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Sunday, November 18, 2012

You're a Frickin' Church?

Last night as I was manning my 5-7PM post at the imagineGallery for Joe Don Richardson's Deep Waters exhibit of photography:, a middle-aged couple and their 20-something daughter walked into the space. We exchanged greetings and they headed into the front room where most of his work hangs.

When they returned from viewing, they had all manner of praise for his photographs and our gallery, especially the woman. She gushed a bit. I was delighted, to be honest. She then asked how long we'd been here? I told her we'd come up from Connecticut 4+ years ago, and had been at our current location for a little over 3 years. Next, she asked what was our mission and vision for the gallery?

Wow, what an open door! So I said we're a church at which point she blurted all wide-eyed, "A frickin' church???" "Yup," I said adding, "actually that's our byline: "We're a frickin' church!" They all laughed good-naturedly. I then went on to tell them what we're about, why we have the weird name, and why we are using our space part-time as an art gallery. She apologized for using the word "frickin'", adding she is normally "church-averse." I told her I was not offended by either, and talked a little bit more about what artists we had coming next.

She and her husband then asked if we had any materials and if we met as a church in the building? I responded we offer counseling during the week, but had moved our Sunday worship elsewhere. They took one more look at Joe Don's work, and then as they headed out the door, she turned abruptly and said, "I don't know what it is, but there is just something about this space." I nodded and smiled.

Our entire interaction lasted maybe 3-4 minutes. I loved every minute of it. As mentioned in the blog about Joe Don's Opening Reception, we have received many remarks about the space. People are curious about who we are, especially when we mention we are church folk. They have no category for how we're being church. I'm getting better at responding to such questions. When I do, people always seem to have a, "Well whadya know!" look on their faces. The fact we are doing a pretty good job at being a gallery doesn't hurt either, but the most fun is engaging people about church and faith in such a context.

And it's laugh-out-loud funny when a diminutive, 60-something woman pairs the word "frickin'" with "church" in the same sentence. Made my night!!!

By the way, you really should come out and see Joe Don's work. We'll be open this Saturday evening from 5-9 PM, and the following Friday and Saturday, 5-9PM also.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Introversion, Anxiety and Collaborating in Northampton.

In 2010, I wrote a blog asserting that introverts can plant churches. I still stick by that assertion. Here we are four and a half years into this and we are planted; we're still small, but planted nonetheless. We have life and a purpose.We're heading somewhere and have braved the spiritual "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," plus our own greenhornness. It's been a ride and not for the faint of heart, at least in New England.

I got to thinking about my introversion after having experienced almost 2 weeks of agita over making contacts with folks who might serve as collaborators with our effort to launch imagine's first OPEN TABLE in Northampton. Trey McCain and I took on the task of compiling a list of folks who might be interested, or direct us to others who would. From there we searched the Internet, gathered email addresses and made the first contact. So far so good. The next step was to call them. Oh-oh...

That's when the irrational procrastination really settled into me.

In my head began a noxious monologue like this: "I'm going to have to talk to strangers. Rats! They don't want to talk to me. Anyway, I'll garble it all up when I try to articulate the Open Table concept. That's if I even get a chance to explain it. They're veterans in the effort to help people find shelter and meals, overcome addiction, get off the street and out of poverty, get help for their children," and on and on. We're at the most "new kids on the block," with a great idea sure, but nothing to back it up with yet! You know what, I'll call tomorrow. Yeah, that's it. I don't have to call today ..." Tomorrow became a week of tomorrows and growing pressure. I gotta get this done!

You can get a sense of the anxious blather working to hamstring me.

But yesterday I took the plunge. I decided I'm going be a big boy and tackle this thing. Just work through the list and let the chips fall where they may. The first number I called was a young man working for a prominent service organization in town. I introduced who I was and why I was calling and away we went. He was gracious, intrigued and supportive. He did what you hope for and told me there was someone I really needed to talk with who would be very helpful. As my first call, I felt a little stumbly, but it didn't seem to impede our conversation.

Bolstered by my initial connection I kept on and each person I talked to was open and affirming as they say in another context here. In fact, one person was quite excited by the Open Table idea and the fact we wanted to launch one in Northampton (the first in New England I understand). She inquired about the church (others did as well), and affirmed our desire to help in this. It sounded innovative to her. She also gave me a contact of someone who gathers all the service people once a month to share ideas and resources to help the homeless and working poor recover.

After I was done with those and other phone calls, plus setting up some meetings for next week with folks, I felt excited that perhaps we were on the path to being a real contributor to the well-being of our neighbors well-beyond the ways we'd been helping. We'd have a place at the table for the Kingdom as we've wanted to. We had something of value to offer in this war on poverty. The Open Table idea is not ours, but the work in Northampton will be. Also, we'll get to build relationships with folks and they with us. That's the point in all of this: building relationships and breaking down walls so we can offer the hope in Christ we have to them as friends and collaborators in something we both care about. And we can help make life better for everyone.

I also learned something about the deceit of anxiety as it's expressed through introversion. It takes a temperament for self-containment and self-fulfillment (as in: I'm most comfortable pursuing what is intriguing, or fascinating by myself), and exaggerates the weight of feeling exposed or incapable in front of others, especially when having to engage someone new with something important to one's self .The fear of the interaction is grossly overblown; because the person on the other end of the exchange now has a say in what is being offered, it can be perceived as threatening even if mildly so.

The thing is, I actually felt great pleasure after the phone calls and not merely because I 'd been successful at plowing through the list. Rather, I'd connected with folks about something I care a great deal about and see great potential in, and they resonated with me. It feels good and it felt right as if the Kingdom had an opening that was not there before. We'll see, but something good was established yesterday. I know it. I sense it.

I'll always be an introvert, but what I experienced yesterday only affirms I can break new ground in engaging folks for the Kingdom by ways and means initially uncomfortable to me but useful to Christ. I also get to meet some lovely people as well! Worth the doing, I think, no matter the anxiety.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Running Into Raymond.

I've seen him before on the streets of Northampton, mostly in the evening. When I do, he's generally "half-cocked" as he calls his drunkenness. He's short in stature, extroverted and a bit ornery. His name is Raymond. He says he's a roofer who's been in these parts since the "70's. He says he's a Vietnam vet as well. Raymond usually has much to say.

Tuesday night, Jim LaMontagne and I were returning from the Neilson Library on the Smith College campus where we'd just listened to a lecture on Jonathan Edwards by a historian named Ronald Story. He'd written a book called Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love, and we wanted to hear what he had to say given the reality of the impact Edwards had on the American Christian ethos in the mid-18th century. It was no small thing that he was a pastor in Northampton for a number of years as well.

We'd just returned and were chatting in front of the doorway into our building when Raymond came across the street and headed right for us. He started talking in our direction before we realized he had us in his sights. For the next 20 minutes or so, he regaled us with everything from a false bomb scare happening a few minutes ago up the street, to Revolutionary and Civil War history, to asparagus and grass fields on Rte.9 back in the day. We functioned as an audience for him. He peppered his discourse liberally with f-bombs (sometimes like a cascade), and other assorted expletives. Occasionally, he'd ask about us, but our answers just served as launching pads for his next observation.

