Ancient Journeying

At midlife Augustine (354-430 AD), reflecting upon his own growth and upon the struggles of pastoring his congregation in North Africa, concluded that the central image used by most of his contemporaries for describing the spiritual life—that of “a vertical ascent” or a ladder—was inadequate.  Instead, he increasingly characterized the Christian life as “a long highway” or a journey. And according to his biographer Peter Brown, Augustine “resented traveling: he always associated it with a sense of protracted labor and of the infinite postponement of his dearest wishes; and these associations will color the most characteristic image of the spiritual life in his middle age.”* Traveling in the ancient world was dangerous.  Many threats were faced including hunger, exhaustion, bad weather, robbery, shipwreck, and death. Augustine did not have in mind the romantic connotations of scenic vistas and exotic locations and safe adventures when he used this journey imagery to encourage and sustain his believing congregation.

 

For some time, a traveler’s journey has been a powerful image for the life of faith. But ancient journeying, not its modern counterpart, is the image for faithfulness.  It always entails a risky, faith-full movement from the familiar into the unfamiliar.  Walking with Jesus involves courage and endurance and conditioning and discouragement and patience and grace and vigilance.  

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An invitation to invest

As we face the new millennium, we acknowledge that the state of the Church is marked by a paradox of growth without depth. Our zeal to go wider has not been matched by a commitment to go deeper.

 

The Eastbourne Consultation on Discipleship (England, 1999)

 

 

It was almost 2,000 years ago that the Apostle Paul wrote a letter that undoubtedly prompted reflection and prayer among Jesus followers in and around the large commercial city of Ephesus. After painting a magnificent portrait of God at work in the world through Christ (Ephesians 1-3), Paul urged them to live a way of life worthy of God’s gracious and powerful work (4:1). He challenged the community’s leaders to foster maturity in its members (4: 11-13). Then Paul wrote,

 

We must no longer be children.… But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Eph.4:14-16)

 

The need for spiritual maturity gripped the Apostle Paul over 2,000 years ago. It was urgent work then; it is urgent work now. 

 

One is hard pressed to find a time in history when the Church has gone more places, provided more resources, and proclaimed the gospel more widely than over the past several decades. Yet amidst all these efforts, there is a growing realization today that we are just skimming across the surface. 

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Watch Godspeed

It was a few months ago now that a friend recommended to me a unique film project entitled Godspeed: The Pace of Being Known. I carved out some leisurely space late one afternoon at the office, sat down and watched the film, and it has been stirring with me ever since.  I actually just rewatched it this morning.

 

Godspeed tells the story of one American pastor’s journey to serve a parish in Scotland and its impact on his life and ministry. Or as the website puts it– What happens when a city boy with a pocket full of sermons, lands in a Scottish parish? 

 

The story has a far broader audience than pastors or missionaries. For all of us who are perhaps sensing that the pace of our lives might be squeezing out the things that are most important, I would encourage you to spend time with this story.  Godspeed reminded me of Dorothy Bass’s words when she asks,

“How can we live faithfully and with integrity here, where the pace of existence is so fast and life’s patterns are changing all around us? Can we conduct our daily lives in ways that help us not just to get by but to flourish–as individuals, as communities, and as a society, in concert with all creation and in communion with God?” 

 

So … enough set up; find some leisurely space, sit down and watch Godspeed. My favorite character is a Scotsman named Alan Torrance. You will meet him right off the bat.

 

Enjoy. Ponder. And let me know what it is stirring in your mind and heart.  And may we all be open to living Godspeed…

 

Watch Godspeed

Godspeed was shot in three days, in three villages, by three friends. What began as a five minute video ended as a half-hour portrait of the people and places who had taught Matt to repent & rest.

 

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Lead a Journey group again!

I once heard Dr. James Houston comment that in the North American Church we have spiritual maps and mapmakers, ad nausea, when what we really need is a few mountain guides who have been there before us on the journey. So much of what passes for adult discipleship or leadership development today lacks interpersonal investment, life upon life. Simply telling others to grow up into Christ will not cut it, no matter how articulately or creatively or loudly we state it. We desperately need leaders who befriend and guide and come alongside others; we need to provide a leadership of companionship in our contexts that actually helps others be awakened to Christ and freed up to “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19). 

 

There are a lot of VP3 alumni folks, who care deeply about growing up and helping others grow up into Christ, who are moving back a little closer to the table, in light of Randy Reese’s passing last summer. As these people ask me the question, “How can we help VP3?” increasingly I am responding by saying — “Lead a Journey group again!” It is such a win-win, both personally for the folks leading and for us organizationally as we seek to live out our mission of helping men and women discover more deeply who God is, who they are, and what God is desiring to do through them. Leading a Journey group is a demanding commitment, but it is such a rewarding commitment. Like few other things, one consistently gets a front row seat on God’s activity in the nitty gritty of people’s lives.

