As A.C. Casinos Fall, Can Local Churches Soften The Blow?

Image via Press of Atlantic City.

I was visiting my parents in Somers Point the other day when the news broke that Trump Plaza would send out notices informing its 1,100+ employees that unless someone buys the property by mid-September, the casino will close and they will be without jobs. This makes Trump Plaza the fourth casino, including Showboat, The Revel and the Atlantic Club — which shut down in January — to announce plans to close. All told, Atlantic City is looking at losing approximately 7,000 jobs in about a nine-month period. That’s about 20% of the casino job market. There’s still the possibility that someone may purchase some or all of the properties, but even if they do, there is no guarantee that the new owners will keep all of the employees or even operate the properties as casinos.

As I was driving home to Massachusetts, I spent a lot of time thinking about the impact these job losses will have to the region. There’s the obvious economic impact, of course, but more unsettling to me is the human impact. My sister-in-law shared that her neighbor across the street is a plumber at Showboat and has been for some time. While he is fortunate to have a skill in a trade, not everyone will be so lucky. And just because he has a skill, that doesn’t mean work will be readily available or that stress and anxiety will be lessened. These layoffs will be disruptive to the local economy, to families and to neighbors. So that got me thinking: What is the opportunity for the local churches?

Light in a Time of Darkness
A lot of the discussion about the lost jobs will be in the context of economic impact in the region, as it should because the effect will be significant. But we must remember that in the midst of the numbers of jobs lost and negative economic data are lives of real people with families and real needs. Could this be a significant opportunity for the local churches in the area to step up and meet a need that corporate Human Resources departments and local government simply cannot meet? Some questions for local churches to ponder are:

  • Can we be a resource for people experiencing increased stress and anxiety and fear due to impending job loss? If so, how? What does it look like?
  • Can we be a resource to the corporate Human Resources department? HR folks will be overwhelmed dealing with the practicalities of managing large layoffs. Employees will be looking to HR for information about severance, health care costs, etc. For those folks needing help with emotional and relational impacts of job loss, there will be some employee assistance program support, but a lot of times that work is outsourced by the company to a third-party EAP provider who sometimes isn’t even local. But what if a church stepped up to fill the gap? What if congregation members were equipped to meet these needs? How can HR folks find out out about this help?
  • Are we equipping the members of our church to meet the needs of neighbors and family members impacted by the casino closings? What does that look like? How will they witness in these challenging circumstances?
  • Are we prepared to meet physical needs? Do we know the resources available in the region so that when people have physical needs we can guide and direct them to get those needs met?
  • How are we using the resources we have to meet the needs of those who need them most? Is the church van spending most of the week parked in the church parking lot? Are we utilizing our space effectively throughout the week?

The reality is that the South Jersey economy hasn’t been great for a while. Casino revenue peaked in 2006 and has been trending downward ever since. I know through conversations with folks in the area that people using local food pantries has increased. So it looks like things will get harder before they get better.

But when things get harder, that’s often when God’s presence is felt most. I’m reminded of when the Israelites wandered the desert for forty years. During that time, God’s presence was always with them — a cloud during the day, a light at night — and he met their physical needs by feeding them with food out of nowhere.

I see this impending hardship for South Jersey as another opportunity for God’s presence to be felt in a significant way if the Church is willing to be the vehicle through which God’s presence is felt. I doubt it will be easy and I’m sure churches will have to put some conventional wisdom aside. But I also think this is an opportunity for the Church to engage and transform communities in a profound way.

I hope so, anyway.


“For God So Loved the World . . .” And Still Does

I recently finished reading N.T. Wright’s “The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential.” It’s a great read and helped me connect with the Psalms in ways I haven’t before. It also got me thinking about the scripture in John 3:16, which begins, “For God so loved the world . . .” While the rest of verse is known by most believers and many unbelievers, it’s those first six words on which I’ve found myself contemplating and reflecting.