Raymond is an alcoholic and more than likely has been one for decades. I never see him when he's not lit up.
He has the gift of gab when he's that way, but I wonder what he's like when he's sober. Is he quiet, shy, easy-going, or detached? I have no way of knowing so far.

That's the problem with alcoholics or drug addicts actively using; you can never peer into who they really are. Getting drugs, using drugs and coming down from using drugs take center stage in their lives. They are high or trying to get high. Trying to have an actual conversation with them or get to know them beyond the surface has proven very tough so far. It's frustrating, because it's not of any substance in the sense the person you're interacting with is distorted by the madness of the addiction. You might get glimmers into them, but nothing to hold onto.

The drug effects are always the "third person" in the conversation. Who knows what's real?

I feel sad in a way because I know there is a someone looking back at or talking to me, but I can't get to know him or her. I want to find out who the real person is and hear his story. I want to offer Christ and the love he holds out to them. I want to say, "Let's figure out how you can work to overcome the past, get back on your feet, and show the world what you might be made of." If I can't get there, they remain a kind of burlesquish caricature to me -- by that I mean a distorted parody of who they might be underneath. What a travesty because this same person bears the image of God. I don't like such diminishing of any human being.

Remember, I'm referring to people who've been this way for years. They've lived on the streets, moved in and out of prison, lost jobs, spouses, families and friends; they've hurt those who've loved them, thus eventually consigning themselves to an aimless, disconnected slavery. Many have been to counseling, been in rehab and attended many AA meetings, even worked the 12-Steps. But, using and trying to stop using has become a Sisyphean struggle of sorts for folks at it for decades: 2 steps forward, 3 steps back, and on and on.

After a while, I've found myself avoiding them, feeling it a waste of time to interact to any degree. I'll give them a buck or two occasionally, but that feels foolish, or acquiescing to the addiction thus cooperating with their demise. At the same time, to ignore them is to ignore our common humanity. I turn a blind eye to their suffering. I join all the others who do so without giving it a thought. That's not OK.

Perhaps, as we heard in the Edward's lecture Tuesday night, I must not cooperate with besmirching their dignity in any way. If they're doing so to themselves, that's they're choice. The reality I have to keep always before me is in serving them, I serve Christ, even if they're irresponsible, belligerent or manipulative. My job as a follower of Jesus is to give to the poor, including the addicted poor-in-spirit. I am to treat them as I would want to be treated if I were them. I am my brother's keeper and must not pick and choose their pedigree in that regard. But for the grace of God I am them.

In reality, I'm not sure the frustration and helplessness I feel will go away easily or like a vapor, but I've made a willing adjustment to engage and give to my street brethren. Giving to Christ can become my joy if I let it.

We'll see how it goes. If you think of it, pray for my freedom and generosity of spirit with these folks. I always appreciate prayer for me. I chronically need grace both amazing and abundant.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

imagine/Northampton's Arts Night Out #2: Photographer Joe Don Richardson.

Friday night began Chapter Two of imagine/Northampton journey into becoming a contributing member of the arts community in this small city with Joe Don Richardson's exhibit of  color and black and white photographs he calls "Deep Waters." As you might recall, last month, we launched the imagineGallery with Catherine Elliott's evocative, contemporary Impressionist paintings. Joe Don's Opening Reception was similarly well-attended, and we made some connections with folks in town, including artists. A few of them returned Friday, in fact. More about that later.

I've known Joe Don for almost 10 years. I had the privilege of helping him decide to attend The Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turner's Falls, MA. He's always liked taking photos, including being a summer camp photographer for a few years in CT. Prior to going to the Institute, he'd also taken a trip to Europe and taken a bunch of photographs. He made them into a book. While that of an amateur, it also was obvious he had talent. When he chose to go to school to become a professional I was very glad for him. Going was a big step, but he went after it, and worked his talent to another level.

I was proud of all the work he's put in to do our second show, and proud of him. Unless you've done this, make no mistake it isn't easy to do. You put your heart and soul out there in front of friends and strangers. Doing so feels a kind of nakedness not for the faint of heart. I was also thrilled that many folks talked to him about his work, and one showed interest in purchasing a piece. I know Joe Don left on Friday night feeling drained, but buoyed (no pun intended), and encouraged. Our show brought more folks than his first, and they were supportive.

As we did with Catherine's show we had sumptuous food. One young fellow, by all appearances a college student, came in and blurted out with delight: "Oh, this is where the good food is!!!" Indeed. A number of folks remarked about the quality of what we served. The only refreshment we omitted this time was the wine. We had a bit of a problem last time with someone who revealed himself to be too enamored with the grape, shall we say. He returned this Friday and left within five minutes, not even glancing at the photos. Hmmm. Nevertheless, part of our mission is to offer hospitality which captures people and causes them to linger with the art and with us, wine or no wine.

As I've mentioned in earlier blogposts, it's both about supporting art and building relationships with folks in Northampton. Toward that end, it just so happens a man and a couple  from last month's show returned . We'd learned each other's names and seemed to hit it off then. Last Friday, there was talk with them of dinner together, and the wife is a weaver who's interested in perhaps exhibiting at imagine. She gave a CD of her work to Tricia. They'll be in touch.

Imagineurian Dave Sweeney invited a client who also lives in the area, She came with a friend, liked Joe Don's work, and then inquired about imagine/Northampton. She's walked by our space on Main Street and wondered about us. She took our materials as did others. The conversation we had opened a little door of awareness and understanding. Maybe Jesus will create a relationship. I hope so.

For us, getting face to face with folks and having an opportunity to perhaps reflect Christ to them is a key focus of our Kingdom mission. We need to keep joining the community discourse whether it's having an Arts Gallery, serving meals to the homeless at the Interfaith Shelter (as on the night before Thanksgiving), launching an Open Table in early 2013, running our second 5K Hot Chocolate Run in support of Safe Passages in December, and staying to help clean up, offering a Family Night in December so parents can go Christmas shopping, or maybe even hosting a Writer's Group next year in our 70 Main Street space. The point is we want folks to discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine in our community, one person, one couple, one family at a time.

We're on our way. It's taken a while, but there is momentum building, slowly, but surely.

Pray for us and stop by one of these days. Come to dinner in Northampton, and check out Joe Don's work this Friday or Saturday evening, 5-9PM. We'd love to see you.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Recurring Dreams.

This post is not so much about church planting, imagine/Northampton, the missional life . . . or is it? I don't know. But these dreams have caught my attention.

For the last 6 months or so, I've been having these recurring dreams, sometimes more than once per night. After, I'll often wake up feeling as if I was just there. They're occasionally disturbing, but not downright frightening. The dreams are not pleasant for the most part, however.

Just so you know, I know dreams reflect subconsciously experienced meaning. Ergo, I'm trying to work out something I'm immersed in, am struggling with, or cannot make sense of. My brain is working diligently by searching all manner of stored connections in it's looking for understanding about something important or irksome to me. Brains are great symbolizers.

So here's what happens.

