Sunday, August 15, 2010

Thomas a Kempis

1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

Church Fathers Starting with the Letter K
by Daniel Harrell

Thirteen years ago I started an annual sermon series during the summer concerning those personalities from church history who fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. As there have been numerous noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers) it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. So I did, while at the same time giving my listening congregation plenty of heads up so they could plan their summer weekend getaways well in advance. Actually, among the things that folks at my former church said they would miss most upon my departure were the church fathers. In fact, last summer my church fathers sermons went on tour. I was invited to speak at the Cornerstone Music Festival in rural Illinois, sponsored by the Jesus People USA. The festival featured some 500 bands, mostly of the thrash metal variety with explicitly Christian undertones despite names like The Dark Romantics, Manic Drive, Gasoline Heart and The Classic Crime. However, not wanting their festival to solely about heavy metal music, the Jesus People invite Jesus speakers each year to discuss a variety of topics, which is how I got on the docket. The Church Fathers rock.

Of course if you know your ABCs, you’re probably wondering why 13 years only has me at the letter K. The problem was that with so many patristic heroes clustered around letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas—it took me a while to get out of there. Since then, I looked at the Venerable Bede, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairveaux and Basil the Great under B, John Chrysostom, Catherine of Siena, John Calvin and the baroque painter, Carravagio under C. Letter D brought Dionysisus the Areopagite, Dominic and Dante; followed by E and Jonathan Edwards, Meister Eckhart, and the 20th century poet, T.S. Eliot. Letter F featured the third century African slave girl Felicitas, Francis of Assisi and Charles Finney, with an all-Gregory-all-the-time series under letter G: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Gregory of Nanzianzus, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great. Letter H brought Hippolytus, Handel, Hildegard and the poetry of George Herbert; while the I-List included Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch and Ignatius of Loyola. Last year just left time for two J-Fathers: Justin Martyr and Saint Jerome.

My rationale for taking an annual peek at these people comes from my own conviction that our faith derives in no small part from the faithful personalities who’ve lived it and wrestled with it through crucial moments in church history. While we Protestants may not venerate these important people as saints, we cannot separate their contributions from our own doctrines and practice. We may hold to sola Scriptura (the Bible alone as source of authority), but interpreting and obeying the Bible necessarily stands on the interpretive and obedient shoulders of past believers and thinkers. Tradition is the memory of the church. And as Augustine argued, we are who we are only through our memories.

Patristic scholars in the house rightly note that I have exceedingly stretched the definition of “church father.” Technically, to be a Church Father, you had to live in the first five centuries AD. But again, we’re American Protestants, we do what we want. Ergo, on Labor Day, just in time for summer’s end, we’ll wallow in existentialist angst with the renown philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Today, we set our sights on the 15th century Catholic mystic, Thomas a Kempis, author of the devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ, second only to the Bible as the most widely translated book in Christian literature.

I first read The Imitation of Christ in college, and was captured by its call to a simple but intense instruction on loving God. It didn’t do much for my grades. As Thomas a Kempis wrote, “Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise.” Not being much of a mystic myself, I initially found much of this writing unnerving. But as I allowed myself to be drawn in, I gained some crucial perspective by which to live the Christian life. “The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?”

Not only am I not much of a mystic, but I struggle with prayer too. Thomas’ own prayers have at times become my own: “My Lord Jesus I beseech you, do not be far from me, but come quickly and help me, for vain thoughts have risen in my heart and worldly fears have troubled me sorely. How shall I break them down? How shall I go unhurt without your help? ‘I shall go before you,’ says our Lord; ‘I shall drive away the pride of your heart; then I shall set open to you the gates of spiritual knowledge and show you the privacy of my heart.’ O Lord, do as you say, and then all wicked imaginings shall flee from me. Truly, this is my hope and my only comfort—to fly to you in every trouble, to trust steadfastly in you, to call inwardly upon you, and to abide patiently your coming and your heavenly consolations.”

Thomas was born in the German town of Kempen, from whence he gets his name. He attended a school in Holland led by members of the monastic order, Brothers of the Common Life. So impressed by their personal devotion to prayer, simplicity and their deep relationship with God, Thomas decided to devote his own life to their ideals. He entered their Dutch monastery when he was 19 and spent the rest of his long life within its walls. The Brothers tried to get Thomas to engage in the practical affairs and ministries of monastic life, but it quickly became clear that his passion was for meditation and prayer. So they left him to it. Though The Imitation of Christ is by far his most popular work, he wrote a number of sermons, letters and hymns, each reflecting the mystical spirituality of his times, the sense of being absorbed by God. “There are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ,” Thomas wrote. “Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.”

Whether the title of his book derives from the 1 Corinthians 11 is unknown, but verse 1 inescapably comes to mind. The apostle Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” It’s a sentence few Christians would dare utter since the last thing we want anybody to do is model their spiritual lives after ours. It’s one thing to imitate Christ, quite another to imitate Christians. Author Anne Rice made headlines a few years back by announcing that she had become a Christian; and then made headlines a few weeks ago when she announced she had changed her mind. She rejected “Christianity” in favor of “Christ” as if the Body of Christ on earth were somehow separable from Jesus himself. Blogger, friend and former congregant Tim Dalrymple, in a recent article entitled On the Dire Need For the Imitation of Christ, writes that “It may be tempting to separate oneself from all the faults of the Church in one shining moment of righteous defiance, but this cannot be right. Scorning other Christians does not mean that you are a better follower of Christ. It means that you suffer from spiritual pride, a desire to curry favor with the world, and theological incoherence. There are no sins in American Christendom that are unique to American Christendom. The Church is the body of Christ in the world—a broken body, not a congregation of the sanctified but a fellowship of sinners seeking to follow Christ together.” Like it or not, to imitate Christ is to invite others to imitate you.