Wright’s book looks at the Psalms as God interacting with the world. He examines God’s  jettyinteraction with the world from three perspectives — time, place and matter — and he does a great job explaining those perspectives using the Psalms themselves. But what struck me is trying to understand why God would want to interact with the world in the first place, and that’s what brought me to the beginning of John 3:16 — For God so loved the world. It also has caused me to think about what that means for the world today, which has led me to these conclusions. For God so loved the world . . . :

He hasn’t abandoned it. So often I hear from people — believers and non-believers — that God is too busy or too big to concern Himself with the details of day-to-day life, especially the details of my life — what I’m doing, the choices I’m making, whether or not I’m happy, content, successful, etc. (I recently saw an episode of “Modern Family” where this topic came up.) Fill in the blank. But this seems contrary to me. Why wouldn’t the God who “so loves the world” not take an interest in the details of what’s happening in that world? Why would he sacrifice His son for the world and then choose to abandon it. God cares. He’s interested. When we begin to live from this perspective, then the day-to-day things have the potential to take on new meaning and our perspective on our lives begin to change, too. God didn’t bail on the world 2000+ years ago. He still loves it so. I do believe God is interested in the details of my life. And because I do, I can talk to Him about it, solicit His wisdom and guidance and choose my path accordingly.

He will redeem it. Believe it or not, there is a perfect state for the world and everyone in it. We get a glimpse of it in Genesis, before sin enters the picture. God created everything and it was good. And then sin corrupted it. There’s lots to get into from a theological perspective on all of this, but the point that stands out to me is God’s promise to redeem the world and put it back to its perfect state. I find hope in that, especially when things happen in the world that are bad and evil and it seems the world is beyond redemption. For God so loved the world, He will redeem it when Jesus returns for good.

What Wright helped me see, in this case through the Psalms, was God’s interaction with the world he created. I have no reason to believe that God’s heart for the world has changed. For God so loved the world, he made me. And you. I think that’s pretty cool.


When It Comes to God, There’s a Little Dewey Crowe in Each of Us

Damon Herriman plays Dewey Crowe on "Justified" on FX. (photo via "Justified Wiki.)

Damon Herriman plays Dewey Crowe on “Justified” on FX. (photo via “Justified Wiki.”)

I’m a big fan of “Justified” on FX. On a recent episode, Dewey Crowe — we’ll call him a simple-minded criminal — found himself wounded and lost in the woods after a botched attempt to kill his buddy Wade Messer. Desperate, afraid and in pain, he calls out to Jesus for help. If Jesus would help him, he would never do anything wrong again. And by help, Dewey was praying for Jesus to help him kill Wade Messer and once that act was done, Dewey would walk the righteous path. He promised. If you watch the show with any regularity, then you know this is typical Dewey.

I laughed when I first watched it, but it’s a scene that’s stuck with me for a couple of weeks now. It got me thinking about the conditions I can put on my relationship with Jesus. The primary condition is that I’ll do what I want first, then I’ll do what Jesus wants, even when I know what I want isn’t what he wants. I’m basically saying, “Let me take care of my stuff, get my stuff out of the way, then we’ll focus on doing what you want, o.k., Jesus?” Here are some examples:

  • Forgiveness. There are times I know I need to forgive someone, and I will, but I think they should suffer for a little while, make sure they know they’ve hurt me. Oh, I do the forgiveness part, like Jesus desires, but on my terms. This is not what Jesus desires. He desires speedy resolution. (Matthew 5:23-24)
  • Time with God in prayer and reflection. I can come up with a list, just about everyday, of things I would rather do than spend time in prayer and reflection. “Let me just do these few things, then I’ll open my Bible and spend time with God. Next thing you know, the day is gone.
  • Money. My challenge isn’t so much in giving to the church or others, it’s the stewardship of money. Am I making the best choices with money I do have? Do my choices honor God or are they more a product of “I want to get this or do this, so I will and worry about the God part later.”

I could go on with more examples. The list is pretty long, considering it covers just about any time I put my desires before God’s desires. But here’s the thing. It’s putting my desires ahead of what God’s desires for me. It’s not that I think He’s calling me to be goody-two-shoes missionary living in poverty somewhere in Africa. I believe God wants me to have the best life possible living where and when I am living now. He knows what’s best for me. And yet, even knowing and believing this, I still find myself saying, “God, help me take care of what I want and then I’ll do whatever you want.” This is not an unprecedented predicament. God knew this was going to be a struggle from the beginning. Jesus deals with it when he asked another to follow him it in Luke 9:58-60:

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

We all have our reasons for putting God’s desires after our own desires, like the man wanting to bury his father. The challenge — and the reason I push through and spend time in my Bible and with God — is to get to a place where what I want and what God wants are the same thing. We’ll be in synch all of the time, not just some of the time.