These nocturnal intruders tend to unfold in two ways: one is a sort of wandering scenario, the other has with it an impending, but diffuse sense of danger. Sometimes the source of the danger is unclear; other times, it's because of unknown people who might be trying to do me harm for some reason unclear to me as well.

Here are some patterns:

1. The scene is always dark and somber because it's perpetual night (as in the house setting), or because I am in a cavernous, very dimly lit (being illuminated by emergency lights) building such as a warehouse or a theater (especially backstage). Because my dream occurs often, I'm familiar with each setting, but they're buildings I don't know I've actually been in.

2. In both settings, there are people around, but I don't know them, and they don't seem to know me, yet we're somehow connected to the same space. In the house setting, I get the sense they live there. It has the feel of a student's crash pad with mattresses on the floor, etc. There's a general atmosphere of clutter. On the second floor, there seem to be people who don't like me very much; they appear annoyed, and downright unfriendly with our brief and random encounters. None of us talk to each other. In the warehouse or theater setting, a few people are around, but disconnected and silent. I don't know if they know where they are or why they're in the building.

3. In both dreams, I feel lost and displaced, like I don't belong. However, there is no sense I'm trying to get to where I do belong, or even if I know where that is.

In the wandering scenario, I am trying to get out of the warehouse or the theater. I'm inside after hours. I don't know why I'm there, but i know I really shouldn't be. There are many large rooms full of stuff. I go through them repeatedly, but can never find a way out of the building, in general. I'm not being chased. I just want to leave. I don't feel afraid, just confused and frustrated.

In the house scenario, I'm wandering in the sense because I can't figure out why I'm there. I don't fit. I don't know the people who seem to live in the house, and they don't know me, but there appears no solution. We're just there together time and time again - perpetual strangers, even the people upstairs who don't like me.

The diffuse, impending danger scenario occurs when I'm in the house. When it feels dangerous, there appear to be people outside the building trying to get in and not peacefully. They feel evil and potentially violent. I can't see them, but I sense they're moving around looking for a way to get in. In one scenario, I'm able to make a dash for my car, but just ahead of the faceless ones even though I can't locate them.

The dreams just kind of play out with little resolve, They just are and there I am.

I'm making mention of them, because I don't tend to remember my dreams, and these recur with regularity, so my subconscious is obviously wrestling with something I'm experiencing physically, spiritually, emotionally or relationally, or all of the above. I have some ideas of what they may mean, but I'd like to hear yours.

Any thoughts the Freud's and Jung's out there?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What a Blood-stained Bible Opened To Me.


In the November, 2012 issue of Voice of the Martyrs magazine, an edited excerpt from a 1995 VOM article quoted founder Rev. Richard Wurmbrand:

"A person will endure suffering of some kind in the USA, too, if he works for God's kingdom. Instead of posing the vain question of why suffering is needed, embrace it passionately ... Jesus asked on the cross why He was abandoned. He was given no reply in words. His resurrection was the answer ... trust in the value of any suffering for the kingdom. At times you may need to abandon vain human reason to rely only on trust. Then God, the Beloved, "will rejoice over with singing" (Zeph.3:17). Invite God's silence to surround and fill you. Then you will hear this song. We hear it."

On the cover of this issue is a closeup of a very bloodstained Bible. It's graphic and hard to look at.Underneath the picture are the headlines: "Nigeria's Red Letter Bible." The article inside begins with, "The blood-spattered Bible on the cover of this newsletter is a graphic symbol of the reality that our Christian brethren are suffering and being persecuted or martyred in other parts of the world."

Would it be fair to say the horrific reality of it happening to others today feels somewhat surreal to us? We know it goes on because we hear the reports in the news occasionally, or we read Christian publications such as VOM, or we have missionaries sent out from our churches who return reporting varying degrees of hardship in Christian communities overseas.

Maybe we even shudder a bit thinking violence like this would never happen to me, would it? Such atrocities only happen in Africa, or North Korea, or the Middle East -- certainly never in our more "civilized" western countries, particularly America where we enjoy religious freedom and little or no life-threatening persecution. Organized religious extremists or family members are not blowing up our churches, or assassinating us with regularity. We are tolerated for the most part.

Striking me, though, as I read the stories of ordinary Christians in dangerous places around the world, is an acute sense they seem to have a different view of suffering for Christ than we do because of what they experience as increasingly commonplace. While they know real fear and deep sorrow in the midst of it, they seem to understand suffering for Christ is not the exception, but a likelihood. Many appear to embrace it as a privilege without sugar-coating the pain or loss which will occur. I also notice a depth of trust they hold fast to because of the vulnerability with which they live and a faith born of supernatural encounter with the God Who Is Alive. They know Jesus will be with them in their travails. As I said, for the most part, we don't think much about car bombs or attacks on a Sunday morning by heavily-armed men driven by a lust for ridding the neighborhood of us.

Wurmbrand notes in the excerpt above that if we truly work for the Kingdom we will experience suffering here in our country. Has or does your experience as a Christian substantiate his claim? He goes on to say we should not question it's reality, but we must embrace it with passion! Would you agree? Do you do so? In fact, we are to "trust in the value of any suffering for the Kingdom." What might that look like in our current spiritual lives? I don't remember over the years many of my Christian brethren talking about linking their Kingdom-related suffering to being valuable and trusting it as such, or even noticing when their suffering was Kingdom-related. I don't know I did that much either.

Maybe I was not paying attention. But I know it was nothing like what Wurmbrand and others have experienced merely because they were/are Christ-followers. Do most of us believe in a strong likelihood we will die because of our faith? Are we trained from the pulpit, in Bible-study or Sunday School as to how to deal with, prepare for and comport ourselves it should we be "put to the sword/" because it is a reality, or an eventuality? I bet not.

But, when he links our suffering to Jesus's suffering on the cross and God's answer in the Resurrection, then I'm able to catch a glimpse of what it looks like. Jesus cried out in agony at the reality he was separated for the first time in eternity from his Father. As far as we are told in the Scriptures, he would die not hearing from him, or knowing his closeness. Yet, he did not deny his Father before men in his prolonged agony and God's silence. He stayed the course anyway, knowing it was what he'd come to do. Perhaps, if you or I will have to die for our faith we can find strength that Jesus knew such pain, and he will be with you and I in it, even if we don't sense his Presence in our suffering, or at the moment of our death.

The suffering of the Nigerian Church at the hands of horrifically misguided killers is because they are related to Christ. Their accusers hate them as Jesus' accusers hated him. He says in John 15:18, "“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you." These folks are hated because they are Christian. Martyrdom is a very real possibility because they've seen it; they've known martyr's, and they recognize death for his name could happen at any time to them or someone they love. Yet they persevere despite danger and persecution all around them.

They and others like them in parts of the world where being a Jesus-follower is a vile thing to the dominant people groups, need the American Churches' prayer, our solidarity, and material support. Some of us perhaps must join them physically in their trials showing the world we are one no matter geography, culture or race. In this way, we join the Church in its suffering, and thus embrace with passion the cause of the Kingdom witness to the world that Christ has come. When one believer suffers for his or her faith we all suffer because we are one people. He is our Lord of all. He tears down walls and unites peoples separated by continents, culture and language, so they can become united by a common faith, shared hope and life in the Spirit. His love animates and reveals us. The world knows nothing similar to it.

