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).
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.
“People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us.”
“A waiting person is a patient person. The word ‘patience’ means the willingness to stay where we are and live it out to the fullest in the belief that something is hidden there and will manifest itself to you.”
Henri J. M. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Waiting
After cutting up an apple for my kids one afternoon, my son Davy, then 3 years old, asked if he could have the seeds. I put the seeds in his small hand and walked him to the back door. I watched him as he picked up a toy watering can and took maybe two small steps off the patio into the yard. He bent over moved some dirt, laid the seeds down, covered them and watered the spot. He then stood there watching and waiting. After what I know was less than a minute, I saw his small shoulders drop down with disappointment. He turned and walked away, coming back to the door. As I was opening the door for him, he looked up and said to me, “Mom, those seeds were broken.”
Our son started teaching me lessons on waiting from the Lord before he was even born. We learned in my 30th week of pregnancy that something wasn’t right with Davy’s stomach and that raised a few red flags and several tests. We waited 6 long weeks to find out if he was going to be ok. The last 2 weeks of that waiting were the worst because they became haunted by the phrase “we are not sure yet if he will even survive.”
Through the prayer and support of family and friends we felt surprisingly more and more at peace during those six weeks. We found ourselves holding onto a seed of hope, a promise from God that it was simply going to be ok. Not a promise that our baby boy was going to be ok, but that whatever the outcome, God was promising us it was going to be ok.
Like many of you, I’ve worked through The Journey a few times with groups of wonderful people. I’m in my fifth go round, still learning, still working through my personal journey, this time with a new group of friends.
Today I read something I’ve read before (at least four times, anyway), and it spoke to me again. These are Frederick Buechner’s words in the session titled, “Participating in God’s General Call.”