Tending our own spiritual fires

Formative thoughts on nurturing personal spirituality as a leader

Bert B. Beach, Ph.D., is former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

After more than 40 years of meeting with church leaders from many diverse geographic and theological backgrounds, I've come to the view that there are three different classes of people in church leadership: First, there are the traveling bureaucrats, then the status and title monuments, and, finally, the men and women of God who are consistently deeply spiritual and inspiring. It is a privilege to associate with and be blessed by the many leaders I know in this last category. It is my sense that these are the leaders who make it a priority to tend their own spiritual fires.

My personal definition of true spirituality is brief and unpretentious: Being in harmony with God's will. This is our daily calling, our lifetime search. I ask God: "Teach me Thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path." No need here for theological complexity and sophistication.

My church is a Bible- and Christ-centered church. This must always be preeminent. However, it may surprise some readers to hear that I guide my public life by asking myself four questions of seemingly secular origin, but which have a Christian foundation: (1) Is it the truth'' (2) Is it fair to all concerned? (3) Will it build goodwill and better friendship! and (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? This is the 4-way test of Rotary International. I find these questions helpfulin sustaining and guiding me in an ethical and spiritual life.

What is Adventist spirituality?

Adventist spirituality is usually less formally organized than it seems to be in some other communions. We don't follow spiritual exercise books, breviaries, canonical hours, or set daily prayers, or have appointed spiritual advisors.

While such structured approaches may prove helpful to some people, there is an innate risk to this kind of formalism. A mechanical way of praying by rote does not, it seems to me, nourish a living, spiritual relationship with God. On the other hand, the more relaxed, extemporaneous approach may lack system, be less targeted or intentional and thus not lead to where we need to go.

Adventist spirituality is also less contemplative or mystical. It is more pragmatic and "action" oriented. Thus it aims at authenticity by revealing the observable fruits of the spirit. While there may be no impressive ecstasy in Adventist spirituality, neither should we be lost in constant busyness. The life in Christ should be one of restfulness because there's abiding, peaceful trust. At the heart of things is the simple daily work of simply tending our own spiritual fires.

Like others in a creation-emphasizing church, I receive profound spiritual uplift by gazing at the wonders of nature and especially at the stars in a dark night sky that's unaffected by artificial light. The incomprehensible and awesome vastness of the universe puts me in my place. And yet the Almighty Creator God loves and looks after each of us, and we can call Him intimately, "Abba, Father."

No doubt, like most preachers, I receive spiritual nourishment while preparing sermons, and in writing articles. I have a strong suspicion that in this ministry, my soul is more nourished than those who have to listen or, perchance, to read! There are two little books that have been helpful to me. One is Ds Noie Teschtament Bamdutsch. This is the New Testament in the Swiss Bernese dialect. There is nitty-gritty power in this version. Since this language is usually not written, it is easier to read by talking it silently (or out loud) to oneself. It is so down-to-earth, in some ways the opposite of the glorious majesty of the King James Version. I like to read it before going to sleep.

Key elements nourishing a leader's spiritual life

Then there is that essence of Seventh-day Adventist spirituality Steps to Christ by Ellen G. White. Written well over a century ago, it is simple, demanding, but encouraging. I have distilled for myself some two dozen points or steps, found in that little volume, that are helpful in nourishing our spiritual life. Here are just a few that energize the spiritual vitality of church leaders.

1. We don't need to fear God. He loves us with an everlasting love. It is Satan who lives to cause us to feel hopelessly estranged from God. It is he who delights to picture God as a severe judge, a rigid and demanding accountant and timekeeper, and an exacting creditor.

2. God's love is revealed also in the suffering and difficulties that result from sin. The trials of life the Genesis thorns and thistles that emerged after the Fall are ap pointed for our training and uplifting, not to bring us down into condemnation and sorrow.

3. Education, culture, and willpower all have their place, but "they cannot purify the springs of life."1 In them selves they lead to the dead-end of salvation by works. The power is Christ, and His grace alone can quicken our lifeless faculties. He is the only medium of spiritual communication between God and human beings.2

4. When it comes to repentance, an important thought is frequently overlooked: "Repentance includes sorrow for sin and a turning away from it." I need to lament the sin, rather than simply the unpleasant consequences of sin.3 David under stood this and that is why, despite his shocking sins, God could call him a man after His own heart.

5. The sins that are especially offensive to God are not so much the visible outward acts that we so readily highlight and condemn, but