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Friday, April 29, 2011

My Huzzahs for imagine/Northampton's FEAST, April 24, 2011.

It's been 5 days since the FEAST. We are still enjoying reflecting and talking about what God pulled off on Easter Sunday. So, I need to begin my post with a simple, exuberant "HUZZAH!" For those of you not born as early as the 16th century, you've probably not used this shout of exclamation. "HUZZAH" expresses joy, applause, or appreciation. It's similar to "Yay," or "Hurray." I love the word and feel it appropriate to what happened at FEAST.
HUZZAH Number One:

I must celebrate God who answered our prayer that his guests would feel special; despite their circumstances, they mattered and he delighted in blessing them on this Day of days. Everyone I spoke with, including guys who referred to their address as "in the woods," was blown away by how they were treated and served. The beauty of the room and how the table was set elegantly, the lavish menu, including desserts you'd find at a 4-star restaurant, and the kindness shown them by the team and volunteers sent a clear message. People were overwhelmed saying things such as: "I've never eaten a meal like this," or "I feel I was treated like a king," or "This is amazing!" He honored our desire to create a good memory for people.

HUZZAH Number Two:

God's faithfulness has also been remarkable. In a very quiet, consistent manner he provided all we needed to do FEAST. For such a tiny church as we are, doing the event was a humongous step of faith. We asked for more money than we ever had for a single event. We'd never asked before for the number of volunteers we'd need to augment our team. Also, we really had no idea how many guests would show up for the event. Even though we printed over 200 invitations (to get a handle on numbers), and organizations such as the Northampton Survival Center, the GAP Program, and the Interfaith Shelter faithfully handed out all we gave them, there was no guarantee anyone would come through the doors on Easter.

What if we raised all this money, had all these volunteers, and hardly anyone showed? We didn't want to waste people's generosity. But neither could we predict or control any of the seeming essentials. God kept us in the place of utter dependence right through the event. This would be his deal and his alone.

Well, what a deal it was. We had more than we needed financially, and both the Northampton Center for the Arts, and the Northampton Rental Center gave us a break either with price or time. We also had 31 volunteers from 5 Churches in MA and CT. College Church in Northampton provided some of those volunteers and also let us use their kitchen facilities for 2 days. The BARN in Simsbury, CT, the church we came from, generously gave us kitchen equipment and table cloths we would've needed to rent otherwise.

God provided all we needed and then some.

HUZZAH Number Three:

You'd expect a ton of work needed to be done in order to prepare and pull off and such an event. It was complex, but the imagine team and all the volunteers rose to the occasion with aplomb. All the logistics needed to be planned such as procuring the place, designing invitations and fliers, creating task instruction sheets for the volunteers, getting musicians and rehearsing the music (in Hartford), alerting social service agencies in Northampton, buying and preparing all the food, setting up the event space the day before, instructing and coordinating volunteers, serving the meal, and cleaning up. All our helpers (old and new friends) rose marvelously to the occasion, and worked as a good-natured team. They each added to the atmosphere and tone of the event.

I'm especially proud of our imagine team who with gracious skill tackled what needed to be done, and served our guests with heart and spirit.

Hospitality abounded.

Special kudos to:

  • Tricia McDermott for her unflappable ability to create an atmosphere of beauty, see the big picture from beginning to end, take care of critical details in the preparation phases, and orchestrate on the fly a myriad of details to keep FEAST moving forward.
  • Ashley Oldham for asking great questions in the planning, connecting and building relationships with local Social Service agencies to get the word out, and instructing and coordinating volunteers on the day of the event.
  • Jenn Swick for her can-do attitude and ability to tackle any task asked of her with skill; being able to cover multiple bases during the FEAST event itself.
  • Sara Loomis for her work at continously keeping a smooth flow of food moving from the kitchen to the serving tables, and back.
  • Vicki Oldham's skill with taking on the major task of preparing the banquet table and coffee station, to ensure everything needed was ready, then breaking it all down efficiently.
The grandest HUZZAH for me was witnessing the germ of an idea from Luke 14:12-24 gradually unfold under the generous guiding hand of God. Experiencing him do that so our faith was strengthened and deepened in the process has been extremely gratifying. He lead us as a church beyond ourselves, taking us past our own resources and abilities, and giving everything necessary to create a FEAST. We can testify to his unparalleled ability to fulfill what he desires through smallness. He pulled believers together from different churches to work in unity. He gave money and help from people in Northampton, MA, CT and beyond. He brought 75 guests, most of them strangers to us, and knocked their socks off.

In the end, by what he did, he said, "You can do this, because I will do it, and want you to walk with me as I do. See my glory manifested in your littleness."

I AM El Shaddai: "The All-Sufficient God"
I AM El-Channun: "The Gracious God"
I AM El-Hanne'eman: "The Faithful God"
I AM El Elyon: "The Most High God"

HUZZAH Indeed!

