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.”
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?
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. God’s 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 
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).
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.”
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.
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.
In October 2014 we hosted A VP3 Gathering in Banff, Alberta and addressed the topic of “Walking with God and Others through Pain and Suffering.” Scott Shaum (Barnabas International) cultivated a deeply meaningful conversation about God’s person, character and shaping work, our life experiences, and our deep desire to walk well with others through darker times. We so appreciated the time together that when we got back to Sioux Falls we immediately began to talk about how we might offer this same gathering somewhere in the States in the near future. This April, the weekend after Easter, we will be hosting this same VP3 Gathering in the greater Chicago area.
Walking with God and Others through Pain and Suffering
April 21-23, 2017
Cedar Lake, Indiana
Little did we know when we calendared this retreat, the meaning it would hold for us and the greater VP3 community. Personally it has been an utterly heart-breaking and stretching 5+ months since Randy’s passing, but also a profoundly meaningful time as well. The Lord’s dependability has been over overwhelming.
I am more aware now than ever that growth in Christ is never a simple, straight line from infancy to maturity. Finishing well as a person is a beautiful thing, but it is not an inevitability. There are many barriers and obstacles and dynamics in the world that seek to derail, distract, and discourage us from a well-lived life of “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). If we are to persist at living well with the Lord and others, then we must bring to the table our best thinking and praying about living wisely and faithfully amidst great difficulties.
This morning we began the new year as a VP3 team by returning to a poem we discussed during a meeting last January. Much has occurred since we last visited with these words. And perhaps these words are more timely now then they were 12 months ago.
Our sights for 2017 remain set upon the Holy Spirit’s gracious and deepening work in the world. We have been called, in particular, to cooperate with the Spirit’s work by helping men and women discover more deeply who God is, who they are, and what God desires to do through them. An urgent work; a patient work. I suspect “Patient Trust” will continue to speak into our lives and efforts as we look ahead to 2017 and beyond.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
Yet it is the law of all progress that is
made by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.
Do you have a few more gifts left to purchase, but not sure what to give? Consider one of the following four book recommendations from the VP3 team. Merry Christmas friends…
#1 – Shauna Niequist, Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living
A great book for busy women! Niequist shares through short essays the story of how she found freedom, peace, and health in saying no to the constant doing and proving-yourself life. She provides guilt-free encouragement to simply be who you were made to be right in the middle of all of life’s messes. This is a freeing book.
#2 – Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best
If you are looking for a deeper dive into Scripture and into your life, we recommend this exploration into the life of the prophet Jeremiah. Peterson invites us to both reflect upon and live our lives at their fullest; distinctive lives of meaning, passion, and deep engagement with God and the world.
One of things that jumps off the pages of the gospels is how often Jesus paused, stepped back, and took time to be alone in order to draw closer to God. The gospels record over and again that Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to pray. (Mark 1:35; 6:31, 45–46; Luke 4:42; 5:16; 6:12; Matthew 26:38–42). It makes me wonder, if even Jesus needed time to be alone with the Father, how much more do we?
Over the centuries, seasoned disciples of Jesus all point to this basic and fundamental reality that we need to find a deserted place to pray if we hope to engage the world compassionately like Jesus.
For in times of solitude and prayer we encounter more deeply our dignity and uniqueness as persons in God’s image; we experience our brokenness and deep need; we discover we are not alone; we find the Father graciously drawing us to himself, assuring us that we are loved and forgiven; and we recognize the Spirit inviting us to join in on Jesus’ healing and mending mission in the world and in our community.
We commonly associate this deserted place with spiritual retreat. James Martin describes retreat this way,
“Essentially, a retreat means taking time away from the busy-ness of everyday life in order to focus more on your spiritual life. A retreat is an extended period of time spent with God in prayer.”
One of the more powerful experiences in the VP3 Pathway of processes is the composing and sharing of life narratives. So many good things emerge in people’s lives as a result of engaging in intense and prayerful self-reflection, in sharing of life stories, and in hearing the others’ stories around the table. Something seems to actually shift in people’s hearts and imaginations. Honoring the particular in every person’s story has transformational impact—we do not remain the same.
Few greater gifts can be offered to a person in today’s largely anonymous and hurried social reality than an honoring awareness of his or her particular life story. Cistercian monk Michael Casey puts this so eloquently: