.

The above is an egregious instance of  me not doing some critical, internal character work when the Holy Spirit prompted  . . . and more than once I might add. It seems always a matter of character in my case and has to do, as I said earlier,  with what I say and/or neglect to do. Wounding my friend was the extreme reason why I'm tethered these days. I tend not to breathe fire on people at the drop of a hat. But, I think it also it points to a lack of charity in all my dealings with others. I don't carefully and wisely consider my words or nodding of my head in agreement when I've not weighed the implications of what I'm communicating by them, even when in a simple conversation. I send mixed messages and people get confused, frustrated or hurt by me. God wants more circumspection and prayer from me, not impulsive words even if well-meaning.

Follow-through on things which intimidate or summon anxiety in me is another character flaw God has tethered me to facing. I have a post-graduate degree in procrastination around stuff that spooks me. So these days this leash is uncomfortably short. He's not giving me much latitude. He wants change toward integrity from me. In other words, I have to acknowledge my failure soon after I fail. He wants my "yes" then follow-through;" and my "no" when I disagree or will not do it. He hates when I appear to go along with something I've no real intention of supporting or undertaking. It's a habit he's been checking me quite regularly.

While being tethered to a short-leash restricts for sure, and sometimes uncomfortable, I'm convinced in God's hands it works to free people to integrity and authenticity - an irony of grace. Good things come from it. Godly character does form as we learn to surrender, and live within the limits he's ordained for spiritual formation and training in character.

I'm not sure how long I'll be tethered in the manner I described, that's the Father's privilege, but I do know I need to grow in character regarding these weaknesses. He's being plain with me about how he wants my behavior to change. I need his grace, but my will is engaged.

That's a good start.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Character and Spiritual Formation: Fitness for the Work.

Recently, someone asked me what do Christian people mean when they say someone is not ready to assume a certain role or take on a particular responsibility in the church. I thought it a great question. So we had a conversation and I surfaced what seemed to me to be a few essentials for determining who was and might not be quite ready to carry the weight of a substantial responsibility.

By the way, I'm not in any way, shape or form assuming: 1.) I've arrived and can pontificate from a position of superior maturity, and supremely seasoned readiness, or 2.) I'm quite the expert on such matters. I haven't and I'm not. I'm still on my way with all sorts of stubborn rough spots, self-absorption and immaturity to work through. Don't like that much, but it's reality. I desperately need the cross and the Spirit to turn me into someone useful for the Kingdom, even at 62. Borrowing a word Brennan Manning used well in one of my favorite books of his: I'm a ragamuffin . . . 24/7/365.

With that necessary disclaimer, I must also say I've been "on the team" so to speak since age 23. I've been in some manner of ministry leadership, both formally and informally since my late 20's. I've had all sorts of occasion to wrestle through being fit to carry the responsibility I was given (failed at that more than I'd like to admit - still do), and I had the great blessing and privilege of being around some very mature believers, male and female. I saw what it looked like many times from leaders and "followers." There are certain characteristics which manifest in a man or a woman who takes seriously the work of the Kingdom, no matter how great or small the responsibility, whether shouldered upfront or behind-the-scenes. Through such characteristics I think we glimpse Christ in them.

So I want to note a few character and spiritual qualities which seem especially pertinent.

All of them displayed a simple humility in spite of their "formal" spiritual or organizational stature. They got their hands dirty. They were not comfortable being elevated in the eyes of others. To the contrary, they preferred to be seen as anyone else: a person imperfectly trying to follow Christ, being loving and of service, no matter how menial. From them, I recognized gradually how important attitude was, especially "I'm not too important to be asked to do anything, or to be confronted with my sin and selfishness." Their humility reflected grace under fire in and out of the limelight. Humility demonstrated how fit they were for reflecting the values of the Kingdom of Christ.

