The other night we were out for a walk in our neighborhood and noticed the early signs of the fall season. The grass felt stiffer with a few more rusted leaves to kick around, the air was cooler and smelled fresher, the horses in the pasture across the road seemed a bit more mischievous, and Wall Lake had a growing number of a certain type of sea gull choiring their noise before continuing their journey somewhere south. I was trying to explain to Liam (now 13) how the fall is often a time for remembering favorite times, places, people, new beginnings and stuff that seems more central.
At one of our team meetings a few months ago, Emily presented a quote from Henri Nouwen’s Making All Things New as part of her devotional “Focusing Thought”. To be honest, I don’t remember what quote she read, but I do remember thinking, “I need to read the rest of that book.” Now, a few months later, I have finally read it and there were a few things that really struck me…
One thing that Nouwen wrote about has been a theme that I have experienced in my conversations with church people (laity and leadership) as well as in my own personal experiences with VP3 processes, both as facilitator and participant, in my own church.
Loneliness is without doubt one of the most widespread diseases of our time. It affects not only retired life but also family life, neighborhood life, school life, and business life. It causes suffering not only in elderly people but also in children, teenagers, and adults. It enters not only prisons but also private homes, office buildings, and hospitals. It is even visible in the diminishing interaction between people on the streets of our cities. Out of all this pervading loneliness many cry, ‘is there anyone who really cares? Is there anyone who can take away my inner sense of isolation? Is there anyone with whom I can feel at home?’
It is this paralyzing sense of separation that constitutes the core of much human suffering (Nouwen, 32).
Society is filled with lonely people. I know there are countless articles and blogs written on the perils of our technological, “social media society” that is both infinitely more connected while, at the same time, more socially isolated than ever before.
My point is not to sing that same tune.
My point is that we, as the church, should be different…
Unfortunately though, we fall into the same rhythm as the rest of society.
My hope is that we, as God’s church, may be able to create a new current of authentic community. I know “authentic community” has been a buzz term in churches for years, however, I feel we have missed our great opportunity…
Community has little to do with mutual compatibility. Similarities in educational background, psychological make-up, or social status can bring us together, but they can never be the basis for community. Community is grounded in God, who calls us together, and not in the attractiveness of people to each other (Nouwen, 82-83).
We have been so focused on creating opportunities for people to connect that we have neglected what (who) truly unites us as one.
My experience has shown that true, authentic community occurs when we place God in the center of a table surrounded by people who are hungering and thirsting for something more. I have seen how The Journey has helped create a place and an opportunity for a group of very different people to unite around our God. Through my Journey groups, I have seen and experienced God’s love, grace, mercy, compassion, discipline, refining, transformation…
How do we overcome this new kind of pervasive loneliness that, at first glance, doesn’t actually seem like loneliness?
We gather around God’s table with others who may or may not be anything like us in
any way, except for the fact that we have all come to the same table with a similar desire to get to know more fully the One who sits in the center.
“I wonder how you would sum up the Christian situation in the world today. For me, it’s a strange, rather tragic, and disturbing paradox. On the one hand, in many parts of the world the church is growing by leaps and bounds. But on the other hand, throughout the church, superficiality is everywhere. That’s the paradox. Growth without depth. No doubt God is not pleased with superficial discipleship. The apostolic writers of the New Testament declare with one voice that God wants us to grow up and grow into maturity in Christ.”
John Stott (1999)
It has been almost 15 years since Randy and I heard John Stott speak those words in his keynote address to the International Consultation on Discipleship in Eastbourne, England. We continue to be gripped by Stott’s call to be a deepening influence in the life of the Church.
One is hard pressed to find a time in history when the Church has gone more places, has activated more efforts, has provided more resources, and has proclaimed the gospel more widely than the Church in North America over the past several decades.
How many times have you heard yourself saying, or thinking,
“I don’t think I’m going to go to (fill in the blank).”
And then, you summon the energy, obedience, or heart to show up.
Later you hear yourself saying, or thinking, “I’m glad I went.”
What’s that all about?
I think I know the answer.
I’ve been reading comments included in The Journey assessments we have received at VP3.
Here’s a few that stood out:
“Once again I am faced with the fact that I cannot make this earthly journey alone.
I see saints all around me and know that they have a story that would shock me and yet a story that God wrote, is writing, and is totally IN!!!
Understanding that each of us has a unique story makes me so much more accepting of all people….everyone has some kind of battle.”
We are in the midst of the Facilitator Training Retreat season here @ VantagePoint3. 3 Retreats done (by the time this posts) – Glendora, CA, Kelowna, BC, and Indianapolis, IN. There are still 6 more Facilitator Training Retreats on the schedule…Atlanta, GA – in 5 days – and, in August, we will be in Dyer, IN (just south of Chicago), Grimsby, Ontario (the Greater Toronto Area, or, the southern end of “The Golden Horseshoe” ;), Sioux Falls, SD, Kelowna, BC, and Calgary, AB. So…It’s not too late to join us at one of our Retreats!
As we are nearing the “home stretch” for Facilitator Training Retreats, we are also thinking about what we can do to help all of our “Tribe” who has been trained to facilitate groups gather the people to experience the transformation that comes from intentionally walking with others through The Journey, A Way of Life, the Equipping Experience, or an Enriching Conversation.
Here is where we need help from you…
One thing we are working on to help our facilitators invite participants is a “Starting a Group” page on our website. The plan is to put sample invitations, ppt slides, notes, and letters that our partner churches have used in the past to invite participants and form groups. Ideally, these samples would be easy for people to download and edit with their church/organization information to personalize it for their unique context.
