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Monday, January 28, 2013

Nothing Ventured; Nothing Gained.

There' a well-worn proverb I've heard many times over the years, but it never embedded. Late last week, Tricia and I were watching a harmless reality show called North Woods Law. It's about the adventures and challenges of being a Game Warden in Maine. I watch because I love anything back country-open space. It's in my blood. These folks make their living in such environs.

Anyway, early in the show one of the Wardens has to check on a family that might be violent because of drug dealing, and the word is out they're keeping a ball python in their house. Twice in the first few minutes of the show, he says about checking things out, "Nothing ventured; nothing gained." Apparently, this proverb has a long history, the saying dates back to Chaucer (c. 1374).

For reasons I realize now, it stuck because God has been "prodding" me to finally address my life-long struggle with anxiety. I won't write about it now, but suffice it to say, it has caused problems in my life, and probably resulted in some losses.

"Nothing ventured; nothing gained," stood out and stuck in because the Holy Spirit has been dealing with my decades-long, irrational fear of asking for money. It could be asking clients to pay me for my work, including reminding them about it. I always felt uneasy about taking a paycheck because I've worked in non-profits for decades. This fear is nuts, but resiliently influential.

Skip forward to asking imagine donors to donate, and I lean toward panic. Procrastination is my shield. To be fair, I had an almost traumatic experience with asking for donations a decade ago. I was talked into it and then rebuked harshly by the very person who encouraged me to give it a try. Initiating the ask for money feels for me like intruding or stepping over a boundary. Yet,God's made it clear - even through Tricia - I am to get over my fear and ask with gentle assertiveness, i.e., nothing ventured; nothing gained. It's a responsibility I've been given:

Not venturing to ask is to refuse to offer others opportunity to give.

Not venturing to ask is to deny what God seeks to provide through his people.

Not venturing to ask is to deny his family the responsibility to give to his work.

Not venturing to ask allows the evil one to delay the progress of Kingdom mission through intimidation and lies.

What is not gained by asking is lost, or at the very least, delayed because of inaction. Anxiety becomes a wicked ally of cowardice, irresponsibility, and insipid resignation.

So. I'm gradually learning to silence this enemy in many areas of my life. I sincerely want to gain the ability to make the ask and watch what God provides through his generous ones. More importantly, I want finally to know I've taken a deeper responsibility for the work he's given us, and for the resources lying in wait for me to venture forth and receive from his hand.

I've begun to venture out, but please pray for me and hold me accountable. I'll need both for a while.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Simple Kindness of Lasagna Well-Made For Strangers.

Last night, Tricia, Janet and Kevin Williams served at the Interfaith Shelter on Center Street in Northampton. Thank you, guys! Many if not most of us at imagine have prepared and/or served a meal there. For everyone involved it's a heartening experience because you get to be around men and women, young and old  whose lives for all sorts of reasons have come apart. They are homeless, un-or under-employed, mentally ill, or struggling with substance abuse. For some, it could be all of the above.

The feeling I get when at the Shelter is their lives have become cut-off and adrift. They are living, but not living forward in any substantial way. Some are in recovery and counseling. They are slowly working on getting well and free. A few are fresh out of prison, but have no place to go yet. Others wait for housing, or work that might provide a living wage. Some shelter guests prefer living independently on the street, but come out of the cold for a night or two. Still, they are chronically alone and estranged.  Occasionally, we meet someone who is homeless for the first time, afraid, not sure what to do or how they got there. There are many stories, but similar story-lines of loss, disarray and brokenness.

So we show up on a Wednesday night once a month with food we've made, and the opportunity to serve people with it. At imagine, we use food as a way to bless people. We're blessed to have talented folks in our midst (professionally trained and/or naturally gifted), who take food prep, presentation, and quality very seriously because we all want others to enjoy the goodness of God in a meal. We want it to be sumptuous, unexpected and delicious. We want folks in the shelter to delight in the fact we serve them not just what's leftover or what we can throw together on the cheap, but good food, carefully made. We want the guests to feel they matter because of the effort invested on their behalf. We want to surprise them.

We did something similar, but on a larger scale, when we put on FEAST for Easter at the Northampton Center for the Arts a couple of years back. Our motive was the same. I wrote a blog-post about it. In it I said:

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

Our serving at the shelter holds the this desire to uncommonly grace these folks in their troubling time of dislocation, disorientation, or resigned despair. We're not over the top with it where people feel uncomfortable, but we want to show them that in Jesus's eyes they are loved more than they know. These "least of these" his brethren, are our brethren too. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. They are his guests.