So, yes, it did seem funny at first that Dewey Crowe would ask Jesus to help him kill Wade Messer with a promise to become a good person once the deed was done. But that was Dewey’s primary desire at that moment. Whatever Jesus’s desire for Dewey was at that moment was secondary to Dewey. And that’s what has stuck with me ever since I heard Dewey’s prayer.

Eyes Above

sunsetHaving recently finished Dallas Willard’s “Hearing God” for the second time, I was re-convicted about the importance of reading the Bible with regard to hearing God’s voice on a regular basis. I’ll be honest. I don’t have a love affair with God’s word. Give me the Bible and three other things to read, and I’m inclined to read the Bible fourth. I look at the man in Psalm 1 who “meditates on His law day and night” and wish I could be that guy, but I’m just not there yet.

But I’m making some progress. The past few weeks I’ve spent some time just about each day in Gospel of John. I can’t quote whole passages, but I am finding that words and phrases are sticking out to me, resonating with me. This week it was from John 17:1 — ” . . . he (Jesus) looked toward heaven and prayed.”

It got me thinking about why Jesus looked toward heaven to pray. It’s not like today, after 2000+ of Christianity, where looking up to heaven and praying is rote. And it’s not like God lives somewhere in the sky beyond where we can see him. So what is it about looking up when we pray? Could it be:

  • There’s a sense of things greater than yourself when you look up into the sky. It’s huge. It’s beyond yourself.
  • The sky affects our lives yet is beyond our control. Is it sunny today? Raining? Snowing? What’s coming from the sky and how do I need to adjust to it?
  • It’s a plane that’s beyond our reach. I can look straight ahead or down. I can touch those things in front of me and below me. But the sky goes on forever. It’s immense. I can’t put my arms around it.
  • The sky is over everything.

I’m glad Jesus looked toward heaven when he started to pray. It’s a great representation of who God is and certain aspects about his character. 

Why Dallas Willard Mattered to Me

Dallas Willard died today. I am sad. I never met Dallas Willard but he had a profound impact on my life and the way I view the world generally, and what it means to be a Christian, specifically. I consider him a mentor, if not a friend. His books deepened and expanded my understanding of God’s Kingdom in the here-and-now and how I can experience it and connect with as I live my day-to-day life. It’s not something that I have to wait for. And for that I owe him much gratitude.

I have enjoyed many of his books and am reading “The Spirit of the Disciplines” for a second time right now. “Hearing God” changed the way I pray and taught me the invaluable experience of listening prayer. I also have heard him preach many times thanks to the videos available for free on iTune University and YouTube.

But the book that had the greatest impact on me as a Christian was “The Divine Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 8.59.49 PMConspiracy.” It’s a fantastic look at the Sermon on the Mount. For me, reading it was a transformative experience. For the first time in my Christian life, I felt I had the freedom to claim my Christianity as my own. My following Jesus was no longer contingent on a particular denomination or church doctrine. Dallas helped me break through the noise of two thousand years of religion, religiosity, denominationalism — whatever you want to call it — and connect to Jesus in a real, personal and intimate way. I can’t overstate how freeing and liberating it is for me to view my Christianity that way.

Dallas helped me see that God’s Kingdom exists in the here-and-now and is meant to be experienced and enjoyed in the here-and-now. And no particular church or denomination can claim ownership of it. Also, God’s Kingdom is not just a place to go after we die. It exists there, too, and we experience it way God originally intended in the still-to-come. But we get to connect to it today. Right now. And I am glad. And my life — and how I view life — hasn’t been the same since.