Team member Nate Oldham took all these lovely pictures and many more. Check him out:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Our FEAST Faith-Journey.

In 5 days we will host FEAST,, the largest planned event we've undertaken since we launched imagine/Northampton almost 3 years ago. Last year's Halloween event will be larger (350 people), but that large turnout wasn't planned. Remember, we're tiny in number, but we're learning to trust this God "who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is (already) at work within us." (Eph. 3:20) I also think God has given imagineers big hearts, and a willingness to take risk for the Kingdom beyond where we're comfortable.

Or we're just crazy . . . (the good kind that changes lives).

One of the remarkable aspects of the FEAST journey has been how God has completely engineered the process such that faith must be our anchor. For instance, we have no real idea who or how many are coming. I know that sounds daft, but because most of the population of folks we want to bless are out of our range of direct influence, we've had to rely primarily on Northampton Social Service agencies such as The Northampton Survival Center, and the Interfaith Shelter to pass out the invitations we made. We've talked to folks on the street and a few others engaged in feeding the homeless and poor, but there are no hard numbers to rely on. We're planning for 175 to 200. We might get 20 or 300; it depends on who you talk to. So, it's up to God.  

Then, there's the small matter of money. In house, we don't have anywhere near the resources to fund this ourselves. We determined $4000 was needed to offer a special meal, one Jesus's guests would remember with warm smiles. We've never asked for or raised that much for a single event. Reality was: no money, no FEAST. Would God do it? The answer's been YES! With pledges and what has been already given, we're very near our goal. 30 generous people have chipped in. Faith strengthens and deepens when you're beyond your ability and God has a clear field to operate.

The next question was: how are we going to get everything done to prepare, and then serve that many folks on Easter? As I mentioned, we really are tiny in number. We got out the word, and Jesus-followers from THE BARN in Simsbury, College Church and Smith College in Northampton, Mercy House in Amherst, St. David's Episcopal Church in Agawam, and Southwick Community Episcopal Church in Southwick climbed aboard to help. Our daughters, Eslie and Alyn are helping.  A gifted, young artist named Kait created advertising materials and invitations. People are donating food. College Church is letting us use their kitchens to cook. The BARN is letting us use some of their kitchen stuff, such as warming trays. We have wonderful musicians donating their time: Jen and Kris Allen, Deb Davis and Michael Kelly Blanchard. The Northampton Center for the Arts is letting us get in the day before to set up tables.

Tricia is leading the charge. The regulars in our church are taking responsibility, and some are tackling the early preparations and logistics. Everyone will be there for the event.

What I've observed because of the FEAST faith-journey:

1. Risk-taking for the Kingdom mission is the normal Christian life. Anything less seems missing the point.
2. Fear is a formidable foe, always asking: "What makes you think you can do this? How do you know God called you to do it, anyway? You actually think anyone's going to show up?"
3. Unbelief salted with a little Satan sewage says things like: "There's no point trying this. You guys are losers. You'll never raise the money. Nobody cares. This is way more than you can handle. Relax. Give it up."
4. Taking a risk for the Kingdom increases demonic obstruction, resistance and oppression beyond the norm. It's ramped up for many of us as we're putting FEAST together.
5. Believing for more and taking action as a result reveals God's supreme ability to show forth his faithfulness and incomparable power.
6. Risking in faith turns a safe, lackluster Christian sleepwalk into a vigorous, life-to-the-full adventure of meaning and wonder.
7. "Why not?" and "Who says we can't?" is the vernacular of following Jesus.

More about this next week.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How We Use the Art of Jazz in imagine/Northampton.

Before we arrived in Northampton, it was clear to us that using the arts to express our being Jesus-followers was foundational. Because two of us on the team were experienced jazz players, we knew a means of connecting with Northampton to demonstrate the exquisite beauty, and creativity of God in his redemptive, Kingdom mission was to offer the music we love.

The jazz arts have unique expressive and improvisational potentials which can capture the depth of the Story framing our own stories. Jazz can communicate the pathos of the human condition because of sin and death, and shout the exquisite joy of forgiveness and freedom because of Christ's finished work. Jazz "paints" sonorously and rhythmically the colors of life related to the Giver of life. It's both "Guess Who I Saw Today" and "Freedom Jazz Dance."

 We're not experts at this, but here's what we've done so far:

1. We use it in worship. When we started we formed a Worship Team comprised of jazz players and non-jazz players. We blended jazz harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities so that while we did some modified CCM, we also created original music and played jazz arrangements of hymns and traditional Christian songs. We experimented with grooves, forms and harmonic frameworks including modal forms. It was an experiment that stretched us all, some more than others. Some things worked and others not at all. The hybrid group we created required sensitivity, flexibility and generous dollops of Christian love.

