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Friday, May 31, 2013

Empathy: Brokenness Sojourning Near Brokenness.

Over the last number of months God has made me aware of a deep wisdom. He's kindly let me see that when people are their most human they've let their brokenness sojourn empathetically with the brokenness of someone else, staying near physically or emotionally to gently and respectfully comfort, encourage, and heal. They've drawn and stayed alongside of someone else's heartache, sin or shame to lend a compassionate ear or hold out a lifting hand. Such people do so until others heal, strengthen, and get back on their feet.

I like this definition of empathy: the ability to see oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. The operative words for me are imagine and understand and other. Experiencing your own painful brokenness enables you to come near another's wretched messiness because you know what it feels to be lost, alone, overwhelmed and ashamed. I used the word sojourn to capture the idea of staying in place, abiding for the time that is needed. Empathy comes near, even if haltingly at first, but it watches and listens at the level of the heart for find the human connection which acts like a bridge to the other heart. There is freedom in empathy because we lower your well-used defensiveness to help bear the burden of another who bleeds and cries like we do sometimes. We see a person rather than as a stranger or, worse, an enemy.

I know for many of us it feels counter-intuitive to see our brokenness can build a bridge to someone else's. Brokenness is failure and shameful, maddeningly so. Am I not supposed to be cleaned up before I should even try to wipe the blood, sweat, and tears off you? I'm positive I'll be no expert for your pain or fear. Plus my brokenness is dirty and ugly. Being broken is not an asset or a tool. It's to be locked away. I have a persona to protect and a dignity to preserve.

When we are at our least humane (marked or motivated by concern with the alleviation of suffering:) we instinctively distance ourselves from human brokenness: ours and theirs. Leave the mess to someone else better qualified or who has the time. Distancing can also be locating ourselves above the human condition, thinking thoughts like: "well, I'd never do that, or "I'm not like him," or, "Sure, I'm not perfect, but at least I don't [fill in the blank]." Pride hates brokenness so it puffs up and papers over reality from a distance. When we indict the brokenness in other people, we lose humane sight and empathy shrivels. Pride is also a deceiver of the first order, an enemy of the heart, really. Accepted brokenness confounds and deflates pride. That's good.

I think empathy is most humane when it sojourns near brokenness of another because it knows the loneliness of unyielding brokenness which fills a person with shame and fear. Someone who's come to grips with his or her existential brokenness learns to defuse the corrosive heart cancer of shame because brokenness is the human condition. No one escapes it. And such a person sees parasitic fear for what it is, a sleight-of-hand charlatan that requires a willing participant; one who'll agree with only one way of looking at a threat or a problem, and accepting immediately it's going to turn out bad.

But when I let my brokenness come near that of another without judgment or lame platitudes, I offer them the freedom to drop their guard and accept help. And if I stick around beyond the initial helping something miraculous takes place: the person I help loosens a grip on self-sufficiency, opens to grace, and learns the freedom of being given what they need with no strings attached. Both the giver and the receiver display a kind of nakedness here. No pretense or illusion of self-sufficiency pervades this transaction. I'm coming near you as I am, or you're coming near me as you are; no one is superior. No one has it together; there is just connecting in the place of brokenness and need. This time it's your turn to receive.

The real deal is to stick with it when brokenness is not healed, or relieved in a reasonable amount of time in the other. I've had varying degrees of success with this. The good news is I've been made aware of my limits when it comes to sojourning with someone else's brokenness. There are limits, although I think most of us abandon the helping well before we have nothing left to give. In my work I've had a few folks with whom I could see no way to go any further with them. I had nothing left to give including my frayed brokenness. I was empty and rattled. Sojourning would have left me seriously wounded and in danger of deepening my brokenness too far. So I see a boundary. Each time was painful and they've been a small percentage of all the folks I've sojourned with. I wish the percentage was zero. Not in this world.

If you're reading this I'd like you to do some soul-searching and see where your limits of empathy are. Look to see if you have short limits and why. Ask God to show you.When he does, ask him to help you extend the boundaries so the wisdom and grace you've learned from your brokenness can sojourn with others more deeply when the Spirit picks you to get involved. Also, where do you refuse to let folks see your brokenness so they have little awareness of your need for them to come in close. where do you live in the illusion of self-sufficiency? Where is pride your guide in this illusion? 

A sober understanding of our brokenness is a reality to be explored and gift softening the human heart and creating the possibility of empathy in us. people who learn to let their brokenness sojourn with the brokenness of others discover an uncommon freedom.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I wonder if the "brew" requires a "container" that looks, and works nothing like a container?

As I explore the shape of my spiritual unsettling I'm brought back to the understanding that the locus of our life is we're all "in Christ." If we know him as  Reality there is a fathomless union of great mystery we share with one another even if we don't apprehend it from one day to the next. Our union is spiritual and organic; eternal and now; seen and unseen. Christ has knitted us together as brethren, including those who came before and will come after until the new heaven and the new earth are joined in eternal liberation.

This "mystical" but real-time union has the power to make porous the "containers" we're so used to, and open us to our common filial heritage and identity, I think. Our discreet spiritual communities are part of a relational tapestry which reaches into eternity, but ties us here to brethren all over the earth, one Body in many countries, intertwined  and "led by (his) cords of kindness and bands of love." (Hos. 11:4)

I bet for most of us if we really thought about it, the notion we're tied in union with Christ, and in family together has more the character of a spiritual platitude than a lived out reality. Our divisions are legion - everything from theology to spiritual practice to politics. Such differences have served for centuries to "contain" our individual spiritual and church identities, for all intents and purposes working to sequester us behind walls of our own crafting. Sometimes in the history of the Body of Christ we've even killed over spiritual and theological convictions of purity and practice. Our containers fostered hatred with heads held high.

I realize there've been substantial issues to clarify and resolve in the history of the Church, but in those resolutions we suffered collateral damage in the sundering of the Body into Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, Methodists, Episcopalians and Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Church of Christ, Church of God, non-denominationals, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers,  Calvary Chapellians, the House Church movement, missional Jesus-followers, and on and on. Even with some denominations there is further splintering over sectarian jots and tittles, all held with great fervor and a keen sense of righteousness. Notice I included "churches" many would consider cultish, and perhaps they are. But all of them see they are living the proper and true Christian life. Many might even extend the same distinction to most of the others on the list, but how much reaching across the table goes on, I don't know. I know some does.

The point I want to make clear in this post is life in union with the Holy Spirit is the "brew" I keep referring to. The Holy Spirit needs no "container." Jesus has made us justified to God through our faith and we have peace with him. (Ro. 5:1) Through grace and by faith, we are at peace with God, and he sees us as dearly loved children called to live a life of love. (Eph. 5:1) Such a life of love not only must extend into our communities with folks who do not follow him, but we must begin to love our brethren who attend the church up the street, down the road, or across town. I know there are differences  we have to recognize and more than likely will still disagree over (Oh, that church [smirk]), but if we shelter in our own faith community, we miss the opportunity to create common ground, and learn how to have differences, even substantial ones, while rallying around what we all hold dear or feel convicted about. It's not been tried much as far as I've experienced in my 40 years.