Related closely to the above attribute was the fact they all, men and women, took responsibility for their own spiritual growth and character development. Once they had a grasp of how to do so, it was no longer the pastor's or the elders' or the leader's job to "grow them up and sustain them" in their spiritual maturing and character developing. Such leaders, teachers and mentors certainly contributed vitally, but at some point into it, these folks knew the buck stopped with them. So they carried forward developing the necessary spiritual disciplines, i.e., they read and learned to study the Scriptures, they read Christian books, they prayed, they worshipped alone and with others, they built relationships with believers or allowed others to build a relationship with them, they worshipped, and they developed the desire and ability to serve people, including, sometimes especially, non-believers. It took time, but they were in up to their eyeballs, full of passion  for learning to live with and follow Christ.

Thirdly, they had a desire to serve and when they accepted responsibility they followed through. They were the kind of folks who you know would accomplish the task if they shouldered it. It has to do with character and integrity. If so-and-so says she or he will do it, you can "take that to the bank." They just come through and you don't have to think or wonder about it. These folks also have a habit of asking how they can help or what they can do. Sometimes they just step up and get the job done without being asked because they see it needs doing. In fact, they look for opportunities to do so. I'm sure that if you've been around church for very long you've heard the maxim, "10% do 90% of the work." They gravitate by values to being in the 10% - they see it as the "normal Christian life."

Fourthly, they had a penchant for hard work. These men and women rolled up their sleeves and dove in. I've known men who routinely labored long hours at jobs and family life, then stayed up late or worked all weekend to pitch in with the church, (often behind the scenes), whether it was a project, event or a routine task needing doing. No matter, they saw all of their responsibilities as one service to God and others. They embraced obligation and duty as their usual contribution. I've also known women who dedicated themselves sacrificially to the church community and beyond, exhibiting a love of God and their brothers and sisters admired by all who knew them. Interestingly, when told of such admiration, some would get a puzzled look and others would turn red. They saw nothing extraordinary about their service.

 Lastly, much if not most of what these folks did, stemmed from love. They loved God and knew he loved them. In gratitude, they learned how to love him and other people. Their obedience grew from being loved by God. They came to grasp what he'd freely done for "the likes of" them, and responded by working at being loving people. Their spiritual formation (becoming like Christ), and character formation (embracing and living the values of Christ) made them fit for the work of the Kingdom. They served out of love, not some gushy, syrupy caricature of love, but a roll-up-your-sleeves, show-up-every-day love not about feelings, but conviction. Such love takes courage, persistence, resilience and even a sense of humor. They loved with words, and with actions backing them up.

The folks that came to mind as I wrote this are people I look up to and am inspired by. They mentored me, befriended me, served with me, challenged, encouraged, loved and taught me. They are my contemporary examples. I aim for their maturity still. They're real people with chipping feet of clay who still need the cross and the work of the Spirit, but they've chosen repeatedly to go deep into being formed by Christ knowing that without him their best righteousness is filthy rags. I've watched them.  I watch them. I will still watch them.

* * * * *

May you reflect all this week on those men and women who've been spiritual and character exemplars (spiritual fathers and mothers, perhaps), to you and may you head deep into where Christ bids you go for his glory and your fitness in the Kingdom work beckoning you.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

We're Gonna Do What???

Over the last month or so, imagine/Northampton has been working through what we're calling Visionation: I've been immersed in that, both at the front-end, and in the process. It has been a substantially more arduous task than I expected, sometimes bewilderingly so. I guess I'm still a rookie at this.

Those of you who know me well, know I am most alive in trying to pursue a heart-mesmerizing vision, one chock full of promise and worth, especially when it furthers the Kingdom in a creative and compelling way. I naturally live there and am repeatedly inspired around people who throw their lot in as well. My imagination juices surge; my mind comes fully alive, and my heart strains toward what could be, if only . . .

Truth be told, I'm not much good for anything else.

The fully-realized potential of imagine/Northampton's vision of building Kingdom-focused communities where we creatively engage the culture to help people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine aims me toward striving ardently to realize it on my watch. I see it in my minds-eye. I pray it when I walk. I reach for it when confusion and darkness impedes my view. I long to see real life spring from what began as a inchoate nudging in Simsbury almost 5 years ago.