2. We use it in the reflection time of our gathering. We begin with what we call Leave Aside where people are able to settle into worship, quietly letting go of worries, distractions and frustrations. During that time, guitar and a hand drum (Udu drum, doumbek or djembe) create a musical atmosphere conducive to letting go of anything which might emotionally impede being open to what God wants to do that morning. The music is jazz influenced harmonically and rhythmically, but fairly free. It is deliberating peaceful and calming. People talk after of sensing the presence of the Spirit. Sometimes there are tears.

3.Of late, we've used playing jazz as an opportunity to build relationships with people who are not Christian. We have a trio (guitar, bass and drums) where we rehearse weekly. After the rehearsal we take time to talk and often matters come up of what it means to follow Jesus. We can talk well after midnight. Some of those conversations were a part of our guitar player coming to Christ. We did not aim the rehearsal that way, God used it for his purposes. Being able to explore the music together created a wonderful atmosphere for addressing questions of faith and life. Our friend and new brother already had them, but the camaraderie we built in making the music established a place of trust and communitas.

We want to do more of this in that we don't disengage the enterprises of our daily lives (work, family, neighborhood, art-making, etc.,) from our primary identities as Jesus-followers on a 24/7 Kingdom mission. Therefore, the rehearsal room and the gig are not exempt from God's redemptive, subversive calling. Everything we do is a platform. We want people to realize we are Jesus-followers who can really play this music as well, The two aren't mutually exclusive.

We're also getting ready to be playing out in Northampton. That was one of our goals from the outset. Being new to church planting, we had much ground-laying to accomplish before we could begin to put a serious group together to play gigs here. We're in process now, but will soon do some performing with the goal of building relationships with musicians and other artists. We want to play well so there is musical integrity. We want to demonstrate humility so as to not create any barriers, but reveal a servant's heart. We want to bless the people in Northampton with well-crafted and played music, win a favorable hearing, and maybe get to have conversations that matter.

4. At Easter, we'll be hosting a city-wide event called FEAST. The idea grew from the Parable of the Banquet (Luke 14:12-24). We will be having a free, lavish feast for the poor, homeless, street musicians, shut-ins and needier working families. As part of the event, we've put together an ensemble and have the fortune of working with a singer to offer some familiar jazz standards they can recognize, and maybe even sing along with. It's not a concert, but a chance to expose folks to the idea of church and jazz. We also want to open them to the Gospel by building relationships of love and service. At the end of the day, we want them to feel served and they matter.

While we're not yet blazing any new trails pairing the jazz arts with Kingdom mission, we are establishing an identity as a "church into the arts" -- which for this town is important. We'd love to have festivals around the music, perhaps ignite the jazz playing in kids or street musicians down the road.

Ultimately, the point is Jesus and how we can make him known. Jazz can create community and teamwork, establish a healthy identity, build self-acceptance and confidence, create the ability to concentrate, listen and support, and open people to the transcendent, endlessly creative God whose idea jazz is. So we'll keep after its remarkable potential for connecting people with the astounding Gospel here in Northampton.

The Young Man Whose Songs Seem Yells of Pain.

He showed up on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago.

He commandeers the iron bench on Main Street below our apartment window to the left, in front of GoBerry's. I'd say he's in his late 20's or very early 30's. He looks sort of like a grad student.

This man plays guitar adequately like many of the street guys do. It's his singing that draws attention from onlookers on both sides of the street. You'd have to be very hard of hearing not to look. He's stands out because he yells when he sings and I mean yells sometimes as the very top of his lungs - carotid popping yells, more like bellowing, sometimes. It's intense and remarkably loud.

What I noticed in his style is that he doesn't pay much attention to intonation, and phrases tend to fall off into almost speaking. It's clear melodic lines are driven by the flow of words, and it's the words that give this young man away. They are full of pain, especially of the "Woman, you've done me wrong. You've broken my heart. You don't know what love is," variety. The words and sheer intensity of his singing point to anguish and then anger. He has a repertoire of only 3-4 songs it seems, but they all return to the same theme of betrayal.

I don't know if this is just his style, or he really has gone through a horrific break-up, but he tends to yell as much as sing or speak in the song. It's the yelling that gets people gawking. Many point and laugh because of the yelling. I'm not sure he notices all that much. His eyes are often closed. And folks aren't resonating with his anguish, real or portrayed. They look, point him out, and chuckle. Then they move on, which is too bad if he's really pouring out his heart to heal or free himself from the pain inflicted by someone who shouldn't have.

He's quickly become a curiosity like so many in this town who dress, talk and act radically unlike the mainstream. Northampton's diversity invites with relish free expression which can fall on the weird side sometimes, especially in the eyes of "weekenders." It's part of what makes Northampton, Northampton, I think.

He's not been around for a week and was here before only for two.

If he's hurting I'd like a chance to ask his him why. I'd also like to suggest he use the yelling judiciously, as a dramatic exclamation point not a comma. I think it'd be more powerful and evoke listening rather than pointing and gawking. He might even have something universal to say, but nobody likes to be yelled at repeatedly, especially by strangers.