I'm also talking about more than being ecumenical. I'm talking about being brethren, unified passionately in a suffering world where we need to take the astounding resources God has given the Church on earth, pool them as the Spirit summons and directs (which he will more than we realize if we let go a little) and get on with feeding plus equipping the poor, drying the tears of the rejected, rescuing and enfranchising the oppressed, protecting the tyrannized while proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor to all who will listen. I don't believe God created the church to divide and stay in our containers until Kingdom come. They can't sufficiently contain the "brew" (no more than a 8 oz. glass can hold a 16oz. bottle of stout in one pour) of a Holy Spirit who will fulfill the redemptive Kingdom mission through the Church everywhere, including some churches you and I might be betting against that such a thing would ever happen.

Here's my question: what if we decided to ask God to forgive us for all the ways we've been willing to settle for the acceptable containers of our own churches. What if we repented and came out from behind the walls to reach across the table and forgive one another for choosing separation because of "irreconcilable differences." What if we dedicated ourselves to pooling resources: people, money, creativity, ideas, spiritual and natural gifts, time, buildings, etc. What if mature, courageous gracious, and irenic leaders from every flavor church in the neighborhood got together to humbly listen to God for a period, and then reach across the table to pursue what God has summoned them to. What if we learned to hear why our brother or sister took a position which seemed so irrefutably wrong? What if we listened for the heart animating the choice and chose to build a Kingdom relationship anyway?  What if we let God sort it out and got on with fiercely reflecting Jesus to the world on our watch?

I know it's hard to "fellowship" with folks we feel are so egregiously in error, but is anyone defined solely by one set of ideas if you scratch below the surface? I know we can be wildly stubborn even contentious when we're right (on both sides of the ecclesial table, by the way), but there are epochs in the history of Man (yeah, I know I used the masculine pronoun for both male and female, so sue me) when a deeper, maturer and more grace-soaked wisdom and love is required. I believe we are in or heading into such times. Even with theological and social and political differences we can serve Christ as he pursues the least of his brethren and the most stubborn of his errant people. Sometimes miracles occur when we just say the meagerist of yes's to him; "I'll go if you'll make me able."

We know full well what it's like to walk apart. We've had centuries of that. What if we found out what it was like to walk together with those on the other side of the table who are willing to walk with us?

We're going to need to do that, mark my start now.

If you didn't notice by now, the "container" I'm referring to is not frangible, but fluid and unseen. The Holy Spirit is like the wind, it: "blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going." He can't be pinned to the mat, kept in a box in the drawer, or contained in any one church or denomination. He blows through walls we erect. He goes where we'd rather look away. He's a friend of sinners, including those who offend or trouble our delicate spiritual sensibilities, including other Christians.

When we unite to be guided by the Spirit our "containers" become porous and permeable. We begin to look human and inviting. The broken and bent over aren't afraid of us or ashamed because of their failures and faults. They can glimpse Christ, many for the first time because our containers don't keep them out, and our containers don't block our view of others engaged in following the same Spirit, but not exactly as us, the true believers. I suspect the Spirit is calling us all to follow him together rather than maintain our own spiritual territories, pedigrees and positions on the issues of the day. We might even trust each other a tad. Can you imagine? I'm just beginning to.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Taking My Morning Constitutional To The Florence Community Garden.

For the last 18 months or so I've been working at developing the habit of walking and occasionally running. Some of it is for fitness sake. Some of it is for spending time with Tricia and helping her get fit. Some of it is for prayer. Some of it is just because it feels good.

I usually walk in the early morning, before sunrise in the fall and winter; at sunrise in the late spring and summer. It's a good time for moving about and for praying. Nature entices both from me. Also, being a life-long, card carrying member of the Introverts Club, I like being out when the place is not crawling with people.

Tricia has been in Ventnor for 4 days with her mother. I told her I'd check on the garden plot we have at the Florence Community Garden: It certainly doesn't need watering with all the rain we've had, but we wanted to make sure seeds were coming up, seedlings were developing, and the weeds weren't taking over.

We're a one car family, so she had the car. We'd been talking about what'd be like to walk there, so I mentioned I'd go today. There 's a system of paved rail trails I can join right near where we live. The leg to Florence, northwest of downtown Northampton,  is called the Norwottuck Rail Trail. A sign on the trail let's me know it's about 2.25 miles there; so about 4.5 miles total, give or take. Very doable.

So at 6:15 I headed out. The sun was up; the skies showed bright blue, the air was calm, and humidity was very low. The temperature was 47 degrees, so I had a light sweatshirt on.

The trail is flat so there's no climbing of any sort. It works it's way past the backs of houses in neighborhoods, intersects streets, and takes you through woods, and past wetlands. You can see all sorts of dams and culverts for flood control, some of them quite old, I suspect. Beaver dens are visible as well from the trail. The birds were out in force, singing and flitting about in the trees; getting breakfast. There weren't many folks on the path with me: an occasional biker, a woman walking her dog, 3or 4 of joggers, and that was it. During the week it feels there are more.

I was able to use the time to pray and enjoy the exercise in the beauty of God's Creation. I wasn't sure how long it would take to get to the garden as we've always driven, but the time ended up being an hour. I'm not sure if I'm a slow walker - I don't think so - or it generally takes an hour on foot. But once you get to the center of Florence, you cross Route 9, and it's just a few minutes up Meadow Street to the fields where the garden is. The walk there is pleasant too.

To my delight, the garden is doing very well despite the rains. It wasn't a wash out. However, there was a hand-made sign on the gravel road giving access to the middle of the garden saying not to drive in because it was muddy.  No matter, virtually everything we've planted is either coming up from seed, or growing well. Some of the flowers already are budding, and the tomato plants have flowers too. Nothing was eaten. The weeds aren't of control, and it looks pretty much as we left it. So far so good!

I only stayed for 10 minutes or so. I called Tricia and let her know how things were, then headed back to the ranch. There's some weeding to do, but we'll get to it later in the week.

I have to say I really love the fact Northampton is a great place to walk, or bike for that matter. People have put thought into taking advantage of the land around us for exercise and constitutionals. They're also quite respectful of the natural resources around us, so no one wants to abuse the land. I think many here would not miss if cars and trucks disappeared from the landscape. Still, it's a pleasure and a grace to be able to get out in the early morning to walk and sojourn in the simple natural wonders given us. I've found a physical rebirth of sorts by being able to get out and get going. So has Tricia, although she's always been much more of a mover than I.

Doing the garden thing has also returned me to an earlier time when Tricia would plant and I would do the maintenance, especially the weeding. I like weeding for some reason. I guess it putting things back to order or clarity, otherwise chaos reigns, and the planting work prior is wasted. For me, there's a meditative aspect to weeding and cleaning. I remember reading of  women in China or Korea who'd assiduously pick up litter or clean outdoor spaces daily so they were virtually wiped free without a speck left behind. There's something beautifully humble, comforting and prayerful to me about that. It's almost a proper showing of respect to God and blessing our brothers and sisters by keeping things clean and in order. Maybe they were forced to do it, but I know God noticed their work.

This summer we want to walk more (and run), and if God so blesses, be able to purchase bikes. We'll see. I know I'll be making the trek back to the garden on foot again ... and beyond.  It's worth the trip for all sorts of reasons I don't even recognize yet.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

5 Years In: Helping People Discover and Follow The God Who Is Far More Than They Imagine.

This morning we had our monthly LifeLine Sunday where dedicate the bulk of our time to exchanging thoughts and questions about the sermon series we've been working through. In the course of the conversation, I got to thinking about how much we've changed since Tricia and I moved here 5 years in July. As I've said before, it's one thing to sit at the CFR or Jim's house in Simsbury and conceive of who'll we'll be and how we'll go about being missional followers of Christ in Northampton, and another thing to actually live the flesh and blood adventure every day.

So, one of the questions Jim asked was how we've overcome the trappings of cultural (read non or extra-biblical) Christianity in our lives, especially those which separate us from people who aren't Christian because our church culture is so foreign, even off-putting, to them. I assure you this was not a church-bashing time, just a chance to hear how we might be evolving.

When I heard the question, I realized so much of the way I now live my Christian identity has changed:

1. To start, I can no longer separate the missional life from my spiritual life. I've learned so much about how we're supposed to live with people who do not hold or are downright antagonistic to our beliefs. Being missional is being biblically Christian, and I mean more than going on a mission trip, being evangelistic sometimes, or occasionally inviting someone to church. It's a mindset and worldview lived 24/7. It means surrendering the rights to our lives and following Christ into the communities he's placed us to reflect him to others that they might discover and follow him, if he summons them. My spirituality now includes missionality. They are intertwined.

2. At first, we all thought we needed to have a really creative Sunday service that people would come to because it was different from "normal" church. Of course, we assumed non-Christians would be open to going to something like that.Um ... WRONG! Talk about naivete (and I'd read some stuff that made the case it works - well, not in Northampton). We now see church gatherings are for Christians steeped in the language, traditions, assumptions and culture of church.They reflect commonly-held theological worldviews and spiritual practices. We can't imagine how bewildered people might be in stuff we could participate with in our sleep (and sometimes do). So the idea that our worship would be a "front door" approach to building relationships with non-Christians was just wrong. I know there is a time when inviting someone to church for the first time is appropriate. But in that case, a relationship of trust has been built, and things can be explained without embarrassing the person.

3. Next, we knew we had a responsibility to help the poor and homeless. So we served at the Interfaith Shelter (still do), did FEAST two Easter's ago, gave away Christmas gift bags to folks on the street, gave them food, clothes, hats, blankets, money and rides (occasionally). All of that was good and needed. Most of it was built on what's termed transactional relationships, i.e., I give them something they need and that's it. We had a beneficial impact, but no real relationship was built,. In fact, everyone knows the street dance; it's almost a culture here. None of it to my knowledge has been really helping them discover the God who is far more than they imagine. Such transaction become very frustrating for m after awhile because there appears no poverty transformation in transactional relationships. It's a step along the way perhaps, but not freedom in Christ which is what we offer.

4. For a long time now, I've known that if I'm going to be a real Christian I have to be willing to go into the mess of others' live as well as my own. For years, my experience of emotional healing, and my work as a counselor, retreat leader, and spiritual director has taken me way beyond where I thought I'd be able to go. I've seen human suffering far into tragedy and back. I know for a fact the wages of sin is death of all kinds. And I'm intimately familiar with my mess, including sin. Truth is, the missional life is intertwining my broken humanity with the broken humanity of others.We have that very much in common, no matter our beliefs or life history. My challenge has been Northampton is a different world for entering into the mess of many folks here who understand reality in ways I find foreign and vice-versa. Healing necessitates we both need to drop our guards and listen at the level of the heart. God is a healer; first at the deepest level of being, then in all other matters of life. I know that full well. What I don't know enough is how to enter into the mess of people who don't trust my intentions. I'm a work in progress there.

5. I recognize these days I have to be more discerning about whether, or how God is already working in someone, more sensitive to the evidence of a heart being influenced by the Spirit of God. I've been inviting him to teach me, to take me deep into spiritual noticing. I want wisdom which helps me recognize reality and respond with grace. It's not so easy for a guy with ADD, I'll tell you ... but not impossible. My longing is before I leave the planet I'd have found the manifest freedom to respond quickly with gentle alacrity to someone God is enticing to discover him, and be of use to them both. Wouldn't that be something.

6. Here's a tricky one, at least, it's felt that way to me since I came to the Paradise City. Soon after arriving, I had a pastor in town tell me imagine/Northampton would be defined by one question: how we'd handle gay marriage. How we answered that determined whether we'd alienate an entire group of people in this city or not. Right there he set a dividing line. It's never left my consciousness. These days, however, I feel the nudging to reach across the table and build relationships with Christians who share a different theological stance than me about many things. Some of what divides us are genuinely, and deeply held core convictions. Regardless, the Holy Spirit is hinting we need to learn to live with that and get on with the Kingdom miracle. To be honest, it scares me a little in that Christians can and do easily divide over spiritual differences. I suspect we throw the baby out with the bathwater when we do so. I don't know many minds will be changed, but I'm convinced we need to band together where we see a greater good, and pursue Christ as he continues to redeem people. I don't know if it's possible in some instances, but I bet not all, and I'm willing to try.

7. Perhaps the biggest way I've changed has to do with realizing how narrow I've been regarding what it means to be a Christian in this culture around us. I know in the depths of my being my identity and sense of self has been altered inextricably. To walk away from Christ would be to walk away from REALITY, in other words, madness. I am Christian at every level of existence. So, what I bring to everyone is that view of life. To not do so, would be to bifurcate my being, a spiritual schizophrenia so to speak. At the same time, a persisting fear of mine has been that if I relax and just be a person with others, I'd gradually morph into an agreeably nice guy who keeps his "light under a bushel" to fit in or get along, and not make anyone uncomfortable with my "rigid" Christianity stuff.

The thing is, I remember when I was a full-time jazz musician in Connecticut, I played all sorts of gigs with  people who would mostly refer to themselves as non-religious, or as some poetically put it, "I'm not into that sh__." Of course, they'd apologize profusely, I guess thinking I might faint right on the spot. I hung out and got along. I was asked a few times to explain my beliefs and one young bass player came to Christ. My point is there was a time when most of my early Christian life was spent with non-believers. I was myself and so were they. We agreed to disagree or just left spiritual things hanging to get on with what we were pursuing together. I didn't compromise and betray what I said I believed, but I wasn't heavy-handed either.

I can do this because I did it. Well, there is the little matter of being an introvert, but that's for another time.

I don't want the narrowing that happened because I spent 20 years at a retreat center working almost exclusively with Christians to keep me from building relationships with whomever. I want to engage others with me, and let them engage me with them. All I have to give is me. I realize too, some of us will click and perhaps have the chance to do life-changing Kingdom work together because we all care for the hurting, the dispossessed, the defeated, and the buckled-over people around us.

Therefore, helping people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine feels simpler in one sense. Because God draws people to himself, I just need to be myself and see what transpires with others as I have a chance to get to know them. No expectations, just paying attention, and being at the ready to share the magnificent hope dwelling in me.

So we're not so much about a model anymore, and more about just being people who realize other people matter to God, and we have a chance to show that by being ourselves, and trying to enflesh the reality of God's forgiveness and love to them genuinely. If we can humbly live the truth in all its multifaceted beauty to show forth wonder and freedom, others will be able to discover and follow him.

