The grace we seek

In the eighth century, Christian theologians began describing the relationship among the persons of the Trinity as a dynamic communion, a dance of three persons. Gods triune and dynamic presence creates space within that presence, a space into which we can be drawn. The Son, who is both God and human, reaches out to us, taking hold of our hand and welcoming us into this dance, this perfect love of God.

 

Debra Rienstra [1]

 

At every level, the Christian gospel begins with God’s initiating love: creation, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God takes the first step over and again inviting us into his dance, his loving life. The Spirit of Jesus moves toward us freely and graciously and with full knowledge of our particular frailties, resistances, indifferences, vices, and virtues. And he makes space for us to share in this Trinitarian community of perfect love.

 

Jesus describes our relational responsibility when he implores his first disciples to “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). The Message translates his invitation—“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” Christian maturity is not a technique or program or formula, but it is a life of learning to keep company with Jesus. Gordon Smith writes,

 

Without an emphasis on union with Christ, spiritual formation will be a frustrated effort to become like Christ. It will eventually become nothing more than self-development. The grace we seek is not so much to be like Christ as to live in dynamic union with Christ, abiding in him as he abides in us (John 15:4).[2]

 

Might some of us be trying to live the Christian life without actually involving ourselves with God? It is foolishness and frustration to strive after an ideal life of Christlikeness without opening ourselves to God’s gracious friendship. God intends to transform our lives—yes—but more fundamentally, God desires to share his very life with us. Our maturity then becomes a by-product of immersing ourselves in this relationship with Jesus. As C. S. Lewis concludes in Mere Christianity, “The whole purpose for which we live is to be thus taken into the life of God.”

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God is not in the mass-production business

this-is-my-story-this-is-my-songWhen a group of folks gathered to remember Randy and pray the afternoon before his Celebration of Life service on August 19th, Matthew Burch—a close friend of Randy and VP3—prefaced his thoughts by reading a short excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s Run with the Horses. Peterson’s observations of a life of faith, shared in the light of Randy’s story, have surfaced over and again over these past several weeks. I share them with you as an invitation and a challenge to live a life alive to God. Peterson writes,

 

         The Bible makes it clear that every time there is a story of faith, it is completely original. God’s creative genius is endless. He never, fatigued and unable to maintain the rigors of creativity, resorts to mass-producing copies. Each life is a fresh canvas on which he uses lines and colors, shades and lights, textures and proportions that he has never used before.

         We see what is possible: anyone and everyone is able to live a zestful life that spills out of the stereotyped containers that a sin-inhibited society provides. Such lives fuse spontaneity and purpose and green the desiccated landscape with meaning. And we see how it is possible: by plunging into a life of faith, participating in what God initiates in each life, exploring what God is doing in each event. The persons we meet on the pages of Scripture are remarkable for the intensity with which they live Godwards, the thoroughness in which all the details of their lives are included in God’s word to them, in God’s action in them. It is these persons, who are conscious of participating in what God is saying and doing, who are most human, most alive. These persons are evidence that none of us is required to live “at this poor dying rate” for another day, another hour.

(Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, IVP 1983)

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Recruit folks facing transitions

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…

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The number one reason for lack of growth

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.

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From Monologue to Dialogue

Small GroupGrowing 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.

 

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Friendship is not the cherry on top

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.

 

People on PierIt 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).

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We don’t “get over” it

82D07E67-F5C3-4DE6-9CE7-7854EE51281FAs 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…

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The great danger of busyness

Slide01During 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.

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Waiting on a Seed of Promise

“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 applapple_food_fruit_slice_735_350e 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.

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Am I listening?

Chicago Skyline

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.”

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