Thomas Hemerken, better known to the world as Thomas a’ Kempis, was born late in the 14th century. Born of poor parents, he entered the monastery in 1399 and worked there for an astounding seventy-two years. He was widely known as a preacher and spiritual advisor, but his chief claim to fame was writing devotional material. One of his books, written in the early 1400’s, has remained available since that time, The Imitation of Christ. It continues to be regarded as a spiritual classic. This morning, Phil, Jane and Kristy, as we consecrate you for the role of spiritual leadership, I thought it wise to offer you this holy man’s insights on how to develop greater spiritual maturity, sharing with you his guidance on how to strengthen your faith by patterning it upon the example of Christ. Hear some of the spiritual principles gleaned Thomas a’ Kempis’ devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, set forth under the section, “Lovers of the cross are few.”
Cultivate the Inner Life
The Kingdom of God is within you. But you must turn to this kingdom with your entire being if its beauty is to be fully plumbed. Few people are naturally spiritual, that is to say, few people are spiritually astute without any expense of effort. We must work to develop our spirituality. But as we do so, we create room in our hearts for Christ. Indeed, Christ promises to come and abide with those who love him and to help us in our desire to seek spiritual development. But the Christ who seeks to set up household in our hearts may find difficulty fitting within our many priorities. Christ may find our hearts a very crowded place. We have so many ambitions within our heart that there is not much room for Christ. Part of improving our spiritual life is emptying ourselves of some our priorities so that we create more room within our hearts for Christ to reign within us. The more room for Christ we create within us, the more our priorities are influenced and defined by the Kingdom of Christ. Thomas a’ Kempis made a crucial observation that I reflect on frequently: we know best those with whom we commune most. The more we prioritize our lives around Christ, the more we allow Christ to reign within us; the more frequently we commune with Christ, the more profoundly the values and virtues of Christ come to orient the direction of our being.
Cultivate a Spirit of Humility
This sounds relatively easy, for we all think we are mostly humble of spirit now. Yet Thomas a’ Kempis notes that humility unto God is a humility quite different from our facile misconceptions. What we think of as humility is actually a feeble attempt to mask our pride. True humility is hard to define, hard to develop. But true humility begins with this recognition: we are to be a servant of every person. And we are to accept whatever task might come our way. Servanthood takes many different forms. Some of the tasks we are asked to do as Christ’s servants are relatively glamorous and prominent. Some are tedious, menial and onerous. Some may even go against the grain of our natural inclinations. But when we develop a spirit of humility, all of these tasks can edify us, and everyone we serve becomes our master in some way. Once we are willing to become everyone’s servant and fulfill any role, then every human being and every act of service becomes a guide and lamp, a prism of God’s presence for us.
Cultivate a Peaceful Spirit
Thomas a’ Kempis notes that the first key to being a peacemaker is to keep peace in one’s self. A peaceable spirit, notes Thomas a’ Kempis, allows a person to bring peace to turmoil and chaos. We should aspire to be peaceable, for a peaceable person does more good than even a person of great knowledge. Some people easily believe every evil about everyone. But a good and peaceable person turns all things to calm. A peaceable spirit is not suspicious of others’ motives. A peaceable spirit learns to bear with people in the assumption that people sometimes have to bear with us. Of course, living at peace with good and gentle folk is relatively easy. But as church leaders we will often find ourselves ministering to people who are not peaceable themselves. The mark of a truly peaceable person is that they are able to live peaceably with non-peaceable folk – such behavior requires great grace and skill. But know this about troublesome people: their unquiet spirit is evidence of a troubled soul. They are troubled with others because they are troubled within themselves. The turmoil they create on the outside reflects the turmoil they feel on the inside. Thus, they most need the peace which we can provide. Our peace is a mark that we have conquered ourselves through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Cultivate Virtues of Simplicity and Purity
Thomas a’ Kempis asserts that two wings working in concert together lift a person’s soul above the earth: Simplicity and Purity. Boil the Christian faith down to simplest terms and recognize that two principles should guide us: 1) is my intention to seek nothing else but the will of God? 2) will my action enhance the good of God’s community? The simplicity and purity of these two principles provide the key to inward liberty. Every other human being then becomes a parable of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and mean that it does not set forth in some way the goodness of God. Moreover, a pure heart penetrates both heaven and hell. A pure heart always has the consolation of knowing that one’s motives seek that which is highest and best. Inwardly, we seek simplicity in our motives. Outwardly, we seek purity in our actions. We seek to burn away from our lives all that is not simple and pure, so that the essence of our being remains committed to Christ.
