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 the next seventy-two years. He distinguished himself as a preacher and spiritual advisor, but his chief concern was writing devotional material. One of his books, The Imitation of Christ, written in the early 1400’s, has remained available since that time. It continues to be regarded as a spiritual classic. This morning, Deidra, Mary Catherine and Cliff, as I share with you something about the meaning of spiritual leadership, I thought it wise to offer you this holy man’s insights on spiritual improvement, his guidance on how to develop your inner life by patterning it upon the example of Christ. Hear some of the spiritual principles articulated in 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 in order to explore and fully plumb that Kingdom requires that you turn to this Kingdom with your entire being. Few people are naturally spiritual, that is to say, few people are spiritually astute without any expense of effort. We must work with great intentionality to develop our spirituality. But as we do so, we create room in our hearts for Christ. Christ promises to come and abide with those who love him, to set up household within our hearts. But the Christ who seeks to find a home in our hearts may find so many passions and pursuits within us that there is little room for Christ to reign. Part of improving our spiritual life is winnowing from our lives that which prevents Christ from being truly sovereign within us. The more room for Christ we create within us, the more our priorities are influenced and defined by the Kingdom of Christ. So make creating room within yourself for Christ a goal in your spiritual development. Thomas a’ Kempis made this crucial observation: we know best those with whom we commune most. If we cultivate the inner life and thus commune with Christ frequently, the more profoundly we will come to know Christ’s values and will for our lives.
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, and hard to develop. But true humility begins with this recognition: we are to see ourselves as a servant of every person. Our 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 and onerous. Some strike us as busy work. 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. We can learn from serving them. Once we are willing to become everyone’s servant, then every human being becomes a guide and lamp, a prism of God’s presence unto us, and every task can become a means of divine insight.
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 and calm 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.
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. A pure heart penetrates both heaven and hell. Inwardly, we seek purity in our motives. Outwardly, we seek simplicity 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 hurt others commensurate with how quick we are to take offense when others slight us. Above all, said Thomas a’ Kempis, let us 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. 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 on behalf of God’s Kingdom and on behalf of this congregation 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 praise will not overly inflate your spirit and criticism will not overly deflate you. A good conscience is a defense against both conceit and despair. There will be times when an initiative of ministry fails, when our good actions and deep sacrifice seem futile. Take heart that God knows your motives. A good conscience will be a constant source of joy and steadiness for you regardless of the outcomes of your efforts.
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 commitments, even as in marriage we say no to other loves in order to bind ourselves tightly to just one. Our commitment to Christ requires a singularity of focus that becomes crucial to our service. Thomas a’ Kempis was a spiritual leader for over seventy years and he learned a few key truths along the way. He noted that even spiritual work in the service of God’s Kingdom can dry up your own spirit – unless you let Christ’s love nurture you. Pouring yourself out in an effort to strengthen others can so enervate you that you become spiritually empty in the process. You must 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 pour ourselves out for others. Recognize that spiritual maturity is not one smooth upward climb. Spiritual maturity is often accomplished by fits and starts, by moments upon the mountain and in the valley. 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 and summer, 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 renew your strength through the power of Divine assurance.
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 disciplines. Many want to share in the Easter feast; few want to embrace the Lenten fast. Churches are filled to capacity on Christmas Eve. They are not nearly so crowded on Good Friday. Many who want to relish the celebratory aspects of our faith are not so willing to countenance its more demanding facets. 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 Jesus articulates the paradox that is 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 pouring yourself out for Christ’s sake, then you will find it.
I always remind new deacons of this ominous fact: the first and most prominent 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 the courage of his witness. May your faith be marked by the same vibrancy and courage. Deidra, Mary Catherine and Cliff, this morning the church affirms its confidence in you, that you will be faithful shepherds of Christ’s flock. If you will give yourself to the task of serving Christ, if you will lose yourself in pouring yourself out for Christ’s people and purpose, God will give you your true self in return. When you lose yourself for Christ’s sake, God will bless you with the discovery of who you are truly meant to be.
Deacon ordination charge to Deidra Harris, Mary Catherine O’Neal and Cliff Skelton