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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)