Be Slow to Judge
Be slow to judge! We are all aware of those around us whose judgment is faulty and who always misconstrue reality. Yet we are not so quick to perceive how we do the same. We are quick to note the faults of those around us, but often excuse far worse evils in our own character. Thus, a key to spiritual maturity is developing the ability to be slow about sitting in judgment against others. Let us develop the faculty for sensing how quickly we offend others commensurate with how quick we are to take offense when others slight us. Above all, said Thomas a’ Kempis, keep this principle in mind: the more we ponder our own imperfections and impurities, the less likely we will be to sit in judgment upon another. Those who spend their time seeking to improve their own inner spirituality will have little time to waste pondering the faults of those around them.
Cultivate the Joy of a Good Conscience
The glory of a good person is a good conscience. A good conscience is a constant source of joy. A good conscience lacks fear and turmoil. Those whose hearts are turned toward wickedness never feel inward peace because they are at war within themselves. The good conscience delights in justice and truth as God discloses it. The truth of the matter is, even when you as a spiritual leader are trying to accomplish great things, not all of your efforts turn out as you intended. Some of your endeavors will fail, some will backfire. Sometimes, in seeking to do good, you will do harm. The good conscience finds peace in purity of motive, for then outward praise will not overly inflate you and external condemnation will not overly deflate you. A good conscience is a defense against conceit and depression. There will be times when an initiative of ministry fails, when our good actions and sacrifice seem futile. Take heart that God knows your motives. But this is also a warning of judgment. Some of your successes may bring you attention and adulation. Take care that your attention does not more reflect an eye toward our kingdoms than toward God’s kingdom.
Above all, cultivate the love of Jesus Christ
Above all! This is the way to spiritual maturity. If Christ is just one more allegiance among many, then no
spiritual growth will occur. Spiritual maturity requires a certain emptying of ourselves, a certain saying No to other gods, even as in marriage we say no to other loves in order to bind ourselves tightly to just one. Thomas a’ Kempis was a spiritual leader for over seventy years and knew of what he spoke. He noted that spiritual work in the service of God can dry up your own spirit – unless you let Christ’s love nurture you. Pouring yourself out for others can dry up your own spirit unless you allow yourself to be replenished by the love of Christ. Cultivate the love of Christ! Remember this: Christ is our Wisdom and our Model for living, Christ is our Friend and our Guide and Master above all others. If we cultivate the love of Christ, then we shall be constantly nurtured even as we give ourselves sacrificially unto others. Recognize that spiritual maturity is never one upward climb. Spiritual maturity is often accomplished by fits and starts, by moments upon the mountain and in the abyss. You may well have moments of ecstasy followed by a fierce sense of abandonment. Yet Christ is ever faithful: let us never forget that winter always gives way to spring, night to day, the tempest to calm, despair to hope. God’s solace and strength will always come to us. Even in those moments when your soul feels dry, trust that God will fill you up again with His assurance and replenish your joy.
Remember: Lovers of the Cross are Few
Christ has many lovers of the Kingdom. But lovers of the cross are few. Many enjoy Christ’s table of celebration, but few wish to share his fast. Many want to share in the Easter joy; few want to follow the Lenten disciplines. Churches are filled to capacity on Christmas Eve. They are never overcrowded on Good Friday. Lovers of the cross are few. Spiritual work is hard. It is rewarding and fulfilling, but you are not always going to be accepted or acclaimed, even in God’s family. There will be times in your service when you will find the task of shouldering Christ’s cross difficult. And lovers of the cross are few. But note that Jesus articulates the paradox that lies at the heart of the Christian faith: if you want to find what true discipleship is, it is found in taking up the cross of Christ and following. If you try to find your life, you will lose it. But when you lose your life in taking up your cross and pouring yourself out for Christ’s sake, then you will find it.
I would add the observation that none of us can anticipate the nature of the cross that might come to us. Just a few months ago, when I delivered this charge to the class of deacons who were ordained last year, among my hearers was a young woman named Claire Peed Whitaker. She could not have imagined the cross that she would be called to bear. But she bore it with irrepressible faith and extraordinary courage. None of us know the cross that we might be called upon to bear in the coming year. But we can keep Claire’s example before us as a paradigm of how to bear even the heaviest cross in such a manner as to give glory to God.
I remind new deacons of this ominous fact: the earliest deacon, Stephen, was stoned to death – hardly an auspicious debut for deacons. But he was stoned to death because of the vibrancy of his faith, and he died with the praise of God upon his lips. May that be true of all of us! In moments of joy and difficulty, if you will give yourself to the task of serving Christ, if you will lose yourself in pouring yourself out for Christ’s purpose, God will give you your true self in return. May God bless you richly as you begin this new chapter of your spiritual journey. And in losing yourself for Christ’s sake, may God bless you with the discovery of who you are truly meant to be.