As you leave seminary behind, as you move into your calling as servants of Christ, please, I beg you, take care what you aim for. Think hard about the goal, the target at which you are aiming your life. You want goals for your work and your ministry of course, but think, more importantly, about the goal of your life.
- Are you aiming for a lifetime of employment, not very well paid but secure, with a church that loves and appreciates you?
That is aiming too low.
- Are you aiming to revitalize a dying congregation?
- Hoping to start a new church?
- Trying to help The Church thrive in a challenging post-Christian culture?
Those are higher — but the vitality of the church is really a secondary matter.
Thriving vitality in the church, growth that really matters, depends on something else. You can call it something deeper, or you can call it aiming higher. I call it aiming at what is real and true, the source from which all the rest flows.
Aim to be a real Christian.
A lot of people in ministry waste energy debating whether ministers are “called to a higher standard.” Nobody needs you to live by a higher standard. They need you to try to live by the real standard. Be a real Christian so that you can lead them into that same real Christian life.
But what is the standard?
I’m suggesting that you aim to personally fulfill the central calling of Christ.
In one sense it is the simple call to follow Jesus. But, since trying to follow someone who is not physically walking in front of you presents challenges, let’s flesh out the meaning a bit.
Augustine, quoting Jesus and Moses before him, summarized the life we were created to live as a growing relationship of love: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Yes, of course, and your neighbor too, your neighbor as yourself actually, but think for a minute about the direct interpersonal meaning of that first great commandment.
To be a real Christian,
- You are called first to love God personally.
- You are called to love God intentionally.
- You are called to love God actively.
- You are called to love God passionately.
Loving with all means growing closer.
You can like someone reasonably well at a distance, an acquaintance whom you rarely see or hear from. But if you are going to love someone, you have to draw close. You have to spend time together. You have to get to know that person.
After two people say they love each other they go on to commit their lives in marriage and move in together. Being a real Christian, growing into a full-scale love of God, requires not less time, not less effort than a human marriage, but more.
I am, of course, charging you to spend time with God in prayer.
And loving with all means being changed.
Spending time drawing close to God is not primarily about moments of peace in a harried world. Spending time with God in prayer is about God’s ongoing, often slow, often halting, work of restoring his own image in you — conforming you to the image of Jesus Christ.
Again you see this in small-scale in human relationships. Notice how your thinking and your priorities are shaped over time by your most intimate relationships. Heaven help you, you are more like your parents than you want to admit.
(Yes, in exactly those ways.)
Drawing close to God, day after day, a relationship of love that engages your entire being, is going to change you. Ancient Christian writers saw this as precisely the goal. Let me remind you of one of my favorite sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him,
“Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”
Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him,
“If you will, you can become all flame.”
People in my college group used to talk about being “on fire for Jesus” but Abba Joseph was talking about something very different. We meant being consumed with enthusiasm. Abba Joseph was talking about inner transformation. He envisions a life drawn so close to God that it shines with true glory — glory reflected from the very face of God, like Moses after forty days on Mt. Sinai.
In roughly the same era, St. Gregory of Nazianzus was called to ministry, but then he ran away in terror. He wrote a long explanation of why he fled this life that you have chosen willingly. In the process produced the most influential treatise on ministry in the early Church.
God, Gregory tells us with a biblical metaphor, is a refiner of gold or silver.
We are mixed metal needing the furnace for refining.
Gregory knew he needed some serious melting down and cleaning up before he could be fit to serve God. He knew that he needed to draw close to God and be changed, to grow in virtue so as to be shiny enough to reflect God ever after.
In his words he needed to be
a real unspotted mirror of God and divine things”.
Gregory is not describing the ministry as a superior state. He is describing the calling of the Christian. But then he seems to say that this transformation, this life changed by intimacy with God, is an essential qualification for ministry.
If you become all flame, shining with God’s reflected glory like a pool of pure molten silver, then the world will see — it will see God. The church will be changed.
Set your aim on being a real Christian.
This charge was given to the graduating class of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary on May 17, 2014.
I would, of course, love to hear from you in the comments. Share a happy memory of the Class of 2014, or a scene from the journey toward life as a real Christian — in or out of ministry.