At midlife Augustine (354-430 AD), reflecting upon his own growth and upon the struggles of pastoring his congregation in North Africa, concluded that the central image used by most of his contemporaries for describing the spiritual life—that of “a vertical ascent” or a ladder—was inadequate. Instead, he increasingly characterized the Christian life as “a long highway” or a journey. And according to his biographer Peter Brown, Augustine “resented traveling: he always associated it with a sense of protracted labor and of the infinite postponement of his dearest wishes; and these associations will color the most characteristic image of the spiritual life in his middle age.”* Traveling in the ancient world was dangerous. Many threats were faced including hunger, exhaustion, bad weather, robbery, shipwreck, and death. Augustine did not have in mind the romantic connotations of scenic vistas and exotic locations and safe adventures when he used this journey imagery to encourage and sustain his believing congregation.
For some time, a traveler’s journey has been a powerful image for the life of faith. But ancient journeying, not its modern counterpart, is the image for faithfulness. It always entails a risky, faith-full movement from the familiar into the unfamiliar. Walking with Jesus involves courage and endurance and conditioning and discouragement and patience and grace and vigilance.
I once heard Dr. James Houston comment that in the North American Church we have spiritual maps and mapmakers, ad nausea, when what we really need is a few mountain guides who have been there before us on the journey. So much of what passes for adult discipleship or leadership development today lacks interpersonal investment, life upon life. Simply telling others to grow up into Christ will not cut it, no matter how articulately or creatively or loudly we state it. We desperately need leaders who befriend and guide and come alongside others; we need to provide a leadership of companionship in our contexts that actually helps others be awakened to Christ and freed up to “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19).
There are a lot of VP3 alumni folks, who care deeply about growing up and helping others grow up into Christ, who are moving back a little closer to the table, in light of Randy Reese’s passing last summer. As these people ask me the question, “How can we help VP3?” increasingly I am responding by saying — “Lead a Journey group again!” It is such a win-win, both personally for the folks leading and for us organizationally as we seek to live out our mission of helping men and women discover more deeply who God is, who they are, and what God is desiring to do through them. Leading a Journey group is a demanding commitment, but it is such a rewarding commitment. Like few other things, one consistently gets a front row seat on God’s activity in the nitty gritty of people’s lives.
Recently I was connecting with an alumni VP3 facilitator who started a Journey group this winter after several years of not leading a group. I asked Gerry about his perspectives on this conversation. May his thoughtful responses be an encouragement to you.
Rob: What was the impetus for you returning to facilitate The Journey?
Gerry: I wanted to get back to becoming involved in the lives of people who are committed to becoming more Christlike and who are prepared to open themselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I needed to again see, first hand, the Holy Spirit at work and to marvel at the impact the Spirit has on our everyday lives. I needed to see this in order to keep striving and moving toward maturity myself and to fulfill my obligation to come alongside others in their journeys. I needed to again become involved at the level of real human lives to balance my inclination to live in the realm of church visions, strategies, plans and church governance issues.
Rob: What have you noticed as you have re-engaged in the process and walked with a new Journey group?
Throughout the past fall and winter I felt nudged by the Lord to start a new Journey group. Amidst the many challenges I was facing personally and we were facing organizationally, I was searching for a way to be more intentional with my own life with the Lord, and with others. How could I cultivate a greater attention and prayerfulness with the things that matter most in my life? How could I find a space and a place to bring some of those important things, which I have been placing on the backburner of my attention, to the front burner.
So I started a Journey group in late March, meeting at noon on Fridays, about twice a month. There are seven of us, all guys, each of us from different contexts and churches. It has been timely for us all. It is such a privilege to get a front row seat on others’ development in Christ. I am prayerfully looking forward to the places the Spirit is going to lead.
This past Friday we finished up Stage 1 and what grabbed me in particular was the prayer at the end of the Personal Biblical Mandate session. I would encourage you to read this one out loud a few times, seeing what grabs you, finding those particular phrases or images you need to reflect further upon and pray more intently. In reading and reflecting upon Jeremiah 1-2, Walter Brueggemann writes/prays,
You are the God who makes extravagant promises.
We relish your great promises of fidelity
and presence and solidarity,
and we exude in them.
Only to find out, always too late, that your promise always comes
in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.
You are the God who calls people like us,
and the long list of mothers and fathers before us,
who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.
So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,
who calls always to dangerous new places.
We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us that we may be among those
who believe your promises enough to respond to your call.
We pray in the one who embodied your promise and enacted your call, even Jesus.
Many people are startled and saddened by the degree of aloneness they experience in adulthood. From the outside it seems like family and work and church would provide a vital sense of being known. For many, though, the reality of their hectic and competitive lives keeps them skimming across the surface of their relationships with spouse and children and coworkers and their church community. Their intentions for faithful living and service are well meaning, even noble, but their individualistic approaches prove inadequate to the task. They have consciously or unconsciously sought to make it on their own, and have found, over time, their lives desperately lacking, their souls shriveled. Sadly, the tale of an individual human life is too often told as a sequence of independent and unshared moments.
As we pay attention to the rhythm of our lives, a critical element to discern is this tendency toward isolation. Few things are more predictive of not finishing well than isolation as a way of life. Living faithfully with Jesus and others is simply too hard to do alone. So in the midst of our many relationships do we confide in and pray with and sort out our deepest questions and life challenges with some key people? Or do we have a prevailing tendency to keep this type of stuff to ourselves?
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:
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…
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…
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.”
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…