I wonder what the next 5 years will bring if we continue on here?

Friday, May 24, 2013

I Wonder If There's a Way to Be Diffuse, But Deeply Together and Unified When Not Together.

Given we Christians are supremely acclimated to being centralized in our local churches; much of what we do together, we do at or in church. It's our spiritual base, so to speak. Psychologically, it settles us in a shared locational identity as I mentioned in my previous blog: do understand the church is the people, not the place, but we can blend them emotionally without too much effort.

Lately as part of my "container not fitting the brew" metaphor for the church and the Kingdom mission of incarnating the gospel to the community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I've been thinking of what it would look like for the church to be diffuse, but unified. Here's what I mean: what if folks who gathered together in a particular church learned how to be on the same mission in unity even when they were apart: in their homes, with their families, at their jobs, in their neighborhoods, in their schools, or going about their errands and other commitments in life such as school sports?

You see, as Americans we're well-trained in being discreet individuals free to pursue our own dreams, carry our own responsibilities, follow our passions and spend time doing whatever captures our interest or fulfills our sensibilities, including spiritual. We're invited to be all we can on our own, or with whomever we choose. You have to take responsibility for your own life and make of it everything you can. That's the American Dream so aim high and have it all!

So we're out there scrappin'. Problem is, we have little or no sense of communitas, or a profoundly shared mission. We're not self-aware that we are a missional team even though each of us is engaged in different daily pursuits. You have your life; I have mine - we just happen to be "members" of the same church on the corner. We intersect in various ways, but not because we apprehend we've been called to the same mission, and are expected by God help each other fulfill it together and apart. Who does that?

If we were aware that we're a missional team, we'd be gathering to talk about what God is doing in and through each one of us. For instance, we'd all be praying for one of the guy's at Joe's work who's showing an opening to the Gospel, and checking into see how it's going. Or Penny is experiencing a substantial uptick in spiritual warfare because she's prayerwalking in her neighborhood. I don't know about you, but folks don't routinely talk about that or "own" their shared mission because we think individualistically. If we are self-aware that we're a missional team, we'd also be routinely praying together for the Holy Spirit's strategic direction in our town through each and everyone of us. We'd be listening for instruction and focus together. We'd practice the challenging work of group discernment, and learn how to listen to one another talk about what each senses God says is where we're to head out. Our hearts and minds would be knitted together, not just gathered under one roof. The purpose would be to take action individually and corporately, but unified in one heart under the leadership of the Spirit.

Then, Sunday morning worship (the centerpiece of most churches) would become a festive gathering of fully enfranchised and focused followers of Jesus Christ who come to celebrate, testify, encourage, be taught, and worship the goodness of God because he is making a difference in and through us all. We could become acclimated to the reality he still is bringing and creating the Kingdom. In such a free and joyous atmosphere people would find it strange to be a disconnected spectator or passive religious consumer. It wouldn't fit the setting even for introverts.

The reality is we need a sea-change from the church of individuals (no matter they be Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, independents, etc.) to a communitas of disciples graciously, but deliberately helping one another (no one left behind) be the Kingdom in their communities that others may open to Christ, (their true Liberator), know his Gospel (their true liberation), and become one of his own in this world (their true humanity). Our individuality then turns to a common end, each of us engaged and bringing gifts which fit the task we've all embraced in our neighborhood, town, city or regions. Such a community elevates what it means to be a person to the most noble of tasks: sowing, and nurturing the seeds of healing redemption in another person.

This sea-change starts with leaders persistently casting (initiating and living themselves) an inspiring vision of communitas in their local churches so they might live the life of an empowered follower outside the church's walls. The picture must be painted lavishly of a people summoned by Christ to follow him into the neighborhood, a people with gifts too important to leave in the sanctuary. Soon after, leaders will start to sit with each person in the church, and hear their stories of life with Christ, or their stories of woundedness, failure, disappointment and fear - what they actually experience of him. For some, they will need to offer healing and forgiveness, but also the possibility of a purpose-ignited life with everyone else. At some point in the journey to communitas, leaders must make powerful calls to abiding prayer, and the patient creating of a spiritual atmosphere where people can seek the Holy Spirit (not as mere individuals) to summon them  in the missional adventure the Father has set for them. People will also need to be trained how to discern where God is already working in the community around them, and then how to engage so they can listen to a person's heart in their story. In turn, they'll need to learn how to listen to the Spirit as they engage people. Discernment is key here too. This overall refocusing will require courage, a sense of humor, and a clear-eyed longing to see the church redemptively fecund in the community around it. The leaders have to have the same attitude of Martin Luther when he stood before the Pope and averred: "Here I stand; I can do no other."

This sea-change will also necessitate looking closely at the culture of the church to see where it's set up to promote maintaining the status quo where church-life is mostly life at church, a spiritual feeding-trough, hospital, and way station with teaching. Remember, I 'm suggesting we create church communities where our following Christ is individually spread out through the community, it's diffuse, but unified, single-hearted and single-minded. We are deeply together, linked even when apart because our idea of church is a focused spiritual organism with an eternal purpose and we want to be a part of it. Each of us carries in unity with our brethren the church under the leading of the Spirit; one body, but all of us pursuing our commonly-held mission with Christ our inspiration and fructifying Leader. And we'll be aware of what others are doing as each works with God in their "mission-field,"; one for all and all for one. What my brother or sister is up to with Christ is what I'm doing too.We still meet together, for sure, but not because of habit, rather because we bring stories of the transforming power of God to change lives through ordinary people like us. They become our stories. We've sought and we've seen him be God on our watch and it's wonderful, maybe even more than we ever imagined.

Do you believe it's possible?

I do.

In fact, I think it's supposed to be the normal Christian way of life, the biblical way of life. But as I just wrote about my blog just before this one, Christians and churches have this unexamined tendency to coalesce spiritually, ecclesially, and missionally. They get stiff like an old man. Pretty soon we're all walking in place spiritually and it doesn't seem so bad. We don't even know what spiritual fluidity is like or why it's crucial so we settle and congeal.

Again, I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm just finding my way in this, so I need all the help I can get!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Breaking Free From the Unexamined Tendency to Coagulate Spiritually, Ecclesially, and Missionally.

I'm just beginning to formulate what is percolating in my head and heart these days as I respond to the unsettling I feel. If it's like similar unsettlings over the years, it's feels initiated by the Holy Spirit. He wants me to begin something, change something, or re-look at what I'm doing. However, I always must be careful because of my motivational design to make an impact by exploring and going beyond. When it's just me, I head down rabbit trails or wander around as if I lost my best quarter.

Nothing results.

Time is wasted.

The wind gets chased.

My title for this blog is from the first question I posed from my last blog: When the Container Isn't Fitting For The Brew. Questions About Church: question really addresses how churches can lull easily into an unexamined holy huddle, a community unto itself where most of it's energy and resources are directed inward.  The church - "the called out and gathered ones" - is gathered in one place: a church building where much of its communal life (worship, fellowship, programs and ministries) is lived out. Unless people go regularly to the location they eventually lose touch with that community because it's where we connect with each other most frequently, the exceptions being missionaries sent out, college students, or the elderly and infirm who can't make it to the church building. The central location shapes a common identity and culture, but it also narrows our focus on one another in a way not meant by God, I think. In a funny way, we are the church who go to church.