One of the things Dallas said that has stuck with me has to do with our eternal nature. In one of his sermons he said something to the effect, “You sing ‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun’ (from Amazing Grace). But have you ever really thought about where you will be or what you will be doing in ten thousand years? A thousand years? Five hundred years?” For Dallas believed, based on his understanding of Jesus and God’s Kingdom, that we will be somewhere doing something ten thousand years from now. As noted in a tribute from John Ortberg:

“Our destiny, he used to say, is to be part of a tremendously creative team effort, under unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment. This is what “eye hath not see, nor ear hath heard” in the prophetic vision.”

I am just one of the many, many people whose lives have been changed for the better because Dallas Willard loved Jesus and he chose to use his gifts to help make the here-and-now a better place. I look forward to the day when I can join him in that “creative team effort” in the still-to-come.

Moving From Transaction to Transformation

I recently had an opportunity to spend the weekend with Jon Katov, founder of The Open Table model to help people get out and stay out of poverty. I came across his model while researching how to help the homeless get off the street. After spending several months in Northampton getting to know some of the homeless folks around Main St., I found myself getting frustrated with the limited nature of my interactions with them – a friendly conversation, a couple of bucks now and then, prayers.

My frustration led to revelation. And that revelation was that I was clueless when it came to what I could possibly do to help someone who is living on the street get off the street and live, hopefully, a better life. So I did the thing many people do when they don’t know the answer to something. I turned to Google and Googled “How do you get homeless people off the street?” From there I learned about several groups and organizations dedicated to helping those most of society has passed by or doesn’t even recognize on a daily basis anymore. In doing so, I stumbled upon The Open Table.

What struck me most about The Open Table and separated Jon’s model from everything else was the degree to which participants in The Open Table model are required to get involved with the person or family they are attempting to help rise up out of poverty. The Open Table philosophy is very simple – the only way to help people break free of poverty is through relationship. That’s it. There is no other way. Consequently, anyone willing to participate in the model must be willing to risk building relationship with the person or family he/she is willing to help. I call it a risk because building relationship requires giving a piece of yourself to someone else. In addition, Table members give up a lot of time. To be part of the Table, participants agree to meet for an hour a week for 8-12 months. And they agree to meet outside Table meeting time to help the person in poverty when necessary. While these seem like fairly straightforward obligations, they are simply a framework within which everyone builds relationship with one another.

There are other aspects of The Open Table model worth discussing, including all of the vetting that goes into identifying people or families ready to make the necessary life changes to move out of poverty, and I encourage anyone and everyone to check out The Open Table.

No Shortcuts
I want to go back to what struck me most about The Open Table model, and that was the fact that there were no shortcuts for achieving what The Open Table model sets out to achieve, which is to help people out of poverty through the power of relationship.

There is no shortage of social services, resources and good-intentioned people dedicated to helping the poor in our country. And yet, the poverty level remains pretty much the same today as it did forty-five years ago. Why? I think it’s because we’ve become very good at transactions and very poor at transformation. And the church has played a significant role in helping to make that happen.

Why is that? For one thing, transactions are easy. Hand out a meal in a soup kitchen. Collect canned goods and drop them off at the food pantry. Run a race to raise money to support a domestic violence shelter. These are all worthwhile activities and are vital to meeting immediate needs, but they are transactional in nature and will not bring about change on their own. What about coming along side a single mom working a low-wage job while trying to raise her child? What would that look like? Or how about being there for a man getting out of jail and trying to re-start his life? It’s probably not an easy thing to do. Actually, forget about it being easy or not easy. It’s actually kind of scary to think about engaging with someone in need at that level of relationship. Transformation is messy, imperfect and requires a willingness to put someone else’s needs before your own. And yet, there are no shortcuts. (If there are, I hope someone lets me know!)

Not Just a Poverty Issue
In many ways, looking at people in poverty and saying “we need less focus on transactions and more focus on transformation” is fairly simple. There are millions more people who are not in poverty than those who are in poverty, so if those with means would just be more about transformation than transaction, we could see significant, sustainable change. The Open Table is a model to facilitate that kind of change. But transformation is not just for those in poverty.

As a Christian, someone called to be a light in the world, I pass people in darkness everyday. These folks are broken human beings. They are broken for an assortment of reasons, as this world breaks you sooner or later. It broke me. Some are wealthy. Some are poor. Some don’t even know they are in darkness because they have never experienced light. Many are invisible. I don’t really see them as I’m caught up in my own issues and needs. But it seems to me that the only way to truly participate in transformation is to reach into the darkness and offer hope. Some will respond. Many will not. But I don’t see any other way besides rolling up my sleeves and being willing to risk the messiness and imperfection that comes with establishing true relationship.