But, lest you think from the paragraph above that I'm merely pursuing some ersatz monument to inflated human pride, rest assured Jesus commands the center off my passion. I want him seen and known by how we live, what we care for, and what we give our lives to as imagine/Northampton. He needs to increase as we follow him through love and service in his Name.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago,  communicating the vision has been much tougher than I thought it would be. It's one thing to have a picture in your head and a concept grabbing your attention like my granddaughter, Maddie, grabbing your face. It's quite another to get others to see it with the same fire and acuity you do, including people who are on-board from their hearts. Ideas and dreams need time to settle in for more than a meeting or two. 

So here's what I'm coming to understand regarding this vision business.

1. God-sized visions scare most people. Because they are only possible by his power, they just look impossible, more than can be handled, impractical, overwhelming, unrealistic and way more than anyone thinks possible at the time. By their nature, they require Kingdom-sized faith, guts, ingenuity, creativity, tenacity and grace which can only be called amazing in the end. The Holy Spirit needs to open and lead the way as we all follow behind. Also, while people like variety, even a new challenge from time-to-time, they don't want to feel they're going to be chasing after the wind. When it looks too big, it seems to big. When it seems too big, it is accepted as just too big, and people wilt. 

2. Vision has the task of inspiring a convinced willingness to risk much, even everything for what is worth more than everything risked. Without the habit of faith-infused risk, things imperceptibly settle into management of the manageable, predictable, and routine. 

"VISION is to PURPOSE as HOPE is to STRIVING. Vision DEFINES purpose; hope ANIMATES its heart."
 People truly inspired by a vision God has given them are steeled by the hope God will help them create and do what he's asked of them, i.e., his heart is in what he has summoned them to. It is God's character and initiative which gathers their trust and fuels their striving.

3. Vision illuminates what could be better, even worthy of wonder. For people graciously inflamed with God's Kingdom reign and mission, the future holds the possibility of the sick being healed, the poor being clothed, fed and set on their feet, the oppressed being freed, the voiceless finding an advocate, the defenseless being defended, the weak being protected, and the lost being found. They see ways of bringing life into death and hope into despair. While there will always be suffering, strife, and sorrow until Jesus returns to set everything to right, in the meantime, his grace can be generously offered to calm a storm and unlock the afflicted, giving them a hope and a life.  

4. Vision well-conceived and clearly said entices people to seek their place in a compelling movement or cause. There is a joint hill to climb, a battle to fight, a wrong to right - all riveting enough to galvanize their time and money and talent, even blood, sweat and tears. The task or mission ennobles them and helps everyone feel they are making a real difference in something grander and more important than all of them. Such people contribute the means to make it happen, however large or small. The question animating them is "What if we really could do this?" God has put a spark in the human soul which ignites when it locates its purpose in the right, true, freeing and beautiful. One of life's greatest pleasures is being able to say "I helped make that happen," especially when the "that" actually changed people's lives for the better. God -breathed visions unfetter motivation.

5. Over time, vision can cool and fade.  I remember hearing Andy Stanley say "vision leaks." It sure does. What seems so compelling by some isn't embraced or remembered by others. I've known very few people in my life who spent much time prayerfully pondering what each word of a vision implied so they could intelligently take responsibility for seeing it realized in and through them. In other words, it functioned as a personal mandate, a persisting reference point and gut check. For most, intriguing visions seem to have genuine buzz initially, and then fade quietly into the background as the details of life overtake their days or the visionary gets lost in the weeds. I have to say I've been guilty of letting the weeds choke out the vision. As Paul Simon once wrote in a lyric, I've had "a short, little attention span," even when I felt deep loyalty to an idea or mission. Life can glitter and sparkle from a thousand paths.
6. Visionary leaders must be courageous and resilient. I am convinced it's the responsibility of visionary leaders to keep the vision flaming at the forefront of its execution at any given point in time, almost like a standard or rallying point:
  • always reminding people of why we gather and strive at all; 
  • challenging them, young and old, to step up and keep the focus on the mission actualizing the vision; 
  • checking the all-too human impulse to head down rabbit trails or amble off into sparkling distractions; 
  • keeping fear at bay when the going gets tough, squabbles escalate, resources are few, and the way forward seems impenetrable so people lose heart. 
Such leaders are keepers of the flame when time and tide subverts the life. These folks help people see what could be as if it's truly reachable. They help all of us look beyond the comfortable ordinary and safe into hints of Kingdom life which actually frees, and love which actually heals. Visionaries may be dreamers, but dreamers after God's heart tap into a Reality for which the entire Creation groans.