The blood-stained Bible and the Suleiman Abdul's story of conversion, and the suffering he endured because of it, opened me in a new way to the suffering my brothers and sisters embrace regularly in strife-torn parts of the world. For years, I've been mostly overwhelmed by the suffering of Christians internationally. I would pray briefly; sometimes give money, and then detach. I'm not sure how I'll respond now, but I'm freshly drawn to the plight of persecuted brethren. I also have an abiding sense I will see increased persecution in America because I am Christian. There are signs of a deepening anger toward us as a whole. If persecution comes, including violence, may I/we endure graciously, full of peace, hope and love so that Christ is glorified by our gentle witness to the One who has overcome the world and opened the way to its healing..

Saturday, October 27, 2012

LIFELINE Sunday's Community Prayer On Giving.

Abba Father,

Thank you for giving us another day full of grace and opportunity.

Thank you for inviting all of us to connect with You and each other this morning.

Thank for your Son and our Liberator, Jesus Christ.

You revealed your giving heart when you sent Him to redeem the world, including ours.

Thank you for His story which enfolds and gives our stories meaning beyond what we can imagine right now.

And give us everything we need so we are able to give you all we are, one day at a time.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

imagine/Northampton's Very First Arts Night Out Exhibition, October, 2012.

Wow! We've been wanting to do this for a long time! Being able to connect to the community through art has been one of our core values. We've had a Poetry reading, a Place and Possibility Seminar, a short film and dance experience, and we formed 1FlightUP and played jazz in clubs, but we've wanted to do more. It's taken us awhile, but last night we began the journey by becoming a gallery space and participating in Northampton's Arts Night Out. The second Friday of every month, 37 galleries, restaurants, retail stores, and food establishments offer some of their space to showcase artists. We're number 14 on the list. The city fills with all sorts of people having dinner, shopping, and visiting the "galleries" It makes the town come alive, and feel very vibrant.

Catherine Elliott, an old friend of ours from Simsbury and the BARN, graciously agreed to be our first artist. We've had the blessing of watching her grow as a painter over the years. She brought 19 small and large paintings, and transformed our space into an Art Gallery. Visitors remarked, young and old,  what a great gallery space this is, and how beautiful Catherine's work is. They used words for her such as: "peaceful and beautiful," "love, love. love," "intricate and beautiful," "thoughtful," and my favorite, " you have a great vision, beautiful work."

We had no idea how people would react to her work or our space. We're rookies at this, being our first time and all.The evening started slowly. Imagineurians Jenn and Kristen at 6PM or so went and stood outside our front door on Main Street and told people there was art to be seen upstairs. No one associated imagine/Northampton with being a gallery. A number of our guests said they'd walk by before and wondered what the heck we were ... a church? What kind of church has a weird name like that? Indeed.

So they started coming up the stairs and into our gallery. There were students, couples, and retired folks, many from Northampton. We had people who knew art and people who were just curious, and enjoying an evening out in Northampton. We got to meet some jazz musicians our age who have had the great blessing of being able to pursue their art for decades. We met a woman who weaves tapestries, an art form dying out until the 1950's. She has been working for years, among other pieces, on a large tapestry commemorating the Holocaust. She's part of a Guild of American Tapestry Weavers, and may be one of our next exhibitors. She was intrigued by being able to do so. We also met illustrators, and teachers, young people seeking alternative spiritualities and communities, a postman, culinary arts trained professionals, and photographers. They all loved Catherine's work and our space. Even our landlord, showed up! The guests we knew brought friends.

It all felt so right. As I mentioned, we've wanted to connect this way. Getting to know folks and talk to them is the primary way to build relationships through which we might be able to love, serve, and share the hope we have in Christ with them. We felt part of Main Street in a new and fresh way last night. We were contributing to the good of the city. We have credibility now because it was well-done as a gallery space. people are becoming aware of us. And we got to talk to some genuinely lovely folks.

Then there was the food. We do food with great passion and excellence; always have. We decided for the reception to have hors d' oeuvres, red and white wine, cider, coffee and tea, and chocolates. It wasn't over-the-top-fancy, but as you might expect, the table was lavishly appointed with delectable cheeses, meats and sophisticated pastries, hot and cold. Imagineurians Tricia McDermott, Amelia McCain, and Wednesday contributed, with Tricia leading the way. The quality of the food caught people's attention and were overhead to say, we offered, "the best hors d' oeuvres of anyone that night." We firmly believe attempting excellence in everything we do, as much as we are able, reflects the beauty, goodness and  glory of our magnificent God. People notice. They scarfed up the what was presented.

Some of our guests were also curious when they found out we were a church. They also took our materials and asked what we were about. Sometimes, it felt a little awkward, but for the most part, because of the atmosphere: a beautiful space filled with beautiful art, scrumptious food, jazz in the background, and imagineurians who are gracious, warm, and friendly, people interacted. I think we "blew some categories," for a few people. We want to do that, but with grace and simple elegance.

I need to thank Jim, Jenn, Kristen, Trey and Amelia, and Tricia for helping make our first Arts Night Out exhibition a success. We created the atmosphere we wanted (Tricia had the lion-share of that), had art which engaged people (thanks, Catherine!), connected with some folks (thanks all of you), and felt we held our own with the other spaces in town. We're not professional gallery owners, for sure, but many people commented very affirmingly on what we presented, and where we presented it, so we know God is in it. Sure we have a long way to go, but it was a wonderful first start, and we are very grateful.

So for the next two Friday and Saturday nights (October 19 & 20, 26 & 27) from 6-9PM, we'll be open for you to view Catherine's paintings. If you know folks who are interested in buying original work, invite them to join you. Make it a night out! We'd love to see you all!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

living/ALIVE As If God Is Really God So That Your Life Uniquely Reflects Him - A Meditation.

A month and a half ago, imagine/Northampton launched it's series for 2012-2013 called "living/ALIVE as if God is really God so that your life uniquely reflects Him." At it's heart, in my view, is the notion that a genuine relationship with the living God in it's essence is a promise of living fully alive and revealing the effects and reality of his Presence through each of our unique persons.

The Scriptures allude constantly to such quality of living with the triune God of the Old and New Testaments:

1. John 10:10:
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."
2. 2 Corinthians 5:17:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
3. Ephesians 2:10: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
5. Isaiah 58:11:"And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail."

These are a mere jot of all the texts describing life with God for those who love him as being far more rich in experience and blessing than what we can manage to remember over a lifetime, or even hold in view for a day or two. Our memories are limited, and our hearts are fickle. Many of us possess what Paul Simon referred to as "a short, little attention span," in his song, "You Can Call Me Al."

What we hope to do in our 9-month series is draw attention to and even embed a quality of life with Christ in imagine folks so they can become resplendent with the thoughts, ways, and purposes of God. We think such a life is the biblical, normal Christian life -- life as it's intended to be lived within, and for the pleasure of our beneficent King.