Now it's true that when not "at church", Christians are supposed to practice certain spiritual disciplines, namely prayer, contemplation, study of the Scriptures, "fellowship" in a small group, having the brethren over to the house for dinner, or lending a hand when other people in the church need help, etc. We do practice such disciplines in varying degrees of frequency depending on spiritual maturity or a natural proclivity for such things, like study , for instance. They are vital practices for spiritual growth, but spiritual growth for what purpose? Internal cultural expectation also determines how much we pursue such disciplines

By the way, lest you jump the gun by assuming I'm in some fashion advocating not meeting together at all, I'm not. I agree with the writer of Hebrews who warns we should not neglect meeting together, rather we should use such times to encourage one another, and stir up one another to love and good works. Notice in this one text there is both and inward and outward focus implied. We meet to be the church in relationship to our God, one another, and the world (read community) around us. We are Christ-followers sojourners, citizens of another transcending, eternal Kingdom, who for a time are gathered together to help each other surrender our hearts fully to God Jesus and mature toward picking up our crosses and giving ourselves away in love and service. As we grow, we're also summoned to join him in the redemptive mission he has called each and every one of us to undertake through our deepening knowledge of TRUE REALITY, using the gifts we've been entrusted with for his glory. Ours is a cause to die for.

The question I'm asking with this post concerns what I view as an unexamined tendency of churches over time to coagulate spiritually, ecclesially, and missionally. The word coagulate is often used biologically as having to do with the clotting mechanism of fluid, especially blood. To coagulate is to cause to change or be changed from a liquid to become viscous or thickened into a coherent mass. Another word which expresses my idea is congeal: to make or become fixed, as ideas, sentiments, or principles. In other words, that which is liquid solidifies into a fixed, cohering form; the liquidity congeals rather than "exhibits a characteristic readiness to flow." Applied to church life these words capture how gradually our church cultures become embedded, even calcified in patterns, routines and assumptions which become in and of themselves. They can avoid scrutiny because it's just the way we do church together. And we're pretty sure its fine if we do so, in fact it's probably the the right way to do church.

When coagulation and cohering occurs, we congeal communally. Our fixed points of reference create a sense of order and normalcy; it's church, our church. We know what to expect and can even run somewhat on autopilot because we know the script so well; it's been the same for years. Few surprises. Why change what works, right? Nobody seems to notice or asks: "Well, how come we always do it this way and not that?" Or, "I know we've been doing this thing for years; it's our tradition, but why does it have to be exactly the same, done at the same time, in the exact same way?" I know it's because we're comfortable with what works for us. Comfortable looks good in a world increasingly uncomfortable for many these days. We like the Christmas Eve Service done the same way our predecessors celebrated it. Prayer should be on Wednesday night. Everybody will be lost without a bulletin. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Some definitions in terms:

I. Spiritual Coagulation is essentially congealing the spiritual life into fixed practices and disciplines which fit us. For instance, having a quiet time, or reading the Scriptures, or listening to Christian music. Each practice  settles to rote if we're not careful or resourceful - and sometimes even if we are. We're edified by these practices, for sure, but I also know I and others go through "dry" seasons when nothing seems to pop in our spiritual lives. Some of that is normal and needs persevering until the spiritual "Spring rains come." Such persevering through the arid places is essential to maturing. 

In community, we practice certain spiritual disciplines together and they become are featured in our shared spirituality. They're routines we support, and connect us to God (they certainly can and do), so we assume their merit. But, they can become "going through the motions" fairly quickly unless we often check our hearts to see what level of intimacy we have with God. Doing the stuff is not necessarily an ever-deepening desire to know and love God. Passion cools and habit supplants it gradually. The problem is we lose hold of  a genuine relationship. He desires us to get to know him for a lifetime, not know about him as a silent partner in our spirituality. Christian spiritual practice must flow from loving God and his ways in my opinion. Men and women differ in how they express this love (affective and intellectual), but spiritual intimacy is characterized by it. Spiritual coagulation can seriously deaden the capacity for wonder regarding God. For instance, I see this in many people who can't remember if or when God showed affection toward them. Even the idea he'd do so is foreign. Wonder is quieted by dutiful habit.

Breaking free from spiritual coagulation is spiritual fluidity. Fluidity is the physical property of a substance that enables it to flow. Flow can be defined as: "the action or fact of moving along in a steady, continuous stream." It implies movement, momentum, direction and continuity.  Spiritual fluidity can be defined as a property of the believer to move toward God, move with God (being enabled to follow; keeping in step with the Spirit), move out from God, i.e., to have a relationship with "the Transcendant Other" after he graciously revives our hearts and opens our eyes.  

Spiritual fluidity is the dynamic of learning to discern the Presence and quiet voice of the Spirit in real time. It's gradually, but earnestly coming to discern the movement and directing of God in circumstances, then recognizing his leading. The disciplines and practices we use are only intruments to tune the heart and mind. They have little efficacy beyond their potential for opening discernment and connecting with the living God. Both obedience and freedom flow from opening to God. Fluidity moves and searches and explores and experiments. It even leaps into the unknown as God beckons from a whisper, or a grasping of Truth. Faith fortifies spiritual fluidity, not mere routine or comfortable rituals. Breaking free to be spiritually fluid means extending our reach, and grasping for more of God, always at the ready to see wonder break in, or love to show up to still our fears, ravish our hearts or fortify our faithfulness. Spiritual fluidity breaks us free from tepid hearts, but regular attendance on Sunday.

II. Ecclesial Coagulation is the unexamined tendency of churches to gradually codify and cement their spiritual experience and cultures into structural, operational, experiential, and theological formalism. Ecclesial formalism can be defined as an unexamined or "excessive adherence to outward form at the expense of inner reality or content." In other words, unexamined, embedded rituals, ecclesial presuppositions, and traditions stultifying a careful, but creative, responsive freedom to explore fresh ways of worshiping God, or expressing church culture, or doing ministry (inward and outward focused), or being followers of Jesus in a world awash with spiritualities.We turn experience of God and thinking about God into procedures and methodologies, which eventually tamp down the impulse to come empty-handed to God for reviving and inspiring. And I do mean empty-handed with no agenda but to worship and hear from God as to his desired, but fluid shape of things.

I am not anti-theological discourse, anti-scholarship, or anti-liturgy. I've just seen how we can set in stone what was meant to be expressions of a particular people at a particular time as they wrestled with what it means to know and follow the God who revealed himself and called them to relationship. So I've never seen it fitting to identify myself through a particular denominational affiliation (I was baptized a Catholic, spent 2 years at a Methodist church, 20 years at a Presbyterian Church, 7 years in a non-denominational house church, and currently 5 years at imagine/Northampton, a missional church plant), or theological position ( I affirm parts of reformed theology, Orthodox theology, and free grace theology), or spirituality (I'm charismatic, missional and contemplative). I've been most comfortable over all these years referring to myself simply as a Christian, or of late, a follower of Jesus.

Breaking free from Ecclesial Coagulation is Ecclesial Fluidity expresses our on-going, fluid discernment of the indwelling and vivifying Presence of God through the work of the Holy Spirit who also summons each church to join him as he already works in the neighborhoods, communities and outward relationships in which we're placed. We follow him in prayer; we follow him worship; we follow him in ministry because we know him, and we've come to recognize his voice and his ways. He's alive in our individual and corporate midst. Reality says if our God is utterly free, and utterly committed to his redemptive purpose in all creation, he is already on the move and at work, so we must walk past our boundaries to keep in step with him, including our ecclesial containers and routines for life together in His Presence. There should be a freshness in our seeking and finding him, an expectation in our gatherings, a newness which can include ancient or traditional forms and responses to God, but not as if we're a franchise serving the same "happy meals" week in and week out because "it's what we like and do at" First Baptist,Wesleyan Methodist, Holy Trinity, St. Cyril, Holiness Tabernacle, Christ Presbyterian, Crestwood Community, or The Cool Missional Church With The Cool Missional Name.

Ecclesial Fluidity also means thinking of church as a regional body rather than each individual church as the primary focus of our attendance and attention. What if we went deep into to bringing down our barriers and combining resources (spiritual and natural) for Kingdom work in the region. What degree of Kingdom difference could we make if we combined strengths? Could it be at all possible to work through or set aside our theological differences, acknowledging we see things differently theologically, socially or politically, but are allied around helping the poor, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, binding up the broken-hearted, and breaking down walls of fear-soaked hatred with love pointing clearly to Christ and His magnificent Kingdom? Why shouldn't we join together to listen and pray, to brainstorm and share resources, to combine our best thinking and our greatest strengths in helping each other be the the Church in our community. What if we built on what we hold in common, no matter how meager? It'd be a good start. If people saw what binds us, they could overlook what separates us; perhaps we could too.

I realize this reaching across the table would take some very determined work toward building trust. Mistrust, outright fear or anger toward others fuel our separation repeatedly. I acknowledge there may very well be irreconcilable differences in some areas of long-time dispute, but not in all. We need courageous and wise peacemakers who know the barriers well, but fueled by the Holy Spirit, labor tirelessly to open fresh ways of engagement so the Church can make the Kingdom real to an increasingly agonized and fracturing world. We will be known by how we love one another...or not. So could we learn to say, "I'm convinced you're wrong about that, but I love you anyway. Let's get to work." We could learn to challenge each other to think differently, but with unflinching grace and humility, even a sense of humor with an eye toward shared mission. Sometimes we all just get our divides ridiculous, wouldn't you agree?

Perhaps, if we did our work, someday we'd see our gifted communicators teaching and preaching in all our regional churches as needed. People would be free to participate in the body life of more than one church not because it's better at ABC Church, but because they're building relationships and offering their gifts to other believers. We'd not be so stuck on membership, rather we'd talk about communitas. Churches would share ministries and ministry leaders to build up the entire Body of Christ. Sometimes, depending on what might be needed, people could spend longer periods to help solve ministry problems or train others in certain needed skills. We could share resources such as our best creative ideas, problem-solving, money, buildings, equipment, ministry teams or program materials. We'd unleash the creatives, dreamers  innovators and strategic thinkers to imagine a better community. Maybe we'd have town-wide celebrations, regional service initiatives, or joint worship gatherings as a matter of unity the town could witness. The sky's the limit.

No longer would we maintain individual "territories" or "limit" God by trying to own what we've been given to give away.

III. Missional Coagulation is the unexamined tendency to codify the missional mandate at the heart of what it means to be the church in particular communities. Already, there are a pile of books and conferences outlining what it means to be missional: everyone is a missionary, disciple-making is the engine which drives the ethos of the movement, small organic communities are the best "container" for the "brew" of the Gospel mission; replication of decentralized missional communities is an ecclesial preference; ecclesial structure and life together are incarnational (not attractional), and informal; leadership is shared; scripted worship is not the centerpiece activity of the community; the Holy Spirit instructs the group toward the mission it's given, etc. Already the rules of being and engagement are articulated and formalized. Being missional is becoming a method. Strategy becomes ontology.

Breaking free from Missional Coagulation is Missional Fluidity. Here too, the Holy Spirit is key to achieving such fluidity.

Roger Helland in his blog The Holy Spirit and Missional Church ( ) explains it this way: Paul encouraged that “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).” The Revised English Bible translates it this way, “If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct its course.” We cannot keep in step if we don’t live by the Spirit. “Living by the Spirit is the root; walking by the Spirit is the fruit.”

To live by the Spirit is unnerving yet exciting, full of tension yet peace, with strange yet wonderful outcomes. We are open with unbridled expectation for Him to move, urge and guide, by obedient and risky faith fastened to the Father’s agenda. Clark Pinnock draws the example from Jesus, “The world did not set the agenda for Jesus. People could not predict what he would do next, because he had no plan but sought what the Father wanted. He did not operate from a program. Need alone did not constitute the divine call. He waited for God’s urging and the Spirit’s guiding.” With all the discussion about “being missional” (which I agree with), we must spend as much time discussing “being spiritual” where being missional and spirituality are vitally connected, where the presence and power of the of the Spirit ignites, spreads, and feeds the fire of mission. I call this a “missional spirituality.” Don’t you long for a practical theology for an empowered missional church? Perhaps we need to recover that missional-spiritual stream of vigorous Pietism that called for “pious desires” and “the deeper life” in union with Christ by the Spirit.

I agree. Missional Fluidity is all about following the Spirit who is creating opportunity in people around us and inviting us to join him. That joining starts with praying and asking for the ability, again, to discern what he is doing in folks around us. We can certainly explore missional models in the world, and read all the seminal thinkers writing about the missional church. But in the end, we must stay in close relationship with the Spirit, knowing his ways from what the Scripture says about him, listening to his voice in prayer, and having eyes to see his effects on the people he has summoned us to love in the Kingdom. Such fluidity is spiritual and alive in real-time. In my life with God I've seen many people quit this intimate relating to the Spirit because of fleshly abuses and the fact that we don't always hear and discern him clearly. Mistakes are made, or we just fall into confusion, feel stymied , then quit. I think we make a big mistake by not persevering in humility and earnest desire to know him, so we can keep in step with him. I know there'll be many twists and turns along the way, but missionally congealing into models, methods and fixed strategies is too high a price to pay.

I'd love to her what you think about this. I'm learning and being drawn toward change. In my next blogpost I'll address my wondering if there's a way to be diffuse, but deeply together, and unified when not together.
Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

When the Container Isn't Fitting For the Brew. Questions About Church.

Over the past number of months, I've been feeling a blanketing flatness.

I know it's not depression because I suffered that in the distant past. I'm not dead inside, just not intrigued by most of what I spend my time on. As soon as my rhythm of life is dominated by the managing of the routine, and predictable I fade to flat.

The worst part of it is I'm seriously not motivated by nature to administer an operation. I can do it, but not with much spark or acuity. I make sloppy mistakes, feel overwhelmed more often than is comfortable, and sometimes just flat bored.

As I've said before in my blogs, I'm most alive in the starting from scratch, what-if-ing, exploring, creating, conceptualizing, laying-the-foundations, and launching phases of an enterprise. Helping things come into view and take shape has always been invigorating, sometimes even mesmerizing. As soon as the effort solidifies into a life unto itself needing persistent managing, I wilt or begin to look out the window to wonder "what else?" Horizons always entice me.

