Growing up into Christ involves far more than acquiring the right information. It requires a deep connection between truth and life, between belief and behavior. And such connection only occurs when we take extended time for dialogue or conversation with others about these things that matter most to us.
Dialogue is a critical gift on the journey. The back-and-forth conversational work of listening and question asking, reflection, clarification and discernment are so necessary for development and maturity. Too often in our churches we major on the presentation or the performance—the monologue—without majoring on the hard work of cultivating dialogue.
Many of us yearn for more than the chitchat prompted by the fill-in-the-blank small group questions. We want meaningful conversation around the biggest questions of our lives. We want to candidly ask others whether they think the dreams and hopes we carry within are of the Spirit or not. It is a small, yet powerful matter—our ability to talk and listen—to use words and silence well with each other.
Friendship does not grow naturally out of the fast-paced, competitive, and isolated lives so many of us live. In reality, our work priorities and our household busy-ness most often stand against the cultivation of deep friendship. Yet it is friendship that most often describes an essential condition for Christian maturity. As we make space for a common sharing, honoring, and enjoying of life, something of the Spirit’s nurturing grace is imparted to us.
It is Eugene Peterson’s words on the importance of friendship that has been resonating with me again over the past ten days. In his book Leap Over A Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, Peterson insightfully describes our deep need for fellow travelers along the way of following Jesus. He writes,
Each of us has contact with hundreds of people who never look beyond our surface appearance. We have dealings with hundreds of people who the moment they set eyes on us begin calculating what use we can be to them, what they can get out of us. We meet hundreds of people who take one look at us, make a snap judgment, and then slot us into a category so that they won’t have to deal with us as persons. They treat us as something less than we are; and if we’re in constant association with them, we become less.
And then someone enters into our life who isn’t looking for someone to use, is leisurely enough to find out what’s really going on in us, is secure enough not to exploit our weaknesses or attack our strengths, recognizes our inner life and understands the difficulty of living out our inner convictions, confirms what is deepest within us. A friend (54-55).
As I was thinking and praying this afternoon about the many different folks spread throughout North America, walking through The Journey process, being invited to seriously, honestly and courageously seek God’s gracious presence in the story of their lives, I was mindful of writer Madeleine L’Engle’s profound insights drawn from the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). L’Engle writes,
We don’t “get over” the deepest pains of life, nor should we. “Are you over it?” is a question that cannot be asked by someone who has been through “it,” whatever “it” is. It is an anxious question, an asking for reassurance that cannot be given. During an average lifetime there are many pains, many griefs to be borne. We don’t “get over” them; we learn to live with them, to go on growing and deepening, and understanding, as Joseph understood, that God can come into all pain and make something creative out of it.
(Sold into Egypt: Joseph’s Journey into Human Being, Shaw Publishing, 1989)
May you come to personally encounter God’s great capacity to come into your life and make something creative out of your deep frustrations, disappointments, confusions and failures. Spirit of God, be generous to us…
During our VP3 Webinar: Barriers to Spiritual Growth on Wednesday, I was struck by the panelists’ and audience’s interest in discussing busyness as a chief barrier to maturity in our faith communities. I found myself later in the afternoon returning to the question, what does a busy pace do that so frustrates our maturity?
It seems the relationship of busyness to Christian maturity boils down to the issues of attention and distraction. On the whole, we certainly are busy, busy people. We have meetings to attend, dinners to prepare, children to pick up, papers to finish, vacations to plan, projects to complete, things to maintain and repair, sermons to preach, houses to clean, lunch appointments to keep, on and on. Life presses in on us and, perhaps instinctively, we do all we can to press back. Many good things and important things stack up, and we busy ourselves with such things. In time, these many things shape our schedules and even our consciousnesses into a form that is ill suited to an attentive life.
When it comes to our capacities for a pace that is life giving, people reflect a wide range of differences. Some people move more deliberately and slowly, others simply move faster due to a variety of factors including stage of life or capability or temperament. So there is not a one-size-fits-all prescribed or preferred pace.
What we must pay close attention to, though, is the interrelationship between our pace and our attentiveness. The great danger in all of this is that the pace of our lives squeezes out critical human concerns (e.g. community well being, job effectiveness, parenting children, a flourishing inner life, a God consciousness, kingdom-responsibility). Whether we are Christians or not, we are all vulnerable to living a way of life that fails to pay attention to the most important things in life. A rushed or hurried or frenetic pace most often blurs our attention and causes us to overlook all sorts of things and people.
“The church is always more than a school…
but the church cannot be less than a school.”
Historian Jaroslav Pelikan included these critical words on the first page of his five-volume history of Christian doctrine. Around VantagePoint3 circles, we would tweak Pelikan’s language a little bit by saying—the church is always more than a learning community, but the church must never be less than a learning community. We are formed to worship, to fellowship, to be sent out into the world in Jesus’ name—all essential tasks of the church. But we must recognize that the church is also essentially a place of ongoing education. From the crib to the grave, a church community must be a place where we learn to make sense of our lives and of the world, where we explore with a fresh imagination what our lives could really become, where we learn together to follow Jesus and his way of life in the world. The church is always more than a learning community, but never less.
Sadly it seems that many adults are simply surviving, hoping to get by with what they already know; learning is for children and teenagers, or so they think. There is often very little expectation of further movement and development in their adult lives. We desperately need communities whose life together challenges such notions; we need churches where the cultivation of a lifelong learning posture is Discipleship 101.
