As things have settled for the most here in Shutesbury, I've had a chance to start reflecting on what it meant to be able to live in the center of town on Main Street for five years. While folks have heard me say before this church planting adventure we embraced was one of, if not the most challenging, exasperating, even bewildering (at times) ministry effort we've ever been a part of, it also was exciting, fulfilling and full of delightful surprises. They demonstrated God's blessing to us. We had the privilege of experiencing new ways of connecting with folks, new ways of serving others and getting to meet lovely people who express pleasure with what imagine was about.
While I have some regrets and realized how frightfully naive I was about the challenges I'd face, I want to celebrate some things we did as a church plant which were very meaningful. I'll talk about the regrets in my next post.
Here are a few of the most notable to me.
1. Feast: Feast was the first major event we did to connect to the community. Our idea was to connect with townsfolk, especially those who wouldn't have the opportunity for an Easter dinner. We wanted it to be extravagant so people could experience the lavish love, grace and hospitality of the Resurrected Christ. So Tricia came up with an exquisite menu. We raised funds from folks mostly not from our church, and received all we needed to put on a magnificent spread. We had many volunteers from other churches to serve food and take care of our guests. They did a marvelous job. Chef Eslie made exquisite desserts. We had gifted jazz musicians Kris and Jen Allen join Jim and I to play as people were eating. Then, Michael Kelly Blanchard shared his unique style of musical story. People feasted and were blown away by the beauty of the tables, the remarkable quality of the food, and the way they were treated as honored guests. The volunteers serving were astonished by how well it was done and they had the chance to be a part of it. The Lord was very good to us.
2. Halloween: This was an unexpected surprise for us. We figured we'd have a few kids and parents trudge up the stairs 4 years ago for our first attempt at connecting with families this big way. I thought all the businesses on Main Street would be pulling out the stops to give kids a fun time, so we had loads of candy to give, took free pics of the kids in costume, had a crafts table as they waited to get their picture to take home, and offered various refreshments for the parents. We were mobbed! People were telling others they had to go to that imagine place because we were doing way more than any of the other establishments in town. We ended up doing 2 more Halloween events just like the first, and people remembered. Some even brought the pictures they'd had on their fridge to show us. It was just a fun time for everybody, and again people who volunteered made it a special time for the families. We'll miss that, but are grateful for "stumbling" into another means of being over the top to open people to God's unmerited favor.
3.The imagineART Gallery: What unanticipated pleasure and joy it was for us to launch and do the imagineART Gallery. We'd never run a gallery before. I was especially taken by how good Tricia was at creating the atmosphere for the space, getting the artists, hanging the work and putting on, by far, the best fine dining spread on Arts Nights Out that anybody had experienced - we know because so many told us that was the case. Some people were actually astonished! God allowed us to become a destination with a reputation for outstanding art. We were able to support the artists by having some of their work purchased. Most importantly, the gallery was by far the venue where we connected with people from Northampton and beyond. They knew or quickly found out we were Christians and our space was also a church. It made for conversation, a few uncomfortable moments and the meeting of many wonderful people, artists and otherwise. Most delightful for us was the fact we got to give some of the art its their first individual show and it inspired them to press on as never before! While it was very sad to have to say goodbye to the entire adventure, but are grateful for the opportunity.
4. Meeting and getting to know some remarkable young women at Smith College: Another very pleasant surprise has been the opportunity to meet, get to know and even baptize 2 Smithees. Many of them belonged to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at Smith, but not all. Remarkable about them is how bright and vibrant many of them are. They have a can-do attitude. One of them (Crystal) even served on our Leadership Team before going off to grad school. Some have helped with worship (Hannah, Angela and Angelica); and others have joined us serving at the Interfaith Shelter. Others (Nhung and Angelica) participated in our first Cohort. Getting to know these young Christian women as they prepare for careers and service has been a unique delight. We're not sure it will continue as we have no permanent home right now, but if it was merely for a season, we were blessed just the same.