Vision in the hands and hearts of the courageous helps everyone become resilient in the face of disappointments, delays and setbacks. When malaise smothers enthusiasm like a fog, courageous leaders stay at the helm, calling people forward, keeping hope stirred, and drawing from people what they thought they couldn't give. 

7. What visionary leaders see, and the future they are transfixed by needs to be shown as possible before anyone will really come aboard.

People who have to live with visionaries need to recognize that for these folks "why not?" and "Who says we can't?" are normal for them. They dwell in possibility. They make their home in what could be and what must be- in the liminal state between what is and what could be.  The status quo is a wasteland for them when the status quo is easily settled for. Visionaries aim for the stars in hopes of finding transcendent value. Christian visionaries long for the Kingdom to come in ways that are dazzling and wondrous because living death is pushed back. injustice is slapped down, human pride and greed are put in their place.

If you want to peer into the heart of Jesus's redemptive dreamers you'll find love: love of God and love of others, especially the unloved, the unlovely and the unlovable far from him. Such Christian visionaries who are yoked to Christ, and desire for him to be glorified in the vision - to be seen, exalted and followed. Therefore, they will tirelessly help people see what they see and work diligently to realize it. They will paint a picture that the vision can be fulfilled because God is in it, and then throw themselves into leading the way toward achieving it.

I've found if others can see it and believe God is in it, they will help, some sacrificially so. They trust God and the man or woman leading the way. When that happens the world gets changed by the Kingdom for which it waits. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

2 Strange Encounters of the Creepy Kind.

Last week had more than it's share of weirdness for us.

It began early in morning and early in the week as Tricia and I were returning to our apartment from an exercise/prayerwalk. We were on Main Street. It was around 7:30. On a bench across from Haymarket Cafe sat a young man I've seen before. He has a slight build and looked to be in his early to mid-20's. He generally wears soiled brown pants and a soiled brown sweatshirt with a hood pulled over his head. He has dreads, is usually smoking, and has an unfriendly manner about him, sometimes downright agitated or surly.

So the first time I walked by him last week, he laughed and said what sounded like expletives not too far under his breath. He stared at me the entire time, and would shake his head. A day or so later, as Tricia and I walked by him again he glared angrily at us and quietly hurled a string of expletives our way. There was no laughing. It actually felt a little menacing as he looked at us. I don't know if he is mentally ill or a drug user who needed a fix, but there was disdain in his tone of voice and through the stare. I suspect if I'd said something to him it may have provoked a more rigorous response. I didn't. I just prayed.

A couple of days later, walking at about the same time in the same direction on Main Street, and a half block before Starbucks, a young Asian man was slowly walking toward us. Walking doesn't capture his gait: he was sort of gliding, almost robotically. It looked really weird, but what riveted me most was his gaze. His eyes were locked wide open as if he'd seen a ghost. The rest of face was expressionless and flat. As he came closer he began to line up with where I was walking as if to walk right into me. I'd never seen such a spooked look. I was taken back, and didn't know what to think

He never turned his head as I stepped out of the way. The most remarkable sense I got as I looked into his eyes for a second or two just before he walked by, was the impression there was someone or something else looking at me through his eyes. The young man was like a zombie and not there. I also felt intense fear much the same way I felt 2 years ago when a young woman stood motionless to my left as I was facing Main Street, and stared at me for 4 or 5 minutes as I stood outside of CVS waiting for Tricia. I felt a stab of fear then as well, and immediately began to pray in tongues under my breath and soon realized she was there to pray against me.

Both of the encounters with these young men felt demonically influenced, as if we were being noticed by alien and malevolent entities residing in troubled people.They happened within a few days of each other and in close physical proximity.

Odd coincidence? Perhaps . . .

Mental illness? Sure . . .

Drug-induced? Could be . . .

