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.
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.”
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.
An important question we all need to be asking ourselves is, “How deeply rooted am I with God?”
How blessed is the man
Who does not walk in the counsel
of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates
day and night.
He will be like a tree
Firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
From my perspective, there can (basically) be three possibilities. Since this is about being “deeply rooted,” lets look at trees as the example…
This is an excerpt from session one of A Way of Life. It bears repeating for me, and maybe for you, too.
There is a story of a five-year-old boy and his mother, who every night put him to bed. She came into his room to talk to him, and to tuck him in, and to pray with him. Some nights they sang together – “Jesus loves me, this I know . . .” or “The B-I-B-L-E! Yes, that’s the book for me” or “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . .” or any other of those many early songs he never remembered actually learning, but always somehow seemed to know.
One night while they sang, Mother began to harmonize with the melody of the song. As the boy stuck to the familiar tune, he could hear and feel the movement of her notes weave beautifully with his. Her voice added depth and breadth and beauty to this simple song. The song felt larger, more beautiful.
“What are you doing?” he asked her.
“I am singing the harmony,” she replied.
Harmony. He had never heard that word before. They continued singing. Mother harmonizing, now deepening, now widening, now filling in, her voice dancing lovingly around his. It was beautiful.
Then she said, “Now you try! You be the harmony.”
Alice Shirey has had the opportunity of facilitating over 40 folks in multiple A Way of Life groups over the past two years. These are people who have completed The Journey and taken the next step to walk through our A Way of Life process. I asked her to reflect upon what she had been noticing in these groups, what’s been standing out to her as she considers the many different people that have participated. Here are Alice’s reflections:
As a two-time facilitator of A Way of Life, I have had a front row seat at some of God’s best work; the transformation of lives. It never ceases to amaze me, and often brings me to tears.
A few things are especially sweet:
1. The honesty in the room.
I don’t know if it is the overflow of vulnerability from the shared experience of The Journey class, or the nature of the curriculum, but I have not witnessed much “faking it” over the last two years. Even in large group discussions, the honesty, vulnerability and trust have been palpable. When this kind of environment occurs in the church, growth is often inevitable.
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.
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]