I am reminded this Thanksgiving week of Christine Pohl’s words on gratitude. She writes,
“Our capacity for gratitude is not connected with an abundance of resources but rather with a capacity to notice what it is that we do have.”[i]
Our capacity for gratitude is connected to our capacity to notice…
We can live such distracted lives. Sitcoms and baseball games, doctor’s appointments and beauty magazines, laptops and hurricane updates and piano recitals, beer ads, Bible studies—all of these clamor, crowd, and compete for our attention. “We are very distractible people in a very distracting world”, writes Leighton Ford.[ii] We so rarely exercise an undivided attention. Our distracted minds seem to have little space for the things that matter most to us, the things that actually need our undivided attention.
When we fail to regularly reflect upon what we are thankful for, we lose sight of both the gifts and the givers in our lives.
One of the highlights of my fall so far has been leading an adult Sunday School class on Jeff Manion’s book The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions (Zondervan, 2010). The book is about those hard seasons of disorientation in our lives, those times that have a before-and-after character. Like, before mom had cancer, after mom had cancer; before I lost my job, after I lost my job; before we lost the house, after we lost the house; before the accident, after the accident. These moments are life altering and their effects often last for decades.
By walking with the Israelites and Moses through their wilderness wanderings, Jeff Manion invites us into an exploration of the soul shaping potential of these painful and confusing transitions in our lives. A lot of things can grow in the wilderness despite its bleak and barren appearances. We learn to turn toward God and speak honestly in our pain and confusion. We learn to trust God in the dark, when we can’t even see the road in front of us. The wilderness can provide fertile soil for encountering God’s provision and gracious discipline in our lives. However, growth is not inevitable in the wilderness. Like the Israelites in their land between Egypt and the promised land, we can turn away from God by trying to survive on our own instead of turning toward God in trust.
Manion points out over and again that our time in the land between can result in a deeper richer faith, but it can also lead to bitterness and resentment and spiritual stagnation. How we respond to these difficult times matters immensely. Are we turning toward God or away from God as we face these difficult circumstances? Will we learn to trust God even in the dark?
All said, I highly recommend this book for its capacity to invite a deeper exploration and honesty and prayerfulness about the things that matter most in our lives. For a number of us at Trinity Baptist Church in particular, reading and discussing this book together has cultivated a rich conversation with the Lord and with one another.
There is a Joyce Rupp quote that litters many of my old journals and files, and over the past decade or so it has been a consistent source of encouragement and challenge to the way I look at my everyday life. When I was attempting to re-organize my office last week, after a summer of much travel with facilitator retreats and family trips, I found a small slip of paper in a file and I re-encountered Rupp’s words. She writes,
I used to keep my spiritual life in a tight space and felt that my work, my social life, my relational joys and struggles actually kept me away from God rather than teaching me and being sources of personal transformation for me. Now I see all of this differently. I have come to believe that every part of my life affects or influences my life with God. The world I live in, with its beauty and tragedy, with its creatures of all forms and shapes, is constantly offering me messages about who I am and who God is. Everything and everyone teaches me about God, life, and myself.
I try now to approach each person, event, creature, with two questions: How are you my teacher? What am I meant to learn?[i]
For all who seek to walk with Jesus over the long haul, much time will be spent in what the Psalms calls “the depths.” Suffering is simply part of what it means to be human. Whether we ourselves are going through difficult times or we are walking with others through difficult times, we will find ourselves in “the depths,” in these unsettling times of pain or confusion or angst. The ways we respond to these times will determine much of the character of our lives.
“Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord!” the psalmist writes and thereby invites us to share the whole of our life with God. For if there is anything that resounds from a careful reading of the Psalms it is that there is absolutely no part of our experience that is out of bounds with God. The Psalms teach us and invite us to live everything before God.
Pastor Eugene Peterson reflections upon Psalm 130 capture our great need as individuals or as communities when we encounter these seasons in “the depths.” Allow Psalm 130 and these Peterson’s reflections to intersect with your own experience: What do they evoke or stir in your mind & heart?
