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:
When a group of folks gathered to remember Randy and pray the afternoon before his Celebration of Life service on August 19th, Matthew Burch—a close friend of Randy and VP3—prefaced his thoughts by reading a short excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s Run with the Horses. Peterson’s observations of a life of faith, shared in the light of Randy’s story, have surfaced over and again over these past several weeks. I share them with you as an invitation and a challenge to live a life alive to God. Peterson writes,
The Bible makes it clear that every time there is a story of faith, it is completely original. God’s creative genius is endless. He never, fatigued and unable to maintain the rigors of creativity, resorts to mass-producing copies. Each life is a fresh canvas on which he uses lines and colors, shades and lights, textures and proportions that he has never used before.
We see what is possible: anyone and everyone is able to live a zestful life that spills out of the stereotyped containers that a sin-inhibited society provides. Such lives fuse spontaneity and purpose and green the desiccated landscape with meaning. And we see how it is possible: by plunging into a life of faith, participating in what God initiates in each life, exploring what God is doing in each event. The persons we meet on the pages of Scripture are remarkable for the intensity with which they live Godwards, the thoroughness in which all the details of their lives are included in God’s word to them, in God’s action in them. It is these persons, who are conscious of participating in what God is saying and doing, who are most human, most alive. These persons are evidence that none of us is required to live “at this poor dying rate” for another day, another hour.
(Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, IVP 1983)
We serve a very creative and developmental God who uses the disruptions in our lives to shape and mature us—times of failure and transition, moments of questioning, loss, and possibility. Growing up into Christ consists of both long, slow stretches of continuity and more sudden turns of discontinuity. These turns or detours or sidetracks in our stories offer such significant possibilities for who we are, who we are becoming, and how we serve others in Jesus’ name. And if we are walking with people, investing in their development, we must pay particular attention to these periods of confrontation and discontinuity in their life stories; for these transitional seasons often prove to be heightened times of new learning and growth.
As many of you look ahead to the fall start of The Journey in your contexts, I would encourage you to pay attention to people who are in transitions. Recruit folks who are coping with significant life changes. Look for those who may be newly graduated or recently unemployed; men and women who are approaching retirement or wondering about a career change; folks who have been coping with a major loss over the past five years, like the death of a loved one or a divorce or an illness; men or women pondering what their new passion or burden or life-dream has to do with the Lord’s leading; people at mid-life who are being confronted within by a growing dissatisfaction with their life of faith – Is this as good as it gets? The different sorts of pressures and frustrations and losses that are experienced during these times of change and transition provide such fertile soil for a deeper discovery of the Spirit’s personal presence, grace, and direction.
So as you consider who to invite into The Journey process this fall I would encourage to not overlook those who are facing new life chapters…
I’m on the other side of the marathon I ran in Winnipeg, Manitoba June 19th, healed up and oddly enough wondering when I could do the next one.
Some have asked, “Why run a marathon in Winnipeg?” It was my birth-place and it fit my schedule. To be honest I was hoping it was not going to be my death-place on June 19th, although that would have made for a cool story.
Some have asked, “Why run a marathon?” I ran my first and only marathon about 20 years ago when I was feeling prompted to “sell the farm” and move to Southern California to pursue my doctorate at Fuller Seminary. I knew then, and in part prompted during my marathon run that the Lord was up to something in my heart that would somehow connect to what the Lord was up to “out there.” About a year ago I felt a prompting to get ready to run another marathon curious if the Lord was going to prompt me again, and just to see if I could do it again.
For those of you keen on such things I ran the Manitoba Marathon in 4 hours 36 minutes. My goal was to hit somewhere between 4:15 and 4:30. Not bad for 54. If you’ve done a marathon you know that the halfway point isn’t 13.1 miles, but mile 20. For me it felt like up to mile 19 was a long warm up for the next 6.2 miles. Although I had to stop a few times after mile 19 from cramping and feeling like I was going to flake out from the humidity, I eventually made it across the finish line exhausted but deeply satisfied.
The Lord did prompt a few things at various miles during the race:
• At mile 9: I need the encouragement of others to run the race well. Susan is at the top of the pile as my encouraging and attractive cheerleader. Having Liam and my sister Cynthia and brother-in-law Kevin cheering me on was so good. I recalled the number of friends, family…saints really who have encouraged me on. So grateful for how the Lord has blessed me with people rich in love and encouragement.
