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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..