Twenty-six years ago Paul and Dorothy Grout and three other couples moved to Putney, VT, to plant a Church of the Brethren congregation where there were no Brethren and where Christianity was rather weak. They had a five year commitment to each other to sort of live in a quasi-community setting and work together to raise up a worshipping community. Things went well and a church grew up in the village of Putney.
After the initial five year commitment, one of the couples left to pastor elsewhere and the couple had some struggles of a personal nature, leaving the work rather much in the hands of the Grouts. As the nineties unfolded, and it became increasingly apparent that sweeping, deep-seated changes were spreading though our culture and, consequently the church, Paul stepped back from his role as pastor and began to pursue answers to the pervasive loneliness, emptiness and brokenness of our world today.
This led Paul and Dorothy to form A Place Apart. A Place Apart is partly a place, but it embodies much more. A Place Apart is a movement that calls people who are longing for genuine spiritual transformation to gather around some mutual hopes and dreams and to purse holistic spirituality. You can go, as I did, to the "place" and spend time with Paul and Dorothy in spiritual conversation. In this sense APA is sort of a brethren L'Abri (Google it if you do not know). But you can also connect with APA by resonating with their deep desire to seek God in his fullness, and tapping into the resources they offer.
I spent a few days with Paul and Dorothy this past week. It was refreshing. Unbeknownst to me, Paul and his team have been asking very similar questions as have plagued my heart in recent years. What is genuine Christianity and what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What does Jesus really want for us, from us? Where has the church been strong and where has it been weak? Why are so many backing away from the church today, and from the Christian faith? (You may have read in the news this past year that the New England region is now the most secular area of our nation, beating out the Northwest which held this honor in previous years.) What has the rapid pace of our life, the dominance of greed and entertainment, the pursuit of wealth, and the extreme secularism of our world, done to our souls? How do we repair this damage? How do we live in such a way that Jesus is represented well to our neighbors, so that they might see God and the love that he has for them?
These are extremely difficult questions that many of us are asking these days. Paul quickly confesses that he has no definitive answers and there is no quick fix. We do know that there will be no program coming down form our denomination that will fix this. Institutional structures show increasing signs of deterioration and will likely completely fail in the years ahead. But there is hope and there are clues as to what God is calling us to. However, we are rather much on our own for find like-minded people and build relationships and networks together so that we might seek God together and build on one another's insights.
At the heart of APA lies the cry for spiritual wholeness and healing. Paul and his team have developed a way of looking at holistic spiritual formation around three motifs. (I was surprised at how closely these three concepts align with the three R's of discipleship that I have been writing and preaching about, but more on that at some other time. This similarity is no accident or coincidence but rather evidence of what God is raising up in many hearts and many places.)
I want to very briefly define the three motifs around which APA works at spiritual formation, but I do so with some trepidation. These concepts can be easily misunderstood, if one is not able to lay aside pre-conceived ideas around what these words mean. So I caution you to understand that what I offer here records my understanding from a short time at APA, and comes only in brief summary form. But here goes.
Holistic Spirituality means that we develop the Warrior, Mystic and Monk aspects of our souls. The Warrior relates to being spiritually and physically prepared for spiritual battle with the forces of evil present in our world, and in our own souls. The Mystic connects us with the spiritual world, and the movement of God, deepening our ability to know God and to recognize his ways. And the Monk part of us calls us to live in community with others and to order the pace and focus of our lives around the things that bring healing and wholeness to life. (Again, this is a very brief and simplistic explanation.) Paul and APA developed practical spiritual practices in each of these areas which seek to help us develop these aspect of our being with the goal of setting us free to be truly alive. I found it very helpful and refreshing, and it served to stretch my own thinking and to inform my understanding of the kind of spiritual vitality God is seeking to form in us. (Those of you reading this who are familiar with my Three R's of Discipleship can think about how they relate to the Warrior, Mystic, Monk motifs. I find the parallels amazing.)
I need to end this post for now. Let me conclude by saying that Doris felt my trip to visit with Paul would be very significant in regard to what I have been seeking during this Sabbatical. I think she was right, as usual.