All those conditions could have been contributing factors. But there was another dynamic going on and it was palpably spiritually dark. Evil has a presence and calling card one can sense. It was there. My response was fear and then prayer. I didn't have to think about it.

I don't know why things like this happen when they do, but I've experienced them before and suspect I will encounter them again, especially here in Northampton. Such activity appears up, especially on the weekends at night.

May these young men and others who know little of the power and redemptive love of Christ be freed by him, and may I get to see or even be a part of it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Kingdom Mission Focuses Communitas; Communitas Animates Kingdom Mission.

Last Sunday I preached the following at imagine/Northampton. I'm indebted to Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost for their seminal work in explaining how communitas and Kingdom mission are closely linked. Since reading their work, I've come to a clearer understanding of the critical need for both in the life and work of the church in the world.

What is Kingdom Mission?

I began by offering and explaining  the following three texts which are helpful in seeing what should be our heart's desire (the Matthew text), what is our core identity as Jesus followers (the 1Peter text) and what has Jesus summoned us to do as his disciples. 


3 Key Texts:

Matthew 6:9-10: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." 

1Pe.2:9-12: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

Matthew 28:18-20: "And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

To summarize what I explained, I said  the Kingdom mission is a task we’ve been given as followers of Christ. Rightly understood, it should flow from our deep desire to see God’s good Kingdom rule and reign manifested in the lives of people around us. We want to see them healed, set free from oppression, and brought near the One who loves them more than they can imagine or have experienced. We are sent to embody his values and make followers of Christ by living lives of uncommon love and service. The way we live as his people before a watching and skeptical, even antagonistic world, should be ipso facto winsome and beautiful, full of grace and goodness. A tall order, but doable if we are truly willing. 

II. What is Communitas?

“…communitas describe(s) the dynamics of the Christian community inspired to overcome their instincts to huddle…and instead to form themselves around a common mission that calls them into a dangerous journey to unknown places—a mission that calls the church to shake off its collective securities and to plunge into the world of action where its members will experience disorientation and marginalization, but also where they encounter God and one another in a new way. (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways)

Communitas…is a community infused with a grand sense of purpose, one that lies outside of its internal reality and constitution. It’s the kind of community that “happens” to people in actual pursuit of a common vision of what could be. It involves movement and it describes the experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people actually engaging in a mission outside itself.” (Frost, Exiles)

Frost and Hirsch help us see that if our community reflects a spirit of communitas because we've found a depth of love and unity around something (SomeOne) worth giving our very lives for, we are getting at the heart of how we're supposed to be as his beloved sojourners and exiles. Communitas reflects a depth of camaraderie most of us long (and were made) for, but rarely experience until we're thrown into a life-threatening ordeal requiring we stick together, and share the struggle in order to make it out alive. I'm convinced communitas is God's desired way of Christian life together. Any church that has had to go "underground" to even exist has learned this reality.

III. How Does Kingdom Mission focus Communitas?

If we are followers of Christ we’ve been, by definition, summoned to carry forward the Kingdom mission he had, but not merely as individuals. God’s mission defines us. It is our common identity. So our community becomes more than our interconnected culture of “fellowship;” we’re galvanized by a common cause and purpose which defines our communal identity. God’s love for us and our love for one another becomes a gift to the world. We want others in on it. We want to give it away. Our mission shapes and centers us in what God is already doing around us. He's at work and we follow him by connecting and serving. He only changes a heart, but we focus on making the human/humane connections with our neighbors, breaking down barriers, creating trust and being true friends.

IV. How does Communitas animate Kingdom Mission?

By jointly embracing the call to proclaim and show forth the excellencies of God, we grow a church culture that animates Kingdom mission. We live it individually, as families and as a church community in Northampton, or wherever else he calls us. We’re doing it together and telling each other stories about it. Our shared stories of the joys and challenges of doing so, shape, inspire and encourage us. As we slowly see God change hearts and free captives, we rejoice in his greatness, motivating us to continue, perhaps even go further into his Kingdom. As we build a culture where telling stories of what God has done is normative, we are bolstered by his mysterious, freeing work, and through such stories find the courage to press on toward the sometimes frightening and perhaps costly unfamiliar, but together.