The Open Table is a mechanism to help make relationship happen, but ultimately true change will come only when individuals make a choice to discover what lies beyond transaction.

Telling the Story of imagine/northampton

Folks from imagine/northampton were invited recently to a Missions Fair at The Barn in Simsbury, CT. The Barn is church whose members support imagine both through prayer and monetary donations. It’s also the church where the imagine church planters were members before making their move to Northampton.

The Barn supports several missionaries and churches around the world. The Missions Fair was an opportunity for the people receiving support from The Barn to tell their stories, thank their benefactors and encourage their supporters with updates about how God’s moving all around the world.

Our booth at the Missions Fair included this video about imagine/northampton. Our goal was to give an overview of what’s happening with imagine and to talk about the community and culture of Northampton. Take a look . . .

Feeling Comfortable

My viz-bang! partner Marty and I are putting together a quick video about imagine/northampton for a missions fair at The Barn in Simsbury, CT, on June 3. Interviews with several folks from imagine and images from around Northampton comprise the video. I’ve enjoyed speaking with these folks about their thoughts and perspectives on imagine, what we’re trying to here, how we’ve been growing, that kind of thing. One theme I’ve heard surface more than once is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s about being comfortable in at imagine.

Kind of stretch for this blog post, but don’t I look very comfortable?

What they shared validated what I’ve seen it happen before my eyes. I see folks who come to imagine on a Sunday and at first they’re not sure what to make of it. We’re in a small room. It’s not a traditional church setting. The worship songs have a jazzy feel. The preaching is usually interactive and practical. There is diversity among races, ages, stages of life.  Kids are running back and forth between the one room and the food table. Yes, there’s a wonderful food table each week. (Do a bible study some time on Jesus and food. You’d be amazed how often he engaged people over meals.)

People seem friendly, but is it genuine? Hard to say after that first visit. But sometimes, if they are so inclined, people come back for a second visit. Then a third visit. And then that’s when I start to see it. With each visit, they get a little more comfortable. They begin to see that it’s o.k. to be themselves.

Sounds a little odd, doesn’t it? I would think that church is the one place where you were most likely to be yourself. After all, Jesus is all about grace and forgiveness and loving one another. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually true. Church has become a place to be cordial, say the “right” things, share the “right” political beliefs, sing some songs, hear a sermon and move on to the next item on Sunday’s schedule. Consequently, relationships don’t run deep. We play a part. It’s difficult to be authentic with one another. And in some cases, when you are trying to be genuine, you are penalized for it, which I experienced first-hand back in the day during a different church experience.

What I have come to appreciate about imagine is that people feel safe to be themselves here. We are all at various points along our individual spiritual journeys and being genuine with each other helps us along the way. We are imperfect. We are broken humans. We screw up. imagine and its people are flawed. But I am encouraged and inspired when I see someone begin to lower his/her guard and start to feel comfortable letting his/her authentic self shine through. Maybe it’s something as simple as a smile or initiating a conversation. It may be small, but something starts to take root. Healing happens here.

What I’m describing isn’t unique to what we’re doing in Northampton. It can’t be. My hope and desire is that there will be more of these kinds of environments in churches everywhere. After all, feeling comfortable and being genuine were at the core of what it was like to be around Jesus. It’s quite evident, based on several instances with Peter, James and John, that they were free to be themselves around Jesus. Why should it be any different today?

I look forward to growing in my own authenticity and spiritual walk. You’ll probably find me hanging out near the snack table on Sunday. I just nibble, though. And I stand guard to keep my kids from eating all of the homemade muffins.

Is the Roundhouse the Future Home for imagine/northampton?

The good news is imagine/northampton is growing. The challenging news is that to accommodate our growth, we need a larger space to meet and do imagine/northampton kinds of things. One of the places we’ve been exploring is The Roundhouse, the former home of the Northampton Gas & Light Company. I’ll post more later about HOW we’d like to use the space. But today I want to talk about WHERE the Roundhouse is located, as I think its physical location aligns nicely with the mission of imagine/northampton.