Don't get me wrong: imagine/Northampton mostly keeps its head just above water. It's not as if it's self-sustaining or running on all cylinders. God is faithful and people care. There is life within our community, but nowhere near communitas, in my view. And there is much still to do to inculcate a true missional life in each one of us. Some are more missional than others; no one is opposed to it in our group.No one is an exemplar, including me.

But I wonder if the "container" we've unwttingly let evolve over time actually fits the missional "brew" we've said we want to make since we're nearly 5 years years into our Northampton sojourn. One of my abiding fears has been that Christian community can very easily take on a life of and for its own. We naturally develop, or by previous-codified design, implement a culture which defines how we do just about everything together, and it begins to look like church even if you have a funny name, and use marbles in your Sunday worship. By the way, I use the word church in the sense of a group dynamic which solidifies into predictable practices and norms with a life of their own.

What happens is that even if you're a small church, activities together need to be managed. Sunday worship takes center stage; projects need coordinating; people need to resources for spiritual growth. There has to be ministry and ministry leaders. Somebody's got to take care of all the background details and logistics (and they can be like swarms of gnats), or stuff falls through the cracks and the established routine is jeopardized. Everything becomes about maintaining the expected and the status quo. It just does. The structural expected and corporate status quo slowly can train most folks into sleepwalking missionally. That's not good.

So I wonder.

I wonder if there's a way to break free from the unexamined tendency to coagulate spiritually, ecclesiastically, and missionally?

I wonder if there's a way to be diffuse, but deeply together, and unified when not together.

I wonder if the "brew" requires a "container" that looks, and works as nothing at all like a container?

I wonder if there's a way to be a movement without an address?

I think my blanketing flatness is because I know intuitively the container does not fit the brew. And I think I have a notion of what might. I'm going to work on it.

TWiNE Artists' Reception and Opening Night, May 10, 2013. WOW!!!


Yehudit Shadur - Cartoon Design
Tamar Shadur  - Tapestry Adaptation

For the past few weeks Tricia and I have been mentioning to folks we are very excited by the opportunity to host the weavers of TWiNE (TAPESTRY WEAVERS in NEW ENGLAND) in a group exhibit they entitled "a piece of TWiNE". Tricia had been in contact with Tamar Shadur who created the tapestry above. She and her husband, Bruce, had come to our gallery exhibits a few months before. She and Tricia struck up a conversation about the possibility of the imagine ART Gallery hosting an exhibit in Northampton, their first here. Many of the women of the guild reside in New England, but not all. There were 8 of the 13 showing in the exhibit with us last night.

So with great anticipation on everybody's part, it became a reality. To be honest, we had no idea how many folks would attend. The weavers had sent out invitations as did we. Additionally, we put flyers around town, sent emails from out email list, put the exhibit on our Facebook page, and put in a call into the Arts person at the Hampshire Gazette. We've done 6 exhibits so far, and each has been different in terms of attendance. Some of that had to do with people not knowing we were here; some of it had to do with preference as to the type of art people like. Some of it had to do with being somewhat invisible. We have a shoe-string budget for advertising, and we've never done a gallery before.

Well...I have to say all of our expectations were exceeded last night, and then some. By all accounting, we had over 150 in attendance.One person estimated almost 200. If you've been to the space, you know that means we were packed in like sardines at times- indeed, we were! In fact, it didn't really slow down until after 8:30, and then we got a second small influx of people for a bit. The entire experience was amazing! And exhilarating. People, young and old came up the stairs to see the exhibit, and they lingered to talk with the artists, some were friends and family;  some just wanted to meet the artist and inquire about what it took to weave such wonderful work.Our gallery was alive with people engaging one another over what they saw on the walls, and I know the weavers were delighted. I hope they made many connections which will result in sales of their remarkable work.

Eve Pearce

Another lovely reality was we recognized return folks, a number of them. They.reminded us of an earlier exhibit they'd seen here. Some who came, talked of imagine's being the best gallery in town. And they all raved over the food again! No one's offering refreshments at the level of quality we've offered since we began. If you know Tricia, that's a prerequisite, a core of her creative sensibility. Another delight was the fact there were also a number of artists in attendance, and if I'm right about someone I recognized, this person is world class.

And last night we had chances once again to introduce people to imagine/Northampton, the church with the funny name we planted here almost 5 years ago. It always tickles us when folks find out who we are. They get a surprised look on their faces, because outwardly we don't really look like a church in terms of a building or liturgical accoutrements, etc. That's by design. So when we get to talk about who we are and why we're in Northampton it's always a great pleasure. I don't mind gently poking people's categories about Christians and churches.

So while last night's exhibition and large attendance was a smash, I need to also say I've been around the block enough times not to assume because we had such a magnificent turnout last night that some sort of real momentum was created for the gallery. When you've lived a substantial part of your life in the arts you're familiar with having your hopes dashed, or setting unrealistic expectations because of a particular positive experience. Then again, I also don't want to appear faithless, because I'm not, far from it. So such a turnout might signal a certain new identity in the community, or a little traction toward what we view the purpose of the imagine ART Gallery. Then again, last night will turn out to be a highpoint on a long climb toward establishing a credible identity as a gallery of note. The latter is more realistic. No matter, we were thrilled with last night, want many more, and will work toward seeing them happen.

 Julia Mitchell

I won't soon forget last night. But the long and the short of it is we at imagine/Northampton want the gallery to connect with the artistic community and the entire community of Northampton. Seeing so many in our space just felt right. We want people to know we are Jesus-followers who seek to love and serve folks in all sorts of ways, one of them being the imagine ART Gallery where we can beautify our little corner of the town, and help folks know we are a missional community by the way we show grace, joy and intelligence. Our gallery is not the only way we do it,but if last night was a harbinger of things to come, it'll be one of the key ways.

Remember this phrase: missional hub. I'll be writing more about the concept in the days and weeks to come as we get a better read on what such it might look like for us.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Gallery's Abuzz Right Now With The Hanging Of Tapestries!

I'm sitting here waiting for a client, but for the last 2 hours the imagine ART Gallery has been abuzz with tapestry hanging. Three of the TWiNE (Tapestry Weavers in New England) weavers, Tricia, and a very able helper have been measuring, a-fixing, eyeballing, questioning, conferencing, then scrambling up and down ladders to hang 36 tapestries. The entire process is just wonderful to observe. I know nothing of weaving tapestries, but the minute the possibility of hosting an exhibition named "a piece of TWiNE" became a reality I've been excited.

For the last week, tapestries have been showing up in boxes, rolled cardboard. or wrapped in linen like a hotdog casing. Tricia took down Richard Hawley's Dreamscapes photography exhibit earlier in the week, and our gallery looked a little like a warehouse with drums, cymbals, a bass amp, a ladder, and tapestry containers all over the place. The space had a feel like a theater backstage with props and equipment waiting for the next show to materialize.

I have to say it was fun listening to Tricia collaborate with the artists as to what would be the very best placement for each piece of work. They had to be hung just right to showcase the shapes and colors meticulously woven into being. Light had to bring out each work just so. The folks doing the hanging were making important decisions for the weavers who weren't present - that's trust ... and serious responsibility.