Communitas generates stories and the continual telling of the stories of God intermingling with the continual telling of our stories of how we've tried to serve and follow him - the victories and the failures - animate a compelling sense that God is alive and faithful, and his Kingdom mission is a reality worth investing our entire lives in. 

I want such stories told. I want to tell and hear them. I want to finish my days in a cohort of convinced Christ-following men and women, sold out to the Kingdom, sold out to the mission it awakens, and sold out to communitas which provides a fraternity and camaraderie strong enough to weather all we'll encounter including the temptation to rest on our laurels if God grants blessing beyond what we could have imagined.  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

imagine/Northampton's Visionation Meeting, September 9, 2011


The Vision/Strategic Mission:

REMINDER: Vision answers the question: Where do we believe  God wants us to go in the weeks, months and years ahead? It is dynamic and expresses what matters deeply to God and us, where we have persistent passion, and inspires our dedicated action. Implicit in vision is the question “what if we could…?”, and will only happen if God makes a way.
1. VISION: To build Kingdom-focused communities where we: creatively engage the culture to help people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine.

What is a Kingdom-focused community?

It’s a community where the reign, authority and values of Christ are embraced, modeled and lived. Characteristic of Kingdom-focused community is love for God, one another and people who don’t know him, especially the poor, oppressed, abandoned and abused. Such a community is not merely inward-focused, but outward-active. We love God and care for one another, but equally, we love our neighbors whether they share our beliefs or not. A Kingdom-focused community is a community of missional servants, persistently following Jesus in his redemptive Gospel mission of healing, freeing, hope and salvation. Humility, sacrifice, generosity, joy and celebration should characterize such community.  

What do we mean by “creatively engage the culture?” 

We mean always looking together for fresh and distinctive ways of opening people to the reality of Jesus, his Kingdom and Gospel. We do so on their terms, but we also need to be students of what matters to people in Northampton (it’s “tribes” culture, ethos and worldview), and then work to creatively express truth in a winsome or compelling way. We may do it artistically, or through service, celebrations, collaboration, a business venture, or just making friends. Creativity is part of the DNA of our mission, no matter it's particular expression.

What do we mean by helping “people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine?

It’s the heart of imagine/Northampton’s understanding of itself, whether we are building up each other in discovering and knowing Jesus so we follow him more unreservedly, or we are engaging people who've not yet discovered him. Our vision is to do whatever it takes, by his grace, to help anyone find and follow him. Relationships are key, but so is being a gracious, generous, thoughtful and helpful servant people who use actions as much or more than works, such that people move beyond their suppositions and barriers to know him in ways they never thought possible.


REMINDER: Strategic Mission answers the question: What can we do to most effectively get there? It is about focused purpose and concrete action to realize the vision to which God has summoned us together. In other words, where do we best give our time, gifts, resources and work to accomplish the vision on our watch? So, we see our strategic mission as follows: 

  • To continue individually and as families building relationships with other (on street, in neighborhoods, the workplace, school, community projects, etc.)
  • To continue developing imagine/Northampton as a Kingdom-focused community (Teaching, worshiping, doing things together, sharing missional storie to encourage and motivate each other, etc.)
  • To grow in creatively engaging Northampton together. 
  • To plant imagine churches in other communities: for instance, imagine/Brattleboro,  imagine/Keene, imagine/Pittsfield, imagine/Portsmouth, imagine/Greenfield or  Northfield in the next 3-5 years.

  • Spiritual Formation - healing, intimacy with and love for God, becoming more like Christ, spiritual disciplines.
  • Developing a culture of creativity, artistically and otherwise.
  • Teaching: Scriptures and way of life.
  • Missional Formation, mindset, and way of life.
  • Welcoming Community – commitment to helping people feel loved and a part of imagine.

Underlying Assumption: While we do not have a formal membership protocol, we as leaders assume that for folks who choose to become part our community will strive to own, support, and live the vision/strategic mission of imagine/Northampton. We are to follow together. We are a team with a common vision: each of us now called and those who will be called in the future, have a distinct role to play in seeing it realized with God’s grace and help. While we’ll never be heavy-handed about this assumption, given the fact people need time to orient, heal, and grow, the assumption remains and guides our expectations.  (Communitas)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It Took A Little While To Get To Yesterday: imagine/Northampton's First Baptism.