As the saying goes, the first three rules of real estate are location, location, location. As we’ve been discussing a new location for imagine, I’ve been struggling because our current location seems fantastic. We’re in the building on the busiest corner in downtown Northampton. We meet in an upper room. We’ve gotten to know many of the folks on the street simply because we pass by them several times a week. But the space is too small and we must move on.

So the other day, I was sitting on a bench and looking at the Roundhouse when I began to see how wonderful the location of the building truly is. What follows are the things that stuck out to me as I sat there and prayed for guidance.

Here’s the Roundhouse. As you can see, it’s round. Hence the name, Roundhouse.

Clean Slate is our neighbor to the left and is adjacent to the Roundhouse. Clean Slate offers outpatient drug addiction services. It’s my understanding that folks show up, especially in the morning, to get methadone.

Across the street from the Roundhouse is the bus station and the local cab company. It’s not a bad thought to think the first thing people see when the get off the bus in Northampton is imagine.

Immediately behind the Roundhouse is the City of Northampton Municipal Building. Lots of activity there and we’d be in close proximity.

The back of the Roundhouse includes a catwalk to Pulaski Park. The park is place many folks hang out, due to its central location and connection to a bus stop. It’s also just down the street from Smith College. There are also events at the park throughout the year. Many homeless folks and folks with addictions hang out here, especially at night. We would literally be connected to the people and activity in the park.

Pulaski Park:

At the far end of the parking lot is a large apartment complex.

Across the street from the parking lot is another large apartment complex. Plus, the bike path goes right past the parking lot. There’s lots of foot and bike traffic on the path.

There is much happening all around the Roundhouse. In addition, many in town are already familiar with the Roundhouse and we be even closer to Smith College. Plus, there’s plenty of onsite parking. So in some ways, this place is even better situated than where we meet now.

What Happens at the Intersection

I was reminded last week of something that had originally drawn me to imagine/northampton several months ago. It was my desire to be part of a group focused on that point where church and community intersect. It’s that point where church and community meet and what happens next that resonated with me when I first learned about the work in which imagine/northampton was engaged. For me, it’s about bringing what’s talked about, preached about and sung about on Sunday mornings in the church building and brining it more fully into the streets and lives of the people who need it most. In this case, it’s the people in Northampton and the people with whom I come into contact on a day-to-day basis. I’ve seen “the intersection” manifest itself in several ways since we’ve been Northampton, including:

  • Engaging the homeless people we see every day on Main St. The engagement may take the form of a monetary donation, a conversation, the giving of food or clothing, an invitation to come upstairs for a meal or working with an agency to provide relief.
  • Prayer walking through the city. I’ve done this alone and we’ve done it recently in pairs with our Wednesday night group. There’s something powerful and meaningful that occurs when you take 20-30 minutes to walk around a town and pray. Imagine if this occurred in every city and town!
  • We are a light in the darkness. Kit shared recently at our Wednesday night gathering that he’s seen an increase in the number of broken, hurting people finding their way through our doors. I responded that this was encouraging news to me, as it’s been my prayer as I walk around town that God would bring the broken and the hurting to our doorstep so that we can help them heal. Because that’s what really happens when the Church and the community intersect. God’s power is made known and what was broken and lost is healed and made right.
  • People are sticking around. Whether it’s the Wednesday night group or the folks gathering on Sunday morning, what’s happening in Northampton is resonating with people and they’re sticking around. Each one of us is coming to know God in a deeper, more personal way and it’s changing how we consider and engage others.

There’s more going on than just this, as folk from imagine are doing more than I’m aware or just barely aware, like visiting folks in the hospital and regularly volunteering at one of the homeless shelters. There’s no formal program for any of this. It’s just happens.

I should also note that what happens at the intersection isn’t pretty. It’s messy and imperfect and not always pain free. But it’s powerful and regenerative and full of healing and grace and hope and promise. And there’s no place else I want to be. But to be there you have to get outside of the church building, the comfortable and the safety of what’s known.

So if you want to find me, come meet me at the interesction. It’s the only place to be.