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.
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.”
“The church is always more than a school…
but the church cannot be less than a school.”
Historian Jaroslav Pelikan included these critical words on the first page of his five-volume history of Christian doctrine. Around VantagePoint3 circles, we would tweak Pelikan’s language a little bit by saying—the church is always more than a learning community, but the church must never be less than a learning community. We are formed to worship, to fellowship, to be sent out into the world in Jesus’ name—all essential tasks of the church. But we must recognize that the church is also essentially a place of ongoing education. From the crib to the grave, a church community must be a place where we learn to make sense of our lives and of the world, where we explore with a fresh imagination what our lives could really become, where we learn together to follow Jesus and his way of life in the world. The church is always more than a learning community, but never less.
Sadly it seems that many adults are simply surviving, hoping to get by with what they already know; learning is for children and teenagers, or so they think. There is often very little expectation of further movement and development in their adult lives. We desperately need communities whose life together challenges such notions; we need churches where the cultivation of a lifelong learning posture is Discipleship 101.
A learning posture of the heart and the mind does not discriminate between Sunday morning sermons and Tuesday night dishwashing, between classroom lectures and dinner table conversation, between sunsets and supermarkets. It is a cultivated paying attention, which operates within the everydayness and everywhereness of life. And when practiced over the long haul it is what the ancients called the way of wisdom. Or as Christian educator Steve Garber states, “we understand that the deepest lessons are not learned in text books, but instead are discovered as learning meets life.”
Things were very different just 500 years ago. The Bible was available in Latin – ordinary people like you and me did not have access to the Scriptures.
That didn’t seem right to William Tyndale. We all recognize his name – the man who defied the King of England to translate the Scriptures into English. His efforts changed England and changed the world.
But do you recognize the name Humphrey Monmouth? I didn’t until I recently read the book, “Gospel Patrons,” by John Rinehart.
Monmouth supported William Tyndale – his life and his work – and his zeal to get the Bible into the hands of people like you and me. The activities of Monmouth and Tyndale were illegal and eventually both were imprisoned. Tyndale was hanged and burned at the stake. God used their passion and sacrifice to change the course of history and the Church. Today, we can thank these two faithful visionary men every time we open our Bibles.
Think about the life change God brought about through your time in The Journey. What if that “change” was replicated in even more lives and churches across North America? What if more church attenders became even more dedicated followers of Jesus, considering first His way instead of our own? What could be the strength of God’s Church in Canada and the US if that happened?
Intentionally walking with others, helping them grow deeper in their faith, becomes transformative when we make space to notice others particularly. For it is in the conditions of lives shared, honored, noticed, and enjoyed—that is, friendship—that something of the Spirit’s nurturing grace is imparted to us and through us to others. This noticing involves expecting God to work in the lives of those around us. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson points out that we must cultivate a sense of expectancy when it comes to helping our community mature and grow. Peterson writes,
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…
I have a friend who recently completed The Journey. She grew up in church and has a strong legacy of faith. Yet in the midst of The Journey, something happened – she began to see things from a new vantage point . . .
Just this week I grabbed a swanky paintbrush along with trendy milk paint and moved mountains on my outdoor patio. This life-changing milk paint requires no furniture prepping, no matter what foundational shape it is in. With each stroke and glide of the brush, the foamy and runny paint covered nicely and adequately over the dark, unfinished wood coating my Adirondack chairs. I was enthralled at how nicely the paint set, leaving no streaks or drips behind.
As a hurried, restless, somewhat overscheduled woman who would typically prefer to purchase a prefinished furniture piece, I was surrendering my past ways of laziness and stepping into a delightful journey of DIY initiatives. The tedious hours spent painting and creating stirred something in my soul to come up for some air and bask in the glory of completing a project.
Short thought this time…
A few weeks ago I was leading two Facilitator Retreats; one in Olympia, Washington and two days later in Warwick, New York. I found myself emphasizing to both groups of pastors and lay-leaders the importance of caring for themselves,
“Taking care of yourself is not selfish. In fact, as a person who is leading others, it is one of the least selfish things you can do because you cannot care for others well if you have not taken proper care of yourself. Not for very long, at least.”
It didn’t hit me the first time I said it. It took me hearing myself say it to others a second time before I stopped myself and I took notice. Then, when I got home from that week of two Facilitator Retreats, my pastor preached on Psalm 90:12. Two days later, during our VP3 Team Meeting, Pam’s focusing thought revolved around Psalm 90:12…
I think God is reminding me to pay attention to something. I guess I better take my own advice and clear some space so I can better perceive what He is saying!
Perhaps you do too…
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.