It's taken a little while to get to yesterday - three years and a month to be near exact.

But to yesterday we arrived. God gave the momentous day to all of us.

I have to admit, I'd wondered before about when such a day would actually come to imagine/Northampton. I always thought it would, even though much of how we thought things would occur (and when), as we dreamed and discussed in Simsbury how this church planting business was going to unfold, hasn't . . . and consistently so.

Nonetheless, we deemed it eventual yesterday would come.

So a number of imaginati gathered mid-morning at Jim and Karin LaMontagne's to joyously celebrate Jon Hill's baptism! His is also our first - imagine/Northampton history was made.

While important his was made in our life together, the most important reality was Jon symbolically died with Christ and rose with Christ yesterday, and he knew it. He was ready to leave behind attachments to his past and take on a primary new one: Jesus-follower. Jon is a serious man. He understands the meaning of taking on a commitment, including the cost. He's not a "go at it halfway" kinda guy, most likely never has been. He understood it was time to throw his lot in with the Lord Most High.

Yesterday came also because he is an observer, communicator and an asker of substantive questions. So I, Jim and other imaginarians had all sorts of opportunities to explore how we understood the way of following Jesus: on Sunday morning, at Monday night trio (Jon, Jim and I have been playing jazz together for 9 months), on the phone, on the deck at Bishop's Lounge, at picnics, imagine events, hanging out listening to other musicians play, even exercising together. We did this for months and never tired of it. In fact, we all were uplifted by the dialogues. They untangled and clarified and opened truth.

So there we were in the pool. Our ritual was simple and straightforward. Jim talked briefly of the meaning of baptism and shared his heart about his delight in walking with Jon and becoming friends, that Jon had taught him the meaning of friendship. I also talked of the wonder I felt seeing what God had done in a year's time to bring all of us to this place together, of getting to be around Jon, and experiencing the joy of getting to be a part of actually baptizing him.

Jon then talked of his journey and what Jesus had done to free him to this Saturday morning in the company of his wonderful family (Amy, Iris and McClellan), and imagine/Northampton friends. His words came deep from a heart that knew something profound had happened to him to arrive here. But, perhaps the most beautiful part of it for me was when Jon read the Lord's Prayer in Cherokee. There was astounding existential meaning in his doing so, and the beauty of the language brought tears even though none of us knew what any of the words were as he said them. It was a holy moment, the uniting of shared experiences, histories, families, and cultures into a common identity and Kingdom mission in Christ.

When he finished, Jim asked two questions for Jon to affirm his belief, then simply said we "baptize him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." We put him under the water then quickly back up. There were "Yay's!" all around.

Happy was the mood.

Happy was the day.

Happy was our breakfast afterwards..

I've learned so much from walking with Jon over the months, more than I can write about here. But one thing is I've come to understand God works uniquely and mysteriously in the regeneration miracle. In the enticing, awakening, re-orienting, and summoning miracle of becoming alive to/in Christ there is no formula - one size does not fit all. Sure, we serve, and talk and preach and counsel and comfort and challenge people in this journey to Love, but he makes spiritually alive what was walking yet wasting silently below the surface. I'm aware afresh it is God alone who quickens and animates the new birth to eternity.

I've also come to accept the continuing need for patience, settled-in hope, faith which sees what seems pretty much not there, and a perseverance that would make a Navy Seal envy. You have to keep going with this Kingdom mission stuff, no matter the sacrifices, setbacks, rabbit-trails, disappointments, stresses, confusions, obstacles and demonic harassment. God wants the redemption of Creation more than all of us combined in all of history, and he ain't throwin' the towel until the job is finished with the last straggler home. So I shouldn't either.The first Sunday Jon came through our door with his family we had zero idea we'd be baptizing him yesterday. We'd have missed the miracle if we'd packed up and headed for gentler parts.