We serve great food they don't expect, and they are enlivened a little bit. I have been told twice by 2 different Shelter staff that regulars remember and look forward to imagine/Northampton bringing the meal. I hope that's true of others who graciously bring food there also, but finding out we brighten their lives when so much else in their days has gone wrong is warms us. It's nice to give someone something to look forward to when so much they experience is just plain hard.

We want to do far more to help homeless, broken people get unstuck and heading toward who they were meant to be, especially in coming to discover and know this God who is far more than they imagine. Hospitality and delicious food -- something we have been committed to since being here -- is a winsome, fulfilling way to grace people, whether in our homes, Sunday morning, or serving at the shelter. Doing good to others humanizes us, thus softening our hearts to perhaps risk sacrificing more for the "fading away ones" who perhaps can take a step toward coming back into view because of the simple kindness of lasagna well-made for strangers.

May we never lose this desire to delight, enchant and grace people beyond what they expect, or have settled for. A little wonder can work deep into the heart by way of the palate.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Imago:Self Portraits w/ Disposable Camera, January 11, 2013.


       Five days ago imagine/Northampton opened it's gallery for the fourth month to Arts Night Out Northampton. It was a cold and rainy January Friday, but people were out. Some were going to the galleries and other venues in town.
       In our minds, last Friday night was an experiment within an EXPERIMENT - the latter being offering the imagineGALLERY at all. The prior months were more traditional in the media we showed: paintings, photography and wall-hangings plus hand-made books. All very well-done and well-received.
       Last Friday's experiment took a different tack. Let me give you the back story. A number of weeks back, we asked CT poet and friend, Brad Davis, if he'd be willing to do something for our January exhibition. We asked him to come up with an idea. Beyond being a friend and a fellow color-outside-the lines Jesus follower, he has graced our space before first in September, 2010, when he coordinated and collaborated with poets Jendi Reiter and Nancy Watkins Denig for an evening of their poetry called the splendid ordinary. Then, last spring, he offered a day workshop for creatives called Place and Possibility. Both were well done and we knew he'd come up with something cool
       He did.
       He named it IMAGO: self portraits w/ disposable camera. The idea came from a chapbook he created called I & We You & I: self portrait w/ disposable camera. For those who don't know what a chapbook is: "a chapbook is a small book or pamphlet containing poems, ballads, stories, or tracts. The term is still used today to refer to short, inexpensive booklets." ( His concept for the evening was people would come to the gallery and have the opportunity to have a portrait Tricia would take with a Polaroid camera in any pose they liked. They would also have to somehow hold or pose a small disposable camera in their portrait. Their posing was supposed to be personal and expressive of how they see themselves. Then, periodically, Brad would read from his chapbook. 
       To create a buzz, Trey McCain and I went out on Main Street with handbills to entice folks to come and see our gallery. We encountered young and old. Some were not gallery-hopping; others were, and many we handed handbills to actually took us up on our invitation. Our trudging around paid off.
       When people came up into the space they had three opportunities. The first, was to sample the wonderful food, some of it gourmet, we put out for each reception. It's part of offering quality and enhancing their overall experience. People ate. Ben, the street guy, piled a plate 3 inches high at it's apex. The second, was the chance to hear Brad ably read poems from his chapbook two times an hour. People sat and listened. They responded appreciatively. Their feedback was that of interest and connection. The third opportunity, was to sit for their picture in their preferred poses.
       Those who participated in the evening said it was fun and different. We loved the fact they joined in making the IMAGO collage of Polaroids. Some were playful. Some were reserved. There were couples and individuals each expressing a visual notion of who they are, or how they wanted to be seen in the image.. There was even a triad of friends.
       We were so glad Brad and Deb Davis were with us. We always are. They got to see Brad's creative idea enfleshed so to speak - the creative word blended with the created image making strangers collaborators in the imagineGALLERY space. Simple gestures and evocative word images married. Tastes and sounds and images all working together to create a simple happening for a few hours. It felt good.
       Equally important was people came into the space who'd never been there before. That led to conversations about what imagine is. No one ran screaming from the building when they discovered imagineGALLERY was an effort of imagine/Northampton, a church. Their assumed categories were altered a bit, I bet. We like that. Challenging cultural assumptions, and doing so with unexpected dollops of grace builds a human bridge.
       We like that too. A lot.
       Who knows how this EXPERIMENT will morph over the next months. We hope it'll create relationships, offer support for artists, and reveal that "church folk" can be about community or cultural activities which don't seem or look very churchy. In other words, what if people could let down their guard a bit, enjoy some art together, and perhaps, just perhaps, have a conversation about eternal things without everybody getting all weird.
       We really like that!!!