There is a Hebrew saying: “Hold a book in your hand and you’re a pilgrim at the gates of a new city.” A really good book gives shape to a new horizon, stretching our imaginations of what is good and important and possible in the world. So this summer, whether we lounge by the pool, the lake or we find ourselves at the beach or simply sitting on our back deck, let us be pilgrims this summer. Here are four recommendations for some good reading from our VP3 offices. Blessings.
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
Most folks have been introduced to L’Engle by her wonderful novel A Wrinkle in Time. In this set of twelve “memoir-like” reflections she thoughtfully explores the relationship between her life as an artist and her life as a Christian. Whether one considers oneself “an artist” or not, L’Engle gracefully challenges us all as God’s image bearers to engage the world with creativity and compassion. This is a beautiful book.
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
True to Gladwell’s unique writing style, he provides some remarkable stories of people who seemed “lesser,” who against the odds overcame crazy obstacles and achieved what they only dreamed possible. David and Goliath provides inspiration for one’s own journey in overcoming personal obstacles, as well as situations one might face that need to be overcome. Perspective, faith, perseverance, and surprise will bring you much hope.
Most recently I have found myself gravitating toward the theme of brokenness. What do wise people have to say about those uncomfortable and disorienting times when we come face to face with our frailty, our fallenness, and our limits? Frederick Buechner’s insight in The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days has grabbed me this week. Buechner writes,
But when it comes to putting broken lives back together … the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best you have it in you to do — to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst — is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.
Amidst the many transitions and troubles of our lives Lord, let us be open to your invitation to go deeper and discover the radical difference between our human best and your holy best. You are our hiding place (Psalm 32:6-7).
So here are the questions I have been asking myself:
• In all honesty, how much of my “Christian” life is really more of an exercise in gritting my teeth and clenching my fists than in opening myself up to the Spirit and to others?
• Where is the Spirit asking me to lower my defenses and trust his good and wise leadership in my life?
A phrase interrupted the tasks and interactions of my morning, and I think invited me to a bit of a focusing thought for this Holy Week–the surprise of brokenness.
Near the tail end of Greg Paul’s wonderful little book God in the Alley: Being and Seeing Jesus in a Broken World (Shaw, 2004), Paul speaks of brokenness as a place of meeting, a place where we both discover and reveal the presence of Jesus in the world. He writes,
I am more likely to have Jesus revealed to me and through me in weakness than in strength, sinfulness than in purity, or doubt than in perfect faithfulness. If I can sum up all these “failures of the spirit,” all these ways in which nothing ever seems to work the way it should—not the people around me, not the sequence of events that I witness or in which I find myself engaged, and certainly not the operation of my own contrary heart—if I can sum up all these things with the single term brokenness, then I come to this astonishing conclusion: Jesus is found in brokenness….
The surprise of brokenness is not just that the Almighty allowed himself to be broken, and that he invites me to touch him there in that brokenness. It’s also that my own brokenness—that hidden, ugly, twisted stuff that I had expected would disqualify me forever from his friendship, and that, if it were known, would torpedo all my other relationships too—is precisely the place where he desires to touch me, and it is the place where I am most able to truly connect with other people. (page 110)
May we be open this Holy Week to finding Jesus amidst brokenness and vulnerability….
Recently I have been listening to some folks who are getting close to finishing up The Journey and are considering moving along our pathway into the next process A Way of Life. And as I listen to them sort this decision out, I keep on thinking about psychologist Henry Cloud’s words in his book Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. I thought I would share the extended quote. Cloud writes,
For someone to grow, there has to be a connection to outside sources of energy. Who is pushing you to grow? Who is supporting you to grow? Who is pushing you past the level at which you already are? Where is the encouragement coming from?
The number one reason for lack of growth in people’s lives, I have observed, is the absence of joining forces outside themselves who push them to grow. Instead, they keep telling themselves that they will somehow, by willpower or commitment, make themselves grow. That never works.
But if they enlist a coach, join a group, get a counselor, a community of growth, or some outside push, then the growth begins to happen. It is the coach pushing us to greater heights, the sales manager motivating you to something you can’t do, the Weight Watchers group motivating you to try a new course. On the other hand, if it is all self-motivation, then decay, decline, and dying take over, especially when we hit the stuck places where more is required that we don’t have. But, if there is fuel from the outside, we are pushed further that we are able.
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).