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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Experiencing The Fine Freedom Of Listening Yesterday.

I have been practicing listening prayer for almost 30 years. Twenty of those years were at the Center For Renewal in Simsbury, CT where we lived, raised a family and served the Kingdom of God. Yesterday, I was once again at the CFR co-leading a Klesis Listening in Christ Immersion Retreat with Tricia.

In the morning I took time to listen and journal; the two spiritual disciplines go hand in hand as far as I'm concerned. I've made it  practice to do so every time we've led a retreat since moving to Northampton in 2008.

Yesterday while journaling what I was hearing God say to me, I noticed something striking about a difference between practicing this most intimate spiritual discipline here and when I'm so doing in Northampton. Let me give you a little feel for what listening prayer is often like for me in Northampton with a few notable exceptions. Most of the time, I feel as though the "spiritual air" is jammed with static; not much is getting through without patience and persevering. It's often just a struggle to focus enough to detect the "still, small voice of the Spirit. Having fairly challenging ADD doesn't help, but I brought that deficit with me from Simsbury. I didn't "contract" it in Noho.

Occasionally, what God says to me flows rather smoothly sans the struggle, or I'll have a short season when the dissonance seems at bay. More often, I begin a time of listening not knowing if I'll be able to hear from God because it's just a struggle here. I know God will speak as He will speak, and when He chooses to do so; I don't assume He's at my beck and call. But a consistent difference between what I experience here and in Simsbury at the CFR exists.

Specifically, the last few years while leading retreats there I begin with a question for God and it feels as if the pipeline just opens. I don't have to labor-- His words seem to flow freely and the gaps are few. God speaks to me there not as a flood, but as a steady stream, recognizable s from Him and without me having to labor.

As I thought about it I wondered if perhaps my apparent "ease" of listening has to do with the CFR's decade's-long focus on  prayer, contemplating who God is; seeking Christ and His ways, listening to Him in the Scriptures and the Spirit, and last, but not least, consistently desiring and teaching intimacy with Jesus. I know this of folks still there who carry forth this work with passion and dedication. I've been privileged to serve with some of them as friends and gifted partners in this work. Such a desire to know Him intimately as much as we can, and serve His Kingdom ways appears to influence the producing of spiritual fruit and life.

I realized yesterday as well when praying has settled over a particular location for many seasons, peace and passion for praying abides. It's as if prayer "saturates" the spiritual atmosphere much in the same way that for rain to fall in a particular place, it has to saturate the air with moisture. Then, there is the notion in communities around the world that God seems to set apart certain places as wellsprings of prayer and Presence. While I know His ultimate abode is not settled here and will not be until the new heaven and the new earth are joined once and for all (Revelation 21 & 22) after Christ puts all dominion under His sovereign rule, there is consistent evidence of what the Celtic Christians termed "thin places" where it seems His Presence lingers and fructive spiritual life springs forth for a period, maybe even decades. Whatever the true dynamic proves to be, I find a consistently settling of mind and spirit when I'm at the CFR Retreat House and sojourning alive and well without dissonance, drag, and struggle for a bit.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Spring of "Awakenings" in the Barren Higgledy-Piggledy.

(definition: higgledy-piggledy in a confused, disordered or random manner.)

Those of you who've been reading my sparsely posted of late blog will recall I have been going through a pretty rough patch spiritually and emotionally. In spiritual direction terms it has felt a time of desolation with small oases of consolation to varying degrees. Tricia and I have not liked it to say the very least. I have lived a higgledy-piggledy existence since late January because a variety of problems and pressures crowded in. We've had to walk through maddening confusion, and wrestle with a forlorn barrenness pervading and interrupting our peace. And our hope endured a persistent whittling. At the same time, I must say this barren higgledy-piggledy caused us to fight back with prayer, talking to people we trust, and grasping onto faith as if a life raft. We weren't passive, we were just plain worn down by the relentless dissonance and building uncertainty.

To my delight, last night I experienced a fresh spring of awakenings liberating me spiritually! This unbinding refreshing came in the form of Linn Bower's Artist Reception at the imagine ART Gallery and Northampton's Arts Night Out. I knew her work was special as Tricia hung it masterfully in the gallery, and we could live in its midst for a few days. There is a gravitas to her paintings, a settled "Old World" feel lending a serenity to our space.

Linn calls her exhibit Awakenings. Without overstating the case, I think, both Tricia and I realized as we were talking about what happened at the end of the evening that our resolve to keep the gallery rather than leave Northampton was awakened. I haven't been able to embrace God wanted us to close up shop and head out from here. What helped spark our awakening was when our landlord and his wife came into the gallery (I had invited him because he's an art collector and Linn's work fits genres he collects) and was blown away by the number of people there: what he heard them say about the gallery, including the professional quality of Tricia's and Eslie's food; the sheer energy in the space as it filled, and the quality of the art. People without prompting often say not only this is their favorite gallery, but it consistently, in their opinion, has the best art in town. He left saying we must keep this space, and he would help us find a more affordable space for us to live. What landlord does that?

Both Tricia and I could see through the barren higgledy-piggledy at the end of the night. The imagine ART Gallery is the most impacting missional "outreach" imagine/Northampton currently offers here. There were a few people short of 200 guests with us last night. And, even better, more of them are asking what kind of church we are. Jim LaMontagne was "corralled" by Linn and a few of her artist friends. They peppered him with questions about the church.  Another friend of Linn's told Tricia he was amazed by the sheer grace and hospitality he saw poured out, including how she handled an inebriated and homeless man we know who came up for the food. He saw Tricia treat him gently and respectfully, but with authority as well.

You really would have to hear what we hear now all the time about the imagine ART Gallery. It's unlike anything we've ever experienced. Remember, many if not most of these folks would not call themselves Christian. Many are spiritual, but do not embrace Christ as their Savior or Lord. Yet, He is moving them in the space through art and His Presence. They know it's different and they know we believe. It blesses them because they tell us; they don't it's Him. Sometimes this all feels a little surreal to us, but we are excited by the possibilities which seem to be opening

In sum, I can't say with absolute assurance the joyful awakening we clearly felt last night is truly a Kingdom breakthrough, but we know we felt a subtle and palpable shift forward as if a spiritual barrier had been breached and our many, many prayers for deliverance since January were beginning to be answered. I certainly hope so because we've been pretty tired and discouraged feeling as if we were going to have to endure a substantial and costly failure at this stage of life. We long to stay the course with this mission in Northampton. I have never felt right about leaving now. I've told folks I feel as if I'm being forced by an unseen and evil adversary, and against my will. Imagine's Leadership Team  has had consistent dialogue over what to do. I have felt something is just not right even when a reasonable assertion  would be "it's time to scale down, cut back, and move on." Inside I'd being screaming "NO!" No one else on the team really wants to have no presence in Northampton. We're all just trying to discern the handwriting on the wall if it's there. I don't believe it is, but I know we must grow and become sustainable practically.

The barren higgledy-piggledy stems form the stress, frustration, and confusion which abides as a result of imagine's recurring need for more income to flow in consistently, i.e., more billable work for me (double it), and more imagine donors, including patrons of the imagine ART Gallery (triple it). The church needs to grow to triple it's size as well to be consistently sustainable in Northampton.We have had very faithful donors since we've been in town, even before, but they can't uphold this mission on their own. Also, if Tricia and I can't pay our bills our entire lives would be about stress, even terror.

At any rate, it feels wonderful to feel fully alive and last night awakened us a bit to just that. Yup, there is much to do, but we have renewed energy to do it. Especially if God has opened a way to proceed. I earnestly desire it to be so.