A learning posture of the heart and the mind does not discriminate between Sunday morning sermons and Tuesday night dishwashing, between classroom lectures and dinner table conversation, between sunsets and supermarkets. It is a cultivated paying attention, which operates within the everydayness and everywhereness of life. And when practiced over the long haul it is what the ancients called the way of wisdom. Or as Christian educator Steve Garber states, “we understand that the deepest lessons are not learned in text books, but instead are discovered as learning meets life.”
Intentionally walking with others, helping them grow deeper in their faith, becomes transformative when we make space to notice others particularly. For it is in the conditions of lives shared, honored, noticed, and enjoyed—that is, friendship—that something of the Spirit’s nurturing grace is imparted to us and through us to others. This noticing involves expecting God to work in the lives of those around us. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson points out that we must cultivate a sense of expectancy when it comes to helping our community mature and grow. Peterson writes,
Alice Shirey has had the opportunity of facilitating over 40 folks in multiple A Way of Life groups over the past two years. These are people who have completed The Journey and taken the next step to walk through our A Way of Life process. I asked her to reflect upon what she had been noticing in these groups, what’s been standing out to her as she considers the many different people that have participated. Here are Alice’s reflections:
As a two-time facilitator of A Way of Life, I have had a front row seat at some of God’s best work; the transformation of lives. It never ceases to amaze me, and often brings me to tears.
A few things are especially sweet:
1. The honesty in the room.
I don’t know if it is the overflow of vulnerability from the shared experience of The Journey class, or the nature of the curriculum, but I have not witnessed much “faking it” over the last two years. Even in large group discussions, the honesty, vulnerability and trust have been palpable. When this kind of environment occurs in the church, growth is often inevitable.
So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God but also our own selves,
because you have become very dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:8
Regent College’s James Houston once commented that within the evangelical Christian world 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. Walking with Others is for those who have ears to hear what Houston is noticing in the church. Developmental theories and maps serve a vital purpose, but what we desperately need more of today are wise men and women who have the humility, courage, and patience to walk faithfully alongside others, helping them explore the real places in their lives that the map may describe.
So much of what passes for discipleship and 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. The journey toward growth and maturity must be shared and explored from the inside out.
There are a lot of Toms in my family. My father’s name is Tom, my pop-pop was a Tom, and even my middle name is Thomas. I also have a Tom for a second cousin. But there was only one Uncle Tom in my world growing up. He was my dad’s uncle, one of my grandma’s four brothers.
Uncle Tom was quite a humorous character. In our family, the stories abound. He was the sort of person who when told not to touch the chocolate fudge cooling in the kitchen was known not just to brush aside such cautions by taking a finger full but he was known to take the whole tray with him to work. As a butcher he was known to cause a couple of unsuspecting women to all but pass out by his sharp chop of the cleaver followed by yelling and writhing as if he just chopped off a finger or two.
Brent, Pam, and Randy had a conversation last Wednesday around the topic: “What We Are Learning About Adult Development.” For over sixteen years of working with more than two hundred-sixty churches from twenty-three denominations, we have discovered a good bit about how adults develop and mature. Most recently we received input from over fifty leaders “in the field” who have been utilizing our processes with adults in their congregations for anywhere from four to thirteen years. We are finding great insights, encouragements, and challenges amidst all the data of our research.
In this webinar, Pam and Randy and Brent synthesize what we have been learning from our experience and our research. If you at all care about the growth of adults and communities (Ephesians 4:14-15), then you are going to find this webinar beneficial. Here is the webinar recording link to listen in – “What We Are Learning About Adult Development”
By way of a sneak peek here are the seven points they discuss:
1. Shape the person and you stand a much greater chance of shaping everything else.
2. The deepening and empowering of others requires a ministry of paying attention.
From time to time we get emails or phone calls that remind us of the impact of the work we are up to at VantagePoint3. Yesterday we got one of these emails. So I thought I would share.
It is the story of two changed lives now changing others as a result of going through The Journey. Marcy Milburn at Newton Church of the Way in Newton, Iowa passed this story onto VP3’s Kay Hodges. Marcy writes,
This may seem kind of random but I wanted to email VantagePoint3 with an encouraging word about how lives are being changed in our community because of The Journey.
Below is an article that our local newspaper ran a few weeks ago called “From Dope to Hope.” It’s about two men in our church whose backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, one is a law enforcement officer and the other a former convict. They connected during The Journey class a few years ago, and gave testimonies recently about how God used The Journey to bring them together, which later led them in a joint effort to start this faith-based substance abuse support ministry called Discover Hope 517.
I know you probably hear stories all the time about lives that are being changed through The Journey and VantagePoint3 materials, but I felt led to share. I think the “ripple effect” of their story is what’s most inspiring to me: two very different men take The Journey and are skeptical of each other at first, not even sure if they can trust each other because of their backgrounds; they embrace the process, God changes their hearts, and they grow in Christ; God leads them in a joint effort to start a ministry called Discover Hope so that people who struggle with addiction can have a support group centered around Jesus. Lives are being changed and people are being set free because of the love of Jesus!
So I want to say thank you! Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Because of the opportunity your leadership development curriculum provides, lives are being changed, not only in our church but in our community. Thank you!
Director of Children’s Ministries and Adult Discipleship
Newton Church of The Way
The Spirit is always up to something creative and good, and it is such a gift when we get to witness this faithful work in real time. We are grateful to be a small part of God’s kingdom work in Newton. May the Lord continue to bless the friendship and efforts of Aaron and Robbie and The Discover Hope Ministry in Newton. In Jesus name.