__________________

 

Recently I was connecting with an alumni VP3 facilitator who started a Journey group this winter after several years of not leading a group. I asked Gerry about his perspectives on this conversation. May his thoughtful responses be an encouragement to you.

 

Rob: What was the impetus for you returning to facilitate The Journey?

 

Gerry: I wanted to get back to becoming involved in the lives of people who are committed to becoming more Christlike and who are prepared to open themselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I needed to again see, first hand, the Holy Spirit at work and to marvel at the impact the Spirit has on our everyday lives. I needed to see this in order to keep striving and moving toward maturity myself and to fulfill my obligation to come alongside others in their journeys. I needed to again become involved at the level of real human lives to balance my inclination to live in the realm of church visions, strategies, plans and church governance issues.

 

 

Rob: What have you noticed as you have re-engaged in the process and walked with a new Journey group?

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Called to dangerous new places

Throughout the past fall and winter I felt nudged by the Lord to start a new Journey group. Amidst the many challenges I was facing personally and we were facing organizationally, I was searching for a way to be more intentional with my own life with the Lord, and with others. How could I cultivate a greater attention and prayerfulness with the things that matter most in my life? How could I find a space and a place to bring some of those important things, which I have been placing on the backburner of my attention, to the front burner.  

 

So I started a Journey group in late March, meeting at noon on Fridays, about twice a month. There are seven of us, all guys, each of us from different contexts and churches. It has been timely for us all. It is such a privilege to get a front row seat on others’ development in Christ. I am prayerfully looking forward to the places the Spirit is going to lead.

 

This past Friday we finished up Stage 1 and what grabbed me in particular was the prayer at the end of the Personal Biblical Mandate session. I would encourage you to read this one out loud a few times, seeing what grabs you, finding those particular phrases or images you need to reflect further upon and pray more intently. In reading and reflecting upon Jeremiah 1-2, Walter Brueggemann writes/prays,

 

You are the God who makes extravagant promises.

We relish your great promises of fidelity

and presence and solidarity,

and we exude in them.

Only to find out, always too late, that your promise always comes

in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.

You are the God who calls people like us,

and the long list of mothers and fathers before us,

who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.

So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,

who calls always to dangerous new places.

We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us that we may be among those

who believe your promises enough to respond to your call.

We pray in the one who embodied your promise and enacted your call, even Jesus.

Amen.

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A Christian Developmental Path

When people have recently asked me this question –“Who is The Journey for?”–I have found myself responding by pointing to this Christian developmental path diagram we have been using around our offices. 

 

 

We’ve found it helpful (without prescribing a rigidity) to show where our VantagePoint3 Pathway fits within a broader understanding of a person’s growth toward maturity in Christ (Eph 4:14-15; Col 1:28-29).  Each chapter along the journey needs attention from an adult discipleship and development perspective. So whether the person asking the question is thinking about the people in their community or about their own particular development, unpacking this path helps identify the discipleship and developmental needs. People at all six chapters along this path regularly participate in the VP3 Pathway

 

Here are some talking points on each developmental chapter. See what you notice about your own place on the path, but also prayerfully consider those in your sphere of influence — what sort of discipleship needs are you noticing?

 


TALKING POINTS FOR A CHRISTIAN DEVELOPMENTAL PATH

 

Turning

How are we helping people learn how to share their faith with people “pre-Jesus”? How can we enter into loving relationships with those whom the Lord is wooing to himself? How do our discipleship efforts help people turn toward God through the work of Christ?

 

Rooting

Once we have made a commitment to follow Christ we enter another place of growth where we sink our roots into the fundamentals of what it means to live the Christian life.  How do we learn to read Scripture and pray?  What does it mean to become a part of a church community?  What about worship, serving, tithing, community, etc?

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A tendency toward self-isolation

 Many people are startled and saddened by the degree of aloneness they experience in adulthood. From the outside it seems like family and work and church would provide a vital sense of being known. For many, though, the reality of their hectic and competitive lives keeps them skimming across the surface of their relationships with spouse and children and coworkers and their church community. Their intentions for faithful living and service are well meaning, even noble, but their individualistic approaches prove inadequate to the task. They have consciously or unconsciously sought to make it on their own, and have found, over time, their lives desperately lacking, their souls shriveled. Sadly, the tale of an individual human life is too often told as a sequence of independent and unshared moments.

______________

 

As we pay attention to the rhythm of our lives, a critical element to discern is this tendency toward isolation. Few things are more predictive of not finishing well than isolation as a way of life. Living faithfully with Jesus and others is simply too hard to do alone. So in the midst of our many relationships do we confide in and pray with and sort out our deepest questions and life challenges with some key people? Or do we have a prevailing tendency to keep this type of stuff to ourselves?