5. Making friends with vibrant people in town: Because I was "cloistered" at a retreat center and most of the folks I knew were involved with the church where the retreat center was, or people who came for counseling etc. I didn't connect very much with anyone else for the most part. When I came to Northampton, I began to get to know people of different spiritual views or no such views at all. I got to know Christians with differing theological bents. Most were much more political than I. Regardless of all that, I was graced with new friends; many of them uniquely interesting, funny, kind, brilliant, creative, quirky, even fascinating. Their thoughts and opinions challenged me to contextualize what I hold to be fundamentally true in the world of ideas and beliefs around me. All of them are engaged in what matters to them. They have integrity. A few are very funny which always draws me. Some have become friends we don't ever want to lose.
6. Working with talented, loving and gracious Christians: Whether it was an arts event, a project to serve the poor, or people who have graced the doors of imagine and hung around for awhile, we had and still have the privilege of working with Christians of substance. They tend to be full of grace; people of goodwill who are dedicated to serving others. Beginning with the team of folks who came up here from Simsbury and people who joined us later, we have been loved well. God has sent smart and gifted people to our community, whether they stuck around for long or not. Also, I need to say we've had faithful donors who have for years always cheerfully and with grace given to our work. We have an accountant who is generous and smart as a whip. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty to help us. We've had a Board who've always been willing to help and have graciously put up with my introverted quirkiness by offering counsel and help when we asked. and I can't say enough about the current Leadership Team of Tricia, Jim LaMontagne, Kevin and Janet Williams all of whom are dedicated to imagine/Northampton and it's Christian life and Kingdom mission. Each one is a treasure. I need also to not overlook Karin LaMontagne who pulled up stakes with Jim to come up here and has made many sacrifices to stay the course. Her friendship, gifts and influence are of the kind that doesn't seek the spotlight while blessing others, which she does in her own gracious way.
7. First times and new experiences: Some of this I have written about, but I need to mention it again in hindsight because, in hindsight, I saw each one as as gift even if they ended in loss or failure. Here are just a few:
- Launching a missional church.
- The privilege of leading imagine's first person to Christ.
- Doing my first baptism, participating in another, and observing another.
- Participating in co-officiating my first wedding.
- Meeting and serving homeless people and chronic addicts.
- Helping Tricia launch and operate an art gallery.
- Being a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
- Working at the Interfaith Shelter.
- Helping plant and cultivate the FOG Garden.
- Speaking to a Town Council Committee about the Open Table.
- Playing with One Flight Up.
- Handing out Christmas gifts to homeless on the streets.
- Being seen as a pastor by others.
9. My spiritual growth: If you've followed the blog, you've read about the challenges and hardships I've had to face. They increased with each year we were in Northampton with the last two being the toughest. I could actually write a book about how I've grown through it all, but it will have to wait. For now, I want to mention two of the most important ways. They are related. They are faith and trust. So much of what we've experienced has been exasperating, even bewildering at times. I had very high hopes which seemed to be frustrated increasingly as the years went by. Certainly, I was naive about the substantial spiritual and practical obstacles we would face, but believed deeply, and still do, that we have an important mission to accomplish concerning grace, forgiveness and navigating mutual brokenness with love because of what Jesus did for us. In fact, as I've become aware, the result of having experienced all of it has yielded a more robust trust and faith in God's love regardless if I end my days in failure. I abhor failure, but I trust God's wisdom about what He asks me to endure, let die or persist through. I have a more vigorous faith if I can say it that way. I'm grateful for His love toward me through training me to believe and trust regardless of the messages to the contrary my experiences were sending.
For awhile now, the enduring question I hear from Him in the quietness of my heart is: "Will you trust Me anyway?" I have so far answered "yes." May He help me keep it that way rain or shine; life or death. Sometimes His love comes in ways we prefer to dash past but might cause us to rejoice in when our world is finally set to right.