Do you remember the Peanut cartoons? The old TV versions had a scene that played out rather often. Lucy would have a football. She would encourage Charlie Brown to attempt to kick the ball while she held it for him. Lucy assured Charlie she would not move the ball. Charlie would buy in and back up to make the run up for the kick. Just as he got to the ball, sure ‘nuf, Lucy would yank it out of the way. Charlie’s foot would fly up into the air and he would land on the ground with a thud. As he lay there staring into the sky, his discouragement would be rather evident. He had been duped again.
Sometime ago I heard a speaker say in passing that “God is not Lucy with the football.” I had an immediate emotional reaction to that seemingly benign comment. I thought, “That’s it! That’s how I see God right now!” I was rather shocked. I know this is not true. I know our God does not do a “bait and switch” on us. I know he does not set us up for a let down. Our illusions do that for us. But still I was feeling duped. My emotions did not portray reality, but they did reveal my heart to me. As I have journeyed into my 8th year with chronic illness, I have wrestled deeply with God over it. I know he can heal me. I know he can resolve this. But he hasn’t, and it does not appear he will. I have felt varying degrees of “crummy” for the past 2500 days in a row. No exaggeration.
Some years ago I sat with a man who was providing me spiritual direction. I spoke candidly of my deep desolation over my chronic illness. The first comment he made after I had spoken for several minutes was, “I have never seen a conversion apart from suffering.” By “conversion” he did not mean coming to Christ as a new believer. Rather, he meant a significant, inner transformation; a profound inner shift to a deeper arena of spiritual depth and insight. That statement alone ought to stop us in our tracks. He repeated it emphasizing the word never, “I have never seen a conversion apart from suffering.”
“I wonder how you would sum up the Christian situation in the world today. For me, it’s a strange, rather tragic, and disturbing paradox. On the one hand, in many parts of the world the church is growing by leaps and bounds. But on the other hand, throughout the church, superficiality is everywhere. That’s the paradox. Growth without depth. No doubt God is not pleased with superficial discipleship. The apostolic writers of the New Testament declare with one voice that God wants us to grow up and grow into maturity in Christ.”
John Stott (1999)
It has been almost 15 years since Randy and I heard John Stott speak those words in his keynote address to the International Consultation on Discipleship in Eastbourne, England. We continue to be gripped by Stott’s call to be a deepening influence in the life of the Church.
One is hard pressed to find a time in history when the Church has gone more places, has activated more efforts, has provided more resources, and has proclaimed the gospel more widely than the Church in North America over the past several decades.
We at VP3 are really excited about a recent project that has come to completion and is now available. Imago Dei to Missio Dei: An Art Experience is a compilation of watercolors and reflections which in the words of the artist/author Preston Pouteaux, “I originally created these pieces as a gift for my church family. I hoped they would see in themselves and each other the beauty God sees through Jesus. Each piece I painted was a prayer.”
A couple years ago I received the substance of what you find in the pages of Imago Dei to Missio Dei in an email from Preston. I was immediately struck by the beauty, simplicity, and challenge of the work. I printed off a copy off and began to work my way through this “Art Experience.” The faces and stories in these pages capture a very particular collection of people from one local church community in Calgary, but they reflect more universally the dignity, mystery and uniqueness of all humankind, men and women created in God’s image. The more I sat with it, thumbing my way through the portraits and the meditations, the more I sensed Preston’s deep care for these people and for God.
In today’s day and age, many of us struggle at our deepest core with believing our lives really matter. The many voices of our culture have, sadly, led us to believe that we are less than what we are. This piece reminded me that the gospel graciously awakens us with the truth that our lives matter immensely because we have been created and loved by God. As C.S. Lewis put it, “There are no ordinary people.” And until we begin to embrace this reality—that we are God’s beloved creatures—we will not be fully freed up to share in God’s mission in the world, reflecting God’s always creative and reconciling presence in our communities; hence the title of this piece, Imago Dei to Missio Dei.