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The grace we seek

In the eighth century, Christian theologians began describing the relationship among the persons of the Trinity as a dynamic communion, a dance of three persons. Gods triune and dynamic presence creates space within that presence, a space into which we can be drawn. The Son, who is both God and human, reaches out to us, taking hold of our hand and welcoming us into this dance, this perfect love of God.

 

Debra Rienstra [1]

 

At every level, the Christian gospel begins with God’s initiating love: creation, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God takes the first step over and again inviting us into his dance, his loving life. The Spirit of Jesus moves toward us freely and graciously and with full knowledge of our particular frailties, resistances, indifferences, vices, and virtues. And he makes space for us to share in this Trinitarian community of perfect love.

 

Jesus describes our relational responsibility when he implores his first disciples to “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). The Message translates his invitation—“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” Christian maturity is not a technique or program or formula, but it is a life of learning to keep company with Jesus. Gordon Smith writes,

 

Without an emphasis on union with Christ, spiritual formation will be a frustrated effort to become like Christ. It will eventually become nothing more than self-development. The grace we seek is not so much to be like Christ as to live in dynamic union with Christ, abiding in him as he abides in us (John 15:4).[2]

 

Might some of us be trying to live the Christian life without actually involving ourselves with God? It is foolishness and frustration to strive after an ideal life of Christlikeness without opening ourselves to God’s gracious friendship. God intends to transform our lives—yes—but more fundamentally, God desires to share his very life with us. Our maturity then becomes a by-product of immersing ourselves in this relationship with Jesus. As C. S. Lewis concludes in Mere Christianity, “The whole purpose for which we live is to be thus taken into the life of God.”

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Finishing Well

20 years ago I read an excellent book that I still reread every two or three years – Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians by Eugene Peterson. At the tail end of a chapter on the friendship between David and Jonathan Peterson writes:

 

It’s not unusual for any of us to begin something wonderful, and it’s not unusual for any of us to do things that are quite good. But it is unusual to continue and persevere. The difficulties aren’t for the most part external but internal—finding the energy and vision to keep the effort going. Being good and doing good are seldom adequately rewarded: more often they get us into trouble. The world, the flesh, and the devil are in fierce opposition to the Christian way and wreck many lives that start off beautifully….

 

There are many barriers, obstacles, and distractions that seek to discourage and derail us from a well-lived life of “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).  Good beginnings in the Christian life are a dime a dozen, but good endings are far less common.

 

Over the past six months I have sat through two Celebration of Life/Memorial Services for  friends who I would say finished well – with a legacy of changed lives in their wake. As I have pondered the significance of Randy and Kris’ lives, I have been struck by the reality that finishing well as a person is a beautiful, beautiful thing to behold. But I have also been challenged by the thought that finishing well is not simply a matter of course or an inevitability. Spiritual maturity is not like getting on a train just before it leaves the station and expecting to make it to the final stop or destination (a C. S. Lewis metaphor). More than just showing up in one’s seat is required.  A deep and trusting engagement with the Spirit’s ongoing work in us and through us is required.

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We are in the imagination business

When I sit with friends who know me fairly well and we begin to talk about VP3 and what we are up to as an organization, I will often confide to them that we are in “the imagination business.” And then I tell them this story.

_____________________

 

Over 20 years ago a few friends and I sat together in a TCBY yogurt in La Mirada, CA with a wise and faithful older man who resonated with a palpable sense of God’s presence. Around the table that evening he asked each of us, “Where are you at tonight?” When it came my turn to answer, a question emerged within me as if it had been floating to the surface for some time, and then, in that particular moment, it broke through the surface.

 

Over the prior three years, I had begun to be aware of my deep despair. I was tired of trying so hard to believe. All the theology that I knew in my mind seemed distant from my heart. Was it all really true? Did God really care? Why did he seem so absent? Why did my life not make sense?

 

All these questions had swirled in my consciousness, but this evening, sitting in a bright green store of fluorescent light and linoleum tables and air conditioning, listening with my friends to a most unusual man, this question seemed apt. I needed to ask it. It felt like he really would know the answer. So I asked, “What is God like?” (In retrospect I imagine in his response the intensity and delight of little Lucy Pevensie speaking of Narnia’s Aslan, if anyone had asked her about him.) He looked across the table, his face lit up, he leaned forward, and he confided, “Rob, he is beyond your wildest imaginations.”

 

That evening those few words blindsided me, consoled me, and inexplicably transformed my vision of the world. He is beyond your wildest imaginations. More than words were communicated to me that evening. God’s Spirit “called me aside,” comforted me, and confided in me. Deep places breathed with life and possibility and wonder where there was only doubt and despair and isolation. God loved me. I never anticipated a moment so generous, so full with life, so good, so gracious. It was pure gift.

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