So let's look at each phrase of the theme:

  • living/ALIVE:
This deliberate pairing of words captures a particular quality of living. It means being deeply engaged, or fully present to one's life in God. Such life has richness of meaning, and the person living it pursues with heart what matters to him or her because of the astounding stature of being a son or daughter of the Most High. Living /ALIVE has fire in the belly. It's passion is directed not diffuse. It sees the Gospel as a miracle and the Kingdom as a pearl of inestimable worth. This life invested, not detached; committed, not pacified; dedicated, not vacillating; in, not on the fence.

living/Alive summons the shedding of tears at the sight and sound of human suffering, oppression, injustice, cruelty, and virulent sin crushing hearts.

living/Alive entices Christ-followers to gradually surrender their wills toward righteousness, love and holiness because flows from and gathers around God.

living/Alive laughs and celebrates and shouts and dances when joy breaks out and calls the beloved further into gratitude and worship.

living/Alive studies and contemplates to sink deeper into the truth that sets us free.

living/Alive rolls up its sleeves and goes to work for more than just a paycheck.

living/Alive seeks humility, prizes goodwill, delights in integrity, lauds a servant heart, longs for courage fueled by righteousness.

living/ALIVE prays as if its natural to do and often; it sees prayer as glorious lever creating change by  connecting the grace of Almighty God to the suffering of a broken world.

living/ALIVE assumes that living any other way is a tragedy no matter how it might be packaged.

  • "as if God is really God":

Isn't that the Assumption of all assumptions for anyone seeking to live a life devoted to following Christ? If God is actually who he says he is in the Scriptures, and through the Holy Spirit in real-time, then he and what he cares for should become our preferred path and chief end. Living as if God is actually God : eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, sovereign, triune, self-existent, self-sufficient, holy, just, good, loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, etc., should alter how we choose to pursue our lives.

For instance, living/ALIVE as if God is really God means to be fully attending to the unfolding story of our lives, and what God desires us to be and do with all he has given us. If God is really God, living/ALIVE accepts he has a primary say in the trajectory of all our enterprises and relationships. Such a spiritual perspective also assumes a manifest trust in his wisdom and goodness, such that we seek his counsel and provision to fulfill our destiny. Without such trust we sink into self-support, or the faux comfort of our prized routines on paths well-worn by habit.

With God really being God, we can risk more than Sundays, tithing, mission trips and outreach events for the Kingdom. We can take chances which bloom from humongous God-breathed dreams not our own, and we can expect his help when there's no gas left in the missional tank. Trusting God is really God can make all of us ordinary Joes and Josephines into radicals of the fire-heart called disciples; not glittery superstars or ripped, flying superheros, just people found by a Shepherd King who invited them to help heal and redeem the world through him, step-by-step.

It might simply be more than we can imagine, yet it's true. So for God to really be God in our lives he must test and try us to see if our trust in him is more like whistling in the dark than a firm grip no matter how overwhelming the ordeal we face. Without such refining, our trust slowly becomes flaccid and juvenile reducing Jesus to Santa Claus who shows up, showers you with grace presents, and then stays safely out of the way until you really need him.

  • so that your life uniquely reflects Him:
Every follower of Jesus with his or her unique DNA, genealogy, racial composite, personality, temperament, motivational gifts mix, intellect, life experience, and spiritual/theological bent has the grand opportunity to reflect who God is in a way which reveals his nature. We all don't do it the same. That's a wonderful reality!

By living/ALIVE as if God is really God, we have the chance to show forth his excellence and beauty and goodness and truth in a manner winsome and intriguing. Exuberance with wisdom and charity can melt a heart frozen by sin and pain.

God has made you and me to resonate with his heart, and when we do, we reflect him like a kaleidoscope refracts light into the colors we can see.We are like a great mosaic, each unique piece filling in a picture greater than itself. Another fascination mystery is that our uniqueness fits the uniqueness of others in ways no one else can. There are people in your journey you've not encountered yet who will resonate with who you are, and have the chance to find Christ within you.

What a wonder it is to know that seeking to be fully alive to ourselves, God and others gives us the opportunity to be a conduit through which something of the gracious refulgence of God can be experienced, especially when we love them.

So here's a prayer for you [and me] to pray daily for at least a month:

 Father of wonders and goodness and lavish grace,

Creator of rainbows and ice cream, and the smell of pine trees

Help me learn your wonders within my ordinary days:

        Where my heart is listless and feeble,

        Where my imagination has dimmed and stilled,

        Where I'm mostly obeying routine's subtle numbing,

Lift me to delight and make me sensitive to the beautiful all around.

Show me your exuberance in everything you've made: tastes and smells and sights and sounds galore for the sampling.

In my troubles, give me music I can hear;

Over my pains wrap a soft, warm comforter of healing and calming I can feel;

In my comfortable narrowness, liberate me by a sky filling with Northern Lights and shooting stars I can shout about;

In my many distractions, let me stumble into exquisite goodness and symmetry that might marvel and be glad.

Free me from everything stifling wonder, smothering joy, and turning my faith to brittle, dreary unbelief.

Make it be, Lord

Monday, October 1, 2012

imagine/Northampton's OPEN TABLE Opportunity.

Sometimes frustration initiates an earnest search for change, doesn't it.

If you've followed imagine/Northampton on Facebook in the last few days,, you're aware of our visit with Jon Katov of the Open Table ministry,, Saturday and yesterday. His being here in Northampton stemmed from frustration a few of us have been experiencing because of what felt an ineffective approach to helping the poor and homeless who populate Northampton. Dave Sweeney took the initiative to do an Internet search, and found some options. I looked at them and agreed with him the Open Table was something we needed to look into. Dave took the lead in making the connection. Happily, Jon was going to be on the East Coast last week, and we met. He also joined us yesterday at imagineWORSHIP, and told his compelling story of how God set him free and drew him into helping the poor transform their lives.

Jon is a true believer in Christ, and in the travesty of how the poor fare in America. He's determined to be a part of the solution and travels hither and yon motivating the Church to adopt a different approach. He talks much of how Christians have adopted the transactional model of helping the poor: write a check to a ministry to the poor; hand them a buck or two at an intersection; give them a meal or money to get one; offer them a bed for the night in a shelter; give them used clothing, blankets, etc. All these transactions are well-meant, and handle an immediate need, but they do little or nothing long-term to help lift poor folks from their predicament -- band-aids never set broken legs, or mend broken hearts, no matter how genuinely offered

Jon says the Gospel, by its very nature calls for transformation. He makes, with great conviction and passion, a strong case for gathering weekly around an individual (termed a brother or sister), or family who demonstrates the will and volitional potential to overcome the many obstacles enmeshing them in the devastating cycle of poverty (including working poverty). He references Jesus's words from Matthew 25:35-40:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

The transformational investment Jon has experienced and champions comes in the form of gathering a team from collaborators in the church and local community, people with practical skills, networks and resources, and having them dedicate a year to help an individual or family tackle their obstacles to get up on their feet: .For most of these people, they've never experienced having a team of folks gather around them to share the burden of changing their lives. Jon says most of the poor people he's encountered are so weighed down with repeated failure and crippling shame that they have no way of working through the multiple problems they'll have to address to get free. It's utterly overwhelming. To not have to do that alone; to have help with legal, medical, criminal, vocational, housing, educational and relational problems is monumental for them.