At our core, we at VantagePoint3 strive to be a learning and praying community whose life together (i.e. our processes, service, & team) invites others to vantage points where they can discover more deeply who God is, who they are, and what God desires to do through them. This October 24-26 in Banff, Alberta, we will be hosting a unique VP3 gathering that expresses our deep desire to both learn and encourage a more relational way of life and ministry with God and others. The theme of the gathering will be “Walking with God and Others through Pain and Suffering.”
Throughout the past couple years we have leaned into the importance of walking along side others on the journey, adopting more of a mentoring way to life and ministry. As we have entered into these many conversations we recognized again and again that the theme of suffering, and how we make sense of it, plays such a critical role in our maturing and mentoring. Growing up into Christ is never a simple, straight line from infancy to maturity. If we are to walk compassionately and honestly with others like Jesus did, then we must bring to the table our best thinking and praying about living wisely and faithfully amidst great difficulties. Consequently, we thought it would be a good time to invite people, who are interested, to engage in a conversation about suffering’s place in our formation and in our work of serving others.
Recently I have been asked something like this a number of times by people completing THE JOURNEY: “Rob, what is A WAY OF LIFE and why should I be a part of it?” I begin by saying this process is for the person who feels something like this:
So I have said “yes” to Jesus, “I’m in,” “I have been grabbed by him,” but how will I remain faithful to him? What spiritual practices and disciplines and relationships will help me sustain a way of life faithful to Jesus my whole life long?
Building on the experience of THE JOURNEY, A WAY OF LIFE invites participants (again in community with fellow travelers) to: (1) a fuller understanding and practice of a life attentive to God (2) a deeper and more confident sense of God unique calling in their lives, and (3) a way of structuring and ordering their lives toward a life long apprenticeship with Jesus.
Our A WAY OF LIFE webpage offers a more comprehensive description, including a downloadable overview document, a sample introductory session to Stage 1: Friendship with God, and a short video conversation unpacking it’s rationale.
Tom Sine’s words sum up so much of the heart of what we are trying to provide in this process: “The God who has always been a part of our stories invites us to become much more a part of God’s story, and to see what will happen.” So let’s walk together as a group and see what will happen.
We are hearing great things out there from the 400-some folks in the process this year. For those of you who are currently participating in or facilitating A WAY OF LIFE how would you respond if posed that question — “What is A WAY OF LIFE and why should I participate in it?” I would love to hear your comments.
A few years ago I stumbled across a journal entry of Henri Nouwen; and as so often before, his words deeply resonated with my heart. Nouwen wrote,
I have come to realize how hard it is to have a real spiritual conversation. I keep wondering how people with deep religious convictions can speak together at table about the life of the Spirit. What did Jesus speak about at table? It seems that for Jesus the meal was the place and time to preach the good news. For me that is a real challenge. It always strikes me how grateful people are for a good spiritual conversation, but also how hard it is to make such a conversation happen. Most conversations are chains of free association in which people simply drift from one subject to another, often guided by little else than what happens to come into their minds.*
In the circles in which I move, I hear a longing among people for more conversations about the things that matter most to them; and yet despite this hunger people experience so little real spiritual conversation.
We are people of seemingly endless communication. So much talk, so much hearing, so much noise, yet so little of it addresses our heart, so little of it emerges from deep within us. Our talk just seems to skim across the surface of life. A few years back a close friend of mine coined the term surface dwellers to refer to so many of us. We are persons who stubbornly accept the dynamics of our inner lives as “givens”—like blinking or sneezing, or the sky’s color, we do not need to seriously think about them. We consider them things that need not be explored, reflected upon, or challenged. Surface dwellers move through life like sailboats without rudders—vessels attached to the fortunes and misfortunes of the surrounding winds and currents—and have, as a consequence, resigned themselves to the hope of their inner lives ever really changing. For surface dwellers, transformation is like putting on a coat, simply a question of externals. Surface dwellers refuse to believe that there is so much more to see, be, and become—from the inside out.