Lastly, I realize Jon's baptism is not the end of his journey. Its another threshold he walked through to find and shoulder the work God has with his name on it .And we at imagine get to walk beside him as we do all our missional work together, blending gifts and facing challenges for as long as he has us sharing the same path.. That excites me more than a little. I plan to be here to see it and live it.

Thanks, Jon.

Thanks, Amy.

Thanks, Iris.

Thanks, "Clellan."

And thank you, Jesus, for getting us all up here in the first place!


Thursday, August 4, 2011

When My Good Morning Failed Its Blessing.

One of the ways we try to connect with Northampton, especially from a spiritual perspective is by prayerwalking. I've mentioned this before on Facebook and here.

In our walking with praying, we prefer the early morning when we and the day are fresh. The city is waking up, but there is still a feel of peace and calm. Most the time, though, we encounter other people: joggers, walkers, dog-strollers, Pedal People, cops, people getting coffee and going to work, sanitation workers, young mothers with strollers, and homeless folks. There isn't a throng of them, but they're out with us.

Over the last few months we've made it a point to say "Good Morning" to folks walking past us from the other direction or sitting near us as we walk by. Not everyone "telegraphs" they are ready for a "Good Morning," so we're sensitive, but if we err, we err on the side trying to brighten a day. We see the unadorned, cheerful little greeting as a blessing; that people we pass by would encounter good as they wend their way through their mornings. So many people's days are filled with anxiety, frustration, boredom, hurry-up and less than pleasant encounters with all sorts of other people. Greeting strangers with blessing feels worth doing for its own sake. Perhaps it will be the only pleasant words someone will hear said to them all day.

As we've done this, I've noticed we almost always get a reaction. For many, it is surprise. Perhaps they were lost in thought, or they're just not used to people on the street offering a greeting. It jolts them like: "Did you really say that to me?" For many, as well, the next reaction is a smile and a returned "Good Morning." It's pleasant and seems received in the manner it was intended. Although, I'll also admit a few folks respond with a flat affect as if they know the routine and need to be polite. There's no heart in it- almost like an autonomic reaction. That's OK. They got chance to practice their humanity.

Sometimes we get no response at all. The person looks resolutely ahead sending a clear message they are not interested one wit. That's OK too.

Today, however, I (Tricia was not with me for this leg of the morning's p-walk), got a response unlike any other to date. I'd just begun to head up Finn Street, and noticed to my left, a women in her mid-60's sitting on her porch. She was smoking and looking to be getting some air or just relaxing. As I walked close to her house, I made my greeting to her. She actually grimaced, and then slightly shook her head no. She then said, turning her head away from me, "You have no right to say that to me." She said something right after, but because I kept walking I couldn't make it out. Clearly, she felt deeply troubled to me, and it was more than annoyance. She was in pain somehow. Her life was hurting her because of death or betrayal or illness or loss or stress too much to bear. It was palpable, all in a just few seconds. It was almost as if my "Good Morning" was a kick to the stomach or adding insult to injury.

As I kept walking I was a little stunned by what I'd witnessed. Such a response had not happened on any of our walks and greetings. I also felt a surge of sadness and compassion for her. I didn't turn around and go back because I, in no way, wanted to cross her boundary. I wish I could've heard her story and offered help, comfort or encouragement. I prayed God's blessing and care over her and her family. It's all I could do.

As I thought about it further, her instantaneous and pained look and firm gesture of "no" revealed a depth of wounding which seemed to have crushed her life. If you could have seen her expression, you would have recognized she was not merely being cantankerous. It felt as if my words were more than she could take at that movement.

But it was what she said that stuck me most. What did she mean I had no right to say "Good Morning" to her? What was she associating me with? Granted, I was a stranger initiating an exchange she'd not invited, but why did she see it as so offensive?  I touched a raw nerve having never meant to and she felt I'd exercised a right I'd not been given. As I said, it made me sad she was offended by me. I meant no harm; I meant good.

More than likely I'll not see her again. I will go back to Finn Street, however. I 'd love the chance to apologize to her, but I'll be very sensitive to walk by if she at all signals to be left alone.

You just never know what a prayerwalk and offering "Good Mornings" will surface.