We also find compelling the notion that if we do this, and can build a team of collaborators -- not necessarily Christians, by the way -- from folks in the community, we have the wonderful opportunity to create relationships with people with whom we have no substantial relationships. We become partners with them in helping Northampton's working poor and homeless break free. We get to know folks who get to know us as friends working together on a common goal. Jon says he's been amazed at the generosity of people who don't get a chance to give back in the way an Open Table affords. They want to, but don't know how either. imagine/Northampton would be able to initiate the opportunity as well as partner in the work. Wow!

Also, Jon is offering us the chance to be the first church in New England to adopt the Open Table transformational model. We didn't realize that. They're happening all over the country, but not yet here. What if?

As I mentioned, we've been looking for a way to make a bigger difference in the lives of the poor in Northampton.. We work at the Interfaith Shelter, the Northampton Survival Center, and have relationships with many of the "regular" homeless on the street. It's just not transforming lives to any substantial degree.

We really want do do that on our watch.

So as we listen to God and one another this week, please pray for us. Ask God to make it clear we are to become part of the Open Table movement or not. I need to tell you we are intrigued, and some of us are ready to get going, so we're not cool to the idea at all. There will important practical decisions to make and a substantial commitment for some of us, so we need to proceed with wisdom. We know imagine/Northampton is not to become the Open Table ministry; there are many other things God has for us to do as well. But this is the best format we've encountered for helping people heal and find their way back into a fruitful life. We also see the remarkable potential for opening people to Jesus, just by helping them find their way. Our Kingdom mission embraces the Open Table idea, so it feels right. We just need to know God is calling us for such a time and opportunity as this.Our Leadership Team will meet tomorrow night, and it will be on the agenda.

If God tells you anything he wants us to be aware of, please don't hesitate to let me know.

You know where I am.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Capacity For Wonder; Capacity For God.

As many of you are aware, Tricia and I've been counseling folks since the late 80's. We continue to do so today. Lately, I've been struck by the sad reality when people run aground in their lives, or get entangled in unhealthy (sometimes destructive) attitudes and behaviors, or suffer binding wounds at the hands of other people, their capacity for wonder goes dark. It makes sense because along with its happy companions, fascination and delight, wonder requires an unforced ability to look beyond to catch a glimpse of stunning beauty, goodness, order, or transcendent Being animating all life.

True wonder and awe carries with it what Rudolf Otto termed in The Idea of the Holy: mysterium tremendum et fascinans (fearful and fascinating mystery). When we are captivated by something and our natural response is unself-conscious wonder, we experience the wholly Other such as when I received as a Christmas present, my first drum set. Later that evening I set it up in my room and lie there for a long while under the snare drum with my head next to the bass drum and pedal. Slowly and carefully I took in every inch of what I could see in disbelief that I possessed such a fascinating instrument. I was chock full of wonder!

You see, the capacity for wonder is the capacity to be intrigued and drawn by something or someone intrinsically compelling. Desire pursues a perceived opportunity for delight, maybe even inspiration and joy.
When you experience wonder you feel fully alive; your senses are heightened to take in full what you are apprehending. You want more of what is so fascinating. You are "taken" by it.

Ultimately, wisdom can summon us to the ultimate, wholly Other: God

Listen to King David:

1 I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.
3 Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.

4 One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.

10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your saints shall bless you!
11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
and tell of your power,
12 to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

[The Lord is faithful in all his words
and kind in all his works.]

Listen to the Apostle Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Both men are filled with wonder and fascination at who God is and what he's done. They apprehend the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. They are captivated by and drawn to him. They acknowledged his sovereign Lordship as one who undividedly holds all the keys to life and death; He is to be respected and feared, but more importantly loved and enjoyed. His greatness and revelation are a noumenal signal light.

I consider our capacity for wonder an exquisite gift of God through which we can peer into (however briefly from this side of eternity), the unseen Real behind all our existence. More importantly, this capacity for wonder is, in turn, a capacity us to be drawn in when he reveals something of himself to us, and what really is. We can respond and move close to him (because of  Jesus, by the Spirit), or away from what seems to sparkle, but carries with it the sting of death. Capacity for wonder is a capacity for life and life in/with/for God. We were made for relationship and relationship with him, It is our true being; He is our true home.

So when people are turned away by the sorrows, trials and tribulations of life, they fall away from this capacity. It stills because pain and trouble, or sin takes center stage. All of us have experienced such a temporary "blindness." Some of us have been made so blind by it we cannot see the wonderful or truly worthwhile all around us. We trudge in a dry and dreary place reacting to impulse and experience, but never really seeing into/beyond as God invites us. Such is a true (but not irredeemable) and fearful tragedy.

So more and more I'm inviting folks to return or hold fast to their capacity for wonder as a means through troubles and suffering. I see many get caught in the problem and seem not to be able to reverse course or move beyond. For instance, I talked to someone who's had more than what would seem his fair share of trials and tribulations over many years. His capacity for wonder had been substantially been turned aside. He, at some point in our conversations, related he enjoyed being in nature and fly fishing. It clearly helped him feel alive and engaged. I encouraged him to make time for this opportunity for wonder in his life, and to begin seeing the beauty and goodness of God in what he has created. It would have a healing effect.

I hope he takes my counsel.

I am convinced that capacity for wonder leads to a capacity for God is we look "behind the veil," to consider God's works and ponder often just Who this is Who made anything at all, including us. Doing so brings us ever nearer to what we were made for:

 What is the chief End of Man? Answer: Man's chief End is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." (Westminster Catechism)

Open your eyes and ears. Open your heart. Confess your dullness and ask God to captivate your heart with wonder so you can see beauty and goodness and truth and a fascinating reality. Ask him to "do whatever it takes" to make it so.

Friday, September 7, 2012

8 Essential Questions For The Church; What If?

For the last two weeks, I've been riveted to the Republican and Democrat Conventions. Even though I grew up in a very politically vigorous family of staunch Irish Democrats (my grandmother even played a role on the national level in the 40's), I'm not a political animal per se. I'll never tell you who I support or which way I'll vote in an election.

But I have to say I was struck to the degree I've never been with the depth of faith and hope people are resting on the shoulders of the Presidential candidates, especially the Democrats' adoration of Barack Obama. It feels almost akin to worship. I know similar adoration has been given other candidates in other elections over the last 200 years. People place all sorts of hope and trust in charismatic leaders who represent to them a better life, or an inspiring message of freedom or prosperity. The longing of the human heart for a happy and liberated life gets ignited by gifted communicators who know the heart's language and how to move it. When that occurs people feel lifted and loyal. Tears flow, smiles abound, cheers ring forth and happy days look likely to be here again because so and so is going to bring them. It's a potent alchemy.