In my role with VP3 I have the privilege of swimming in a sea of beautiful feedback about how our ministry processes are actually impacting the spiritual growth of individuals and their local setting as a whole. This includes personal stories from facilitators as well as a lot of hardcore data gathered through online assessments participants choose to complete, and a more extensive research inquiry project underway.
To be honest, those of us involved with a VP3 process KNOW a lot of good things are happening in people’s lives. But to see the impact of this ministry work “by the numbers,” well, it’s a beautiful thing. So it is with a growing confidence and humble joy I share what we are learning.
Today’s facts are about participation in The Journey process. You may have a person or two you will enjoy sharing this with as well.
The top five reasons an adult in the local church will choose to say yes to participate in The Journey are:
1. Desiring to draw closer to God and grow deeper. 2. Desiring to re-ignite life with God; feeling their life of faith has grown stagnant. 3. Searching for purpose in life. 4. Recognizing that being with others–accountability–helps them grow. 5. Trusting the person that asked them.
Based on the combined assessment data voluntarily completed at the end of The Journey, we are learning that:
Susan (my wife) and I decided to tag team leading a Journey group in our church. Seven strong women (Judy, Jayme, Carla, Hannah, Rebekah, Andrea, Susan) as well as Seth and myself (we felt much less strong at times) made up our group. Everyone who leads a VP3 group believes they have the best one, and that would be true in my case. We quickly became a trusted community, learning more fully who we were as persons in the good company of each other.
Something shifts during the narrative sharing time. And it shifted for us. A level of honesty surfaced from the fathoms of our lives…an honesty that brought with it stories of visions and broken dreams, accomplishments and failures, cozy places and harsh desserts, influential heroes and painful abusers. All of it somehow used as tailored curriculum by the Spirit of God to etch out who we really are, and to prepare us for what is yet to come.
What caught my attention when Hannah shared her story was her written prayer–a prayer that reflected her courage to question and to confess. Hannah agreed to share a part of her story and her prayer. May both be a reminder of the One who draws near in those vulnerable moments of honesty.
Years ago I would have convinced myself that I could mastermind my sanctification and create a growth plan on my own time. But this Lone Ranger approach would skim the surface of what God intended and what I need.
This reminds me of my angst with a mandated seat belt law when I was a teen-ager. I thought it was an abuse of power by the State at the time. Only a few years later I realized that this mandate was put in place for my good because I was not mature enough to know what was in my best interest.
As I have matured as a Christ follower, I have learned a similar lesson. There is simply nothing better than a small learning and praying community stretched by reading and conversations that I did not even know were for my good. These experiences will protect me and grow me up to influence and serve beyond what I imagine and as God desires.
I have been particularly grabbed by three experiences during my Way of Life year that have been for my good.
1) The Way of Life material teed up crucial conversations about prayer, scripture reading and living truthfully that tore away my veil of performance anxiety and self consciousness and made these practices real and easier to discuss.
2) The session on Spiritual Gifts was the deepest and most meaningful dive I’ve taken into that subject. We were led through a beautiful process where I gained clarity on my gifts in the company of friends. Their encouragement will sharpen my “yes” and my “no” in serving well.
3) My absolute favorite experience during this Way of Life year has been the focus on our work as a place of mission. Our class split into small groups of three or four and we actually visited each other’s place of work. The host gave us a short tour, shared the challenges and highlights of their work, we asked questions, and prayed. To a person, every report on “how I see God-at-work in your life” was sacred ground. I even dare to say, this was as paradigm shifting and Kingdom enhancing as the sharing of our life stories during The Journey year. I was taken by surprise at how this impacted all of us.
If you, or your church is interested in more information on the Way Of Life process, please contact us. A Way of Life picks up where The Journey ends…deepening and empowering the life of the believer so that we might better participate and model this life of faith and finish well.
A few years ago I stumbled across a journal entry of Henri Nouwen; and as so often before, his words deeply resonated with my heart. Nouwen wrote,
I have come to realize how hard it is to have a real spiritual conversation. I keep wondering how people with deep religious convictions can speak together at table about the life of the Spirit. What did Jesus speak about at table? It seems that for Jesus the meal was the place and time to preach the good news. For me that is a real challenge. It always strikes me how grateful people are for a good spiritual conversation, but also how hard it is to make such a conversation happen. Most conversations are chains of free association in which people simply drift from one subject to another, often guided by little else than what happens to come into their minds.*
In the circles in which I move, I hear a longing among people for more conversations about the things that matter most to them; and yet despite this hunger people experience so little real spiritual conversation.
We are people of seemingly endless communication. So much talk, so much hearing, so much noise, yet so little of it addresses our heart, so little of it emerges from deep within us. Our talk just seems to skim across the surface of life. A few years back a close friend of mine coined the term surface dwellers to refer to so many of us. We are persons who stubbornly accept the dynamics of our inner lives as “givens”—like blinking or sneezing, or the sky’s color, we do not need to seriously think about them. We consider them things that need not be explored, reflected upon, or challenged. Surface dwellers move through life like sailboats without rudders—vessels attached to the fortunes and misfortunes of the surrounding winds and currents—and have, as a consequence, resigned themselves to the hope of their inner lives ever really changing. For surface dwellers, transformation is like putting on a coat, simply a question of externals. Surface dwellers refuse to believe that there is so much more to see, be, and become—from the inside out.
My brother is one of my favorite persons. Over the past many years he has been an odd blend of friend, priest, absolute favorite guitar player, and sometimes has even played well the role of annoying brother.
One time he said to me, “I think there are rare moments when we are so in-step with the Holy Spirit that it is like cutting through paper with scissors without squeezing the blades together. When all you need to do is lightly push.”