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:
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.