So I have to say, I felt saddened by how much faith, hope, and even love is being lavished on mere mortals. I've never felt that before. It was palpable. There was a kind of "No!" echoing in my head because I'm convinced, such devotion rightly belongs to Christ alone.Only he is the light of the world, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only Name under heaven by which men can be saved. Neither Romney nor Obama can fulfill the deepest or most abiding needs of the human heart. Don't get me wrong, the "American Experiment" is a unique light in the world. I've spent the last number of years examining the founding, and the key players involved. Miracles were involved. And through the decades, God has blessed the United States repeatedly, and given it prominent influence around the world. Great leaders in government have done remarkable things benefiting generations. At the same time there have been horrors, atrocities and betrayals.

Jesus, the LORD of Lords is the One Americans should ultimately owe their greatest fealty.

If they only knew.

If they could but peer into the unseen REAL.

But don't really know and they don't see.


Do you know who represents His salvific interests in America and in the world? You and I do. We're called the Church. We, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, bring the Kingdom of God with us whatever we happen to be doing, even if we're unawares. It's our singular mission, not government or business, or unions, or PACs, Social Service organizations, NGO's, the 4th Estate, lobbies, or sports and entertainment figures, political pundits, or Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, the military or the schools, colleges and universities. The Kingdom mission is the singular dominion and calling of the Church, i.e., anyone who calls on the Name of the LORD, and sees being a Jesus follower as his or her primary identity and calling in their every sphere of influence.

This morning on the porch in Ventnor, I was reading a book by Joel C. Rosenberg called Implosion: Can America Recover From Its Economic and Spiritual Challenges In Time?  I don't know about you, but the "last days" are more and more on my mind and have been for two or three years. I've tended to stay away from reading or speculating about such things, but I'm noticing in a way I've never before. Something's up and Rosenberg, a Jewish Christian, keeps his feet on the ground.

Anyway, I titled my post this way because I want to call your attention to what the author poses to the Church (ppg. 291-2), noting such questions are: "what we should expect and pray for in the American church,". (p.292)

He begins the list with the following passage:

"There are an estimated 340,000 church congregations in the United States. That's an average of 6,800 per state. That's about one congregation for every 900 people. Imagine how rapidly America would change if all of these 340,000 congregations were healthy, strong, brightly shining lighthouses, as God intended.

1.What if they were all faithfully teaching the Word of God book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse so the people of God would know the whole counsel of God?

2. What if they were truly helping people repent of their sins, purify their hearts, and heal from their emotional and spiritual wounds?

3.What if they were all actively assisting those recovering people to be able to turn around and care for others who are needy and suffering?

4.What if they were all training their people to share the gospel with their friends and neighbors?

5.What if every pastor was modeling the kind of personal one-on-one and small-group discipleship that Jesus and Paul modeled?

6.What if they were equipping and training young people in the Word of God and their spiritual gifts and helping them plant new congregations in the U.S. and around the world?

7.What if they were truly caring for the poor and the needy in their communities and in countries around the globe, not in lieu of sharing the gospel but as part of fulfilling the great commission?

8. What if they were teaching their congregations to bless Israel and her neighbors in the name of Jesus and to show unconditional love and unwavering support to both the Jewish and Palestinian people?

I recommend you reflect carefully on each question for yourself and for the church where you serve. What is God asking of you? Where do you need to repent? Where are you sleepwalking and need to wake up? How is you church addressing these concerns? Should you raise the issues? 

A Prayer For Us All:

Father of all power, liberty, and truth,
Wake us from where we are slumbering or sleepwalking,
Warm our hearts where we've grown cold and indifferent.
Encourage us where we are anxious and timid.
Dislodge us from where we are stuck.
Summon us from where we are distracted by trifles or overwhelming troubles.
Give us voices to speak the truth with words that enliven and heal;
   that teach and motivate.
Make us people of the Way such that all can yield and want to find it.
Help us follow Jesus in what He is doing all around no matter the cost,
no matter the odds against us, no matter the mockery of the blind and wandering.
Give us tears which liberate and a stubborn resolve that on our watch, you will be seen  and heard in and through us all, your Church.

By Christ, for Christ, in and through Christ.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Meeting Eve, the Woman in the Outdoor Shower.

Yesterday I wrote of encountering an old woman taking a shower fully clothed next to the Boardwalk. At the end of the piece I mentioned wanting to be able to meet her, and perhaps talk with her. I was frustrated I didn't turn around and do so when we had the chance.

Well, early this morning she was again taking a shower fully clothed in the place where we first saw her. And again too, I didn't want to embarrass her by interrupting such a personal act as bathing -- even though she had to do it publicly with her back to the Boardwalk where people were passing by.

As we walked by both Tricia and I wanted to see her again. I prayed quietly God would arrange that. Sure enough, he did. Not more than 20-25 minutes later there she was heading toward us in the opposite direction. Immediately, we walked up to her. Curious thing is, as soon as she saw us she started to smile. I'm not sure why.  Her deeply-tanned face just lit up even though she had no teeth. We stopped to talk, and Tricia handed her some money telling her to have something to eat. She thanked her. I asked her name. Immediately she said, "Eve." We offered our names and shook her hand. She didn't appear nervous or perturbed by our little meeting.

I then asked if she was homeless? She said with no hesitation, "Yes, for 15 years." Tricia asked if she had a place to stay. She added again very quickly  that (her homelessness) "was ending because the issue with the wallpaper store was being taken care of." We took it to mean she'd no longer be homeless and someone was handling the matter for her. Hmmmm.Was it all in her mind? Did something happen to a business she or her family once had? Was she injured in such a store or fired unfairly? Was she mentally ill? We don't know, and very likely she might not either. Being on the street for 15 years, if that's true, changes how a person views reality. Their world has been turned and left upside down, and because of the hardness of street-life, truth and fantasy can blur to suit the situation or sometimes just survive.You and I live a very different reality.

The conversation ended with we saying we were praying for her. Her face brightened again and she exclimed with verve, "Keep up the good work!"

Tomorrow if we see her, I'm going to find out if there's a way we can help her connect with someone to get off the street. She's a veteran of this life to be sure, but perhaps there's someone who has a fresh take on helping people like her in Atlantic City. There are many by the way. It might seem peculiar to say it, but she might not want anything to do with living off the street. We've met a number of folks in Northampton who have said that to us. Who knows if they mean it forever, but some mean it for, "Until I'm ready."

Pray we see her again tomorrow!!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Old Woman Taking a Shower Outdoors Fully-Clothed.

Sometimes you just "chance" upon something profoundly sad and disturbing. It sets you on your heals a little. The scene assaults your sense of "today will be a normal day." But when you experience it, your mind replays what you saw, and each time, you feel a stab of pain, or "I hate this!" How long, Lord?

Earlier this morning, Tricia and I went for a long walk on the Boardwalk, beginning in Ventnor, and heading north to Atlantic City. While there were a usual assortment of walkers, riders and runners, young and old, the "traffic' was lighter than the summer hordes. The day was warm and muggy; there was some fog blowing off the ocean and enshrouding the casinos a couple of miles down where we were heading.