This is where a’ Kempis can help. He writes, “Do not think yourself better than others lest, perhaps, you be accounted worse before God Who knows what is inside people. Do not take pride in your good deeds, for God’s judgments differ from human judgment and what pleases people often displeases Him. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. It does no harm to esteem yourself less than anyone else, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one person. The humble live in continuous peace, while in the hearts of the proud are envy and frequent anger.”

To imitate Jesus you have to love Jesus enough to want to do it. And this is hard. The life that Christ calls Christians to live is not the kind of life we want to live. We want is a life free from hardship and death, not a life characterized by hardship and death. But Jesus was clear that to follow him meant taking up crosses. Dalrymple argues, “God did not become human, endure the indignities and humiliations of the human condition, suffer rejection and persecution, torture and death, so that we might live comfortable lives of suburban complacency—lives more characterized by rampant consumerism than radical obedience, by cultural accommodation than counter-cultural witness, by potlucks and seminars than by persecutions and suffering for the sake of righteousness. If the Church today lives at peace with the world, it is because it has become so like the world, so harmless to it, that it no longer presents a substantial threat to the ways of worldly evil.”

“Jesus has always had many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross,” Thomas wrote. “All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. …Those, on the contrary, who love Jesus for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them consolation, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus—love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!”

We received an email from Dawn’s sister Kimberly who is finishing up an internship at an organization called Ecological Concerns for Hunger Organization, or ECHO. It’s a Christian Aid organization devoted to honoring God through sustainable hunger solutions. Their mission is to equip people with resources and skills to reduce hunger and improve the lives of the poor. Energized by her own faith, my sister-in-law will travel to Burkina Faso and then on to Thailand to work with ECHO among the poor and refugees there. In doing so she will follow in the footsteps of another former ECHO intern and staff member, Cheryl Beckett, a pastor’s kid who worked in Afghanistan for the past five years with women in nutritional garden projects and mother and child health. You know Cheryl as one of the ten Christians murdered in Afghanistan on August 6. We prayed for their families last Sunday. Kimberly wrote that the ECHO community was deeply grieved by this senseless tragedy, but at the same time they recognized that hers was by no means a life wasted. To the contrary, hers and the lives of the others who gave up so much for the sake of serving others displayed a unmistakable beauty and goodness that is an imitation of Christ.

Granted, such a perspective is not shared by all. Online comments to the report of Cheryl’s deaths were sharp. “Countries like Afghanistan are barbaric nations made up of people whose culture is still steeped deeply into mentalities of centuries ago,” one blogger wrote. “Hate to say this but they had no business going into that region. People have to want to be helped in order for this type of mission to have any kind of success.” “All I ever needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11. The lesson? Take care of your own.”

Paradoxically, such comments only verified the sacred nature of Cheryl’s service, of hers and the others’ radical obedience. Thomas wrote that “To carry the cross, to love the cross, to flee honors, to endure contempt gladly, to despise self and wish to be despised, to suffer any adversity and loss, to desire no prosperous days on earth—this makes no human sense. If you rely upon yourself, you can do none of these things, but if you trust in the Lord, strength will be given you from heaven.” “Blessed is she who appreciates what it is to love Jesus and who despises herself for the sake of Jesus. Give up all other love for His, since He wishes to be loved alone above all things. Affection for creatures is deceitful and inconstant, but the love of Jesus is true and enduring. Love Him, then; keep Him as a friend. He will not leave you as others do, or let you suffer lasting death. Sometime, whether you will or not, you will have to part with everything. Cling, therefore, to Jesus in life and death; trust yourself to the glory of Him who alone can help you when all others fail.”

Granted, few of us will venture into the mountain villages in Afghanistan. Few will even venture into the poor or dangerous neighborhoods of Minneapolis. But there remain plenty of opportunities to imitate Christ. For Paul, the issue was a simple one of abstaining from meat that had been part of pagan sacrifices. Eager to eat it and demonstrate that there was no power in it for those who believe in Jesus, he demurred once he discovered that others might be harmed by his freedom. As Cheryl Beckett’s family wrote about her, “Cheryl loved and respected the Afghan people. She denied herself many freedoms in order to abide by Afghan law and custom.”

To love Christ more than all things and imitate him will bring scorn and persecution from others. But it will also bring power to confront the darkness that resides in individuals, communities and institutions. It will provide salt to preserve what is good, and light to show the way forward. Through the imitation of Christ, our words and deeds can make plain what is truly True and truly Good and truly Beautiful.

Thomas a Kempis, prayed: What, Lord, is the trust which I have in this life, or what is my greatest comfort among all the things that appear under heaven? Is it not You, O Lord, my God, Whose mercies are without number? Where have I ever fared well but for You? Or how could things go badly when You were present? I had rather be poor for Your sake than rich without You. I prefer rather to wander on the earth with You than to possess heaven without You. Where You are there is heaven. You are my desire. In none can I fully trust to help me in my necessities, but in You alone, my God. You are my hope. You are my confidence. You are my consoler, most faithful in every need. Even though exposing me to various temptations and hardships, You Who are accustomed to prove Your loved ones in a thousand ways, order all this for my good. In You, therefore, O Lord God, I place all my hope and my refuge. On You I cast all my troubles and anguish. It will not serve me to have many friends, nor will powerful helpers be able to assist me, nor prudent advisers to give useful answers, nor the books of learned men to console, nor any precious substance to win my freedom, nor any place, secret and beautiful though it be, to shelter me, if You Yourself do not assist, comfort, console, instruct, and guard me. For all things which seem to be for our peace and happiness are nothing when You are absent, and truly confer no happiness. You, indeed, are the fountain of all good, the height of life, the depth of all that can be spoken. To trust in You above all things is our strongest comfort.

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