As a musician who's been a contributing member to all manner of rehearsals, and has played hundreds of performances from stadiums to living rooms, I just love the anticipation of putting a performance together. So much potential lies waiting to be tapped. People feel a hope for what might materialize and how the audience will receive it. These artists are no different. They've spent hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of hours producing their work, and it's to be shown, so they want the presentation to do high justice to their creations. Set up is not throw together. Set up is more orchestration, visual choreography. It's never merely "hangin' a picher" in the den.

I'm also enjoying the congeniality evidenced in the collaborating. Everyone was in good spirits. They seem to freely offer ideas of what should go where. Later they sat and took a minute to eat dark chocolate together - a weaver's pre-show tradition? I don't know. All of them added something valuable to the setting up. It felt they liked being together. If there were egos colliding it was very subtle.

The long and the short of it, you just have to come and see the exhibit! Our walls are ablaze with fabricized color. The tapestries range from being from smaller to larger. Each weaver's style, color palate, textural sensibility, and subject matter is different as you might expect, but the variety holds one's interest on every wall. You can see evidence of substantial skill and care from each piece. It's a pleasure to see.

The exhibit will be up until June 1st. But I need to say it's fun to come to Northampton, get a bite,  then visit all the exhibits around town. There is often much to see. Many people come in town so there'll be street energy galore. We're anticipating the largest opening night Artist's Reception we've had to date. So join the party!!!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Community Gardening in Florence, and Baptizing in Paradise Pond at Smith College.

New birth and new life is always riveting, isn't it. Most people like the aliveness of promising new beginnings - so much potential, so much possibility in the process of watching life unfold and flourish.

I experienced both last week: a garden at the outset of the week and a baptism at it's end. Both were refreshing and loaded with promise. New beginnings fit me like a glove motivationally. I'm always most alive in the exploring, creating and launching.


A week ago today, Tricia and I drove a short ways up Route 9 to Florence. Imaginista Trey McCain had secured a plot for the church. It's a great way to meet folks and grow fresh food for the needy which is our motive. So we were  heading out to prepare the beds and begin the planting. Trey had already begun his planting in the plot adjacent to ours. He's been doing this sort of thing since he was a kid. He knows a ton about it. He told us of Permaculture farming, and using what I always considered as useless detritus such as stumps, cardboard and weeds, as  beneficial fertilizing components. Fascinating stuff.

Being able to do the garden in Florence was also a special treat for Tricia who loves nothing better in the Spring than to get her hands in the dirt to plant gardens with flowers, herbs and vegetables. She planted and maintained six gardens at the Center For Renewal where we lived and worked in Simsbury for 20 years. No matter where we lived, she cultivated some sort of garden. Even our apartment today has flora abounding. I'm writing in the midst of it. A year ago, we had one on the roof!

So Tricia, I, and imaginista, Jenn Swick began the afternoon by learning the ropes of community garden etiquette, (such as don't step on anyone else's plot!), where the tools and materials (tools, wheelbarrows, mulch, and loam, etc.) were located, and what needed to be done to get going.

Tricia did the planting on a bed already prepared by Trey. Jenn and I dug many wheelbarrows full of mulch and dirt to build up the next beds. I laid out rows to mark where we'd put the beds  - not always a good job for me, but I managed to get it done. It went smoothly and I think we all enjoyed seeing and working with each other in this setting. We'd not done it together before .

We worked for a couple of hours and then went over to Trey and Amelia's (they live right nearby also in Florence), and had a lovely dinner, courtesy of Amelia. Trey brought out a jasmine beer he'd been working on. It was delicious with the brightly colored and tasty food Amelia made. He loves to experiment with brewing beers, and he's quite creative. The dining experience was a fitting way to end the evening.

Beyond the happy experience of hanging with imaginistas, and doing something worthwhile was the new experience of doing a community garden. Tricia and I had never done that before. We didn't know just what to expect.

Soon, I ran into Steve, who, apparently is sort of a fixture at the garden. He's always warm and friendly. I'd met him the first time we visited the site. He's easy to talk to and a gentle soul. There were people around us beginning to prepare their plots and plant. Others were already ahead of us in getting the initial stages done. Everybody was helpful if we needed it. The entire experience just felt good and alive. It felt right to do.We seemed to fit right in.

Notably, while we were there the first time, there were two killdeers going to and fro intently looking for a place to nest right near our plot.They were very  engaged in their search, looking for just the right spot to birth their young. Last Monday, when I arrived I noticed they'd planted a nest about 10 yards to the south of us. When we got there, both the male and female let us know this was their homestead. Soon though, after they determined we seemed no threat, he took off (in search of food?), and she settled onto her eggs; all the while keeping an eye on us just in case. Love it!

I also love the fact they were bringing new life into the world and so were we. We would prepare the growing soil, plant the seeds, and tend to the plants as they took root and grew to be what they're supposed to be. Then, we'd harvest the fruit and give it to folks who don't get to eat much fresh, homegrown food. IN turn, the young killdeer parents would hatch their brood, tend to them, then release them to continue the life of being killdeers in God's Creation. Planting, birthing, cultivating, then harvesting- we and them, side by side serving God.


Yesterday, was a different kind of birthing, but perhaps the most profound. From reading this blog you'd know I've mentioned we have had the privilege over the last few years of getting to know Smith College students. Imaginista Crystal Fryer is the IV Staff person on campus, and has been with us for three years or so. She's encouraged young women to come and see what we're about. Some have stuck. One of them is a freshman by the name of Angela.

A few months ago, Angela said she was ready to be baptized and wanted to do it at imagine/Northampton. So yesterday we did just that. She is our third baptism and the second we've done at Paradise Pond on the Smith campus. I wrote about Nhung's baptism at the end of the semester last spring. Each one is a sheer joy as we get to see new birth into an adventure and mission of a lifetime. It's a genuinely-felt privilege for us to be at the beginning.

We had imagine worship together earlier, then met at one for the baptism. The day was brilliantly bright and sunny. The air was warm, but the water was still very cold - toe-numbing actually. We gathered at the boat ramp, Jim set the stage, we prayed, and Angela shared a little of how she decided to be baptized. After, Jim and Crystal walked with Angela into the water. He asked her two questions about if she was ready to follow Christ. She said "yes" and they baptized her. When she came out of the water we all applauded. Crystal said a few words of what it's been like to be a part of Angela's life in the last year, and then we sang the Doxology. A round of celebratory pictures were taken, and we headed back to have lunch together.

It was simple in form, but the meaning of new birth into Christ is far from simple and never loses its allure. We witnessed a mystery wrapped snugly in a plain gesture of faith, individual and corporate. It's interesting to note that as we baptized Angela, two women came by in a canoe. They slowed. I'm not sure they knew what was going on, but they turned and spoke to each other as if they'd stumbled into something intimate. Indeed it was; intimate and public.We wanted it that way. 

I'm not sure whether, beyond we doing so last year in almost the same spot, anyone else has been baptized in Paradise Pond. I hope they have. It's a lovely place for the Kingdom of God uniquely to alight for just a few minutes  testifying simply without pomp and circumstance to the astounding Kingdom of the God of new beginnings, new birth, and new life everlasting. 

So we had a week of planting and baptizing and birthing. Kingdom stuff both. Good stuff. Rich stuff. Life-giving stuff in more ways than one.