A few minutes past the Ventnor-Atlantic City line, I happened to notice to my right an old woman-taking a cold shower at the outdoor showers near the Boardwalk. Swimmers use it to wash off the sand and salt. What caught my eye was that she stayed fully-clothed while she washed. Her hands were under her clothes as she bathed. I understand why. It must be agonizingly humiliating to have to shower at all in a very public place because you have nowhere else to do so. For an old women to have to do so must be horrifying.

To be honest, I didn't  look for more than 2-3 seconds. I didn't want to embarrass her, and frankly, I was felt a rush of sadness at what her life left her to do. She had to be in her late 60's. She was tanned, wearing what looked to be stuff she's scrounged, or had been given to her in a shelter. She had her possessions in a stroller-like contraption and little else.What shame she's had to bear.

Where was her family? Where were her friends? How did her life get to this place of showering in a public shower with strangers jogging by for their morning constitutional? More than likely she was not "living her dream," -  if she'd ever had the chance try in the first place.

Seeing her suffering (trust me it's suffering, no matter how self-sufficient, high or seemingly OK these folks look to be), left me angry and sad, frustrated, and a little depressed. I really hate that situations such as hers happen at all, no matter who's at fault. The human condition because of sin and failure, and the putrid fruit of inhumanity always feels wrong. The world was not made to be a playscape for sorrow and pain and loneliness.

I've never been OK with what folks like her must endure. I often feel powerless, at best, to do much about it, almost stymied to make any real dent in the waste of lives I witness.

Anyway, our lives crossing with her's did not end there.

Heading back , maybe 20-25 minutes, later we encountered her again. She was sitting on a bench which populate the Boardwalk here and there. As we approached her, about 10 yards in front of us, she got up, gathering her "stroller" and assorted stuff, and started to walk toward us to our left. As she got within earshot she said twice (with increasing vehemence), "That's just shower water!." At first, I had no idea what she was talking about until I looked down at the bench where she'd sat. It was wet.

I almost wanted to cry. Tricia turned back toward her as she walked and said, "That's OK." It all felt very awkward. For some reason, she wanted us to know she'd not relieved herself on the bench. The truth is, I don't know if she did or didn't, and I wouldn't have cared either way. I wanted her to know that she is a person, and I don't know what I'd be like if I was in her shoes.

I wanted to turn and give her some money, but that felt pointless. What would that really do to relieve her of having to take outdoor showers in front of Boardwalkers, or whatever other indignities she's learned to adapt to? We've given money to all sorts of homeless folks in Northampton. After awhile, it seems like an impotent gesture of acquiescence to "it is what it is."

I want to be a part of a more substantial solution. It's tied to the Gospel. It's tied to the Kingdom of Christ. It's tied the the church of the broken and "once we were forlorn and lost."

Seeing her darkened the entire day for me. I just felt low and out of sync. I'm noticing more and more of this kind of thing, even in Northampton. People are slipping through the cracks in increasing numbers, the elderly included. I'm not sure that's going to change because of the milk of human kindness, gift cards and food stamps.

Nevertheless, if I get to see her tomorrow or the next day, I'll give her money for food, and perhaps talk with her -- maybe even pray for her a bit. I don't know, but I need to extend kindness and compassion. I don't think she gets much of that these days or if ever.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Prayer For Being Careful With Your Words.

Last Sunday, I gave a talk at imagine/Northampton called "Our Words Leave Marks On Others." The main idea centered on the  power of the tongue to speak life or death to other people. It can crush or liberate them using mere words. But as a counselor, much of my work has to do with people striving to help folks heal from those rascals. It is no small task for many. A word has the power to alter the trajectory of an entire life. Throwing them around like so much confetti is a fool's errand to say the least.

Of late, I've been composing Opening and Closing Prayers we say together in our worship. The prayers reflect the theme of the day helping us enter in and leave Sunday worship under the umbrella of a commonly- held idea. So I thought I'd share it with you in the hope you could use it to be more mindful of what you say.

Father of lights,

Fill my words this  week with grace and truth, wisdom and gentleness.
Set a guard, Oh Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.
Set a guard over my heart that I might not be careless, rash or irresponsible in anything I say. 
Let my words give life and liberty, not wounding or discouraging.
Let me hear clearly others words, and speak rightly such that nothing I say deceives, discourages or diminishes anyone.
Visit my thoughts with your Word that I might honor you in every conversation I have.

Make it so.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Thoughts From My Second Encounter With the Man and the Pigeons.

Just after sunrise early this fresh morning was the second time I've seen him. The first was with Tricia. He parks a newer pick-up truck in the eastern field adjacent to the 3-County Fairgrounds here in Northampton. When we prayerwalk, we often head there first to catch the new sun, luxuriate (and wake up!) in the fresh air, and warm up for the rest of the walk.

You should check it out at sunrise sometime. It's worth the trip.

This morning, he'd already opened the cages and the birds were flying as a flock in ever-expanding circles until they disappeared over the trees bordering I-91 to the east. As he was taking his last look to see if they were heading in the right direction - I'm assuming - I caught his eye and commented on the fact he was training the birds. I followed it with a question about where they they were heading. He said Brattleboro and explained he's also trained flocks to head from as far Cleveland, Ohio to Boston. He was friendly, and seemed to enjoy my interest in what he was up to.

I mentioned Tricia was born in Brooklyn, and was aware of people having homing pigeons on their roofs. His face lit up saying he'd been born in Brooklyn, and he'd had them on his roof there too. Small world.

Often on these prayerwalks I'm in a contemplative mindset, and notice intriguing spiritual connections in things I see as I walk. I just notice stuff which sparks thought. This morning as I was reflecting on watching the homing pigeons fly home or to their destination together, it struck me that God calls us to journey through life together and to help each other return to our true home with him. While certainly some of the journey is walked in solitary such as when we must face challenges and problems, and  rely solely on God to get us where only we can go, he has also summoned us to travel with companions of the heart. It's what communitas, fellowship, and spiritual family are about.

So as I watched the flock, I noticed at first, birds set to flight after the first group were out of sync with it, and had to work to catch up before heading to their destination together. The larger group would stay circling until every bird joined the synchrony. I don't know if that is the way it always goes, but from what I've seen from my two encounters, that's the way it's done. In reality, while each bird had to take to wing individually, they chose to journey with the flock..

So should we, if we understand God has supplied fellow pilgrims to join and help us make our way home. We must join the group, and the group should "wait up" until all who've taken to flight to make the trip are  accounted for. No one is forced to go, but the best way to head out is together. I know this isn't a pure analogy, often everybody seems to have a different pace, but I think the idea of extending grace to "stragglers," and folks who can't seem to keep it together much of the time so everyone has a chance to come along is a right view of the church.

I like that.

Sure, it's certainly easier said than done, what with people's penchant for "I've got a better flight plan thank you very much," or for wandering into spiritually dangerous territory from time to time, or "I don't like this flock's way of thinking or doing things," and on and on. And yes, it's messy as I suspect it is for those working with homing pigeons, but I think it's God's prescribed mode of pilgrimage to the destination for which we were made.

Nothing earth-shattering, I know, but a simple reminder from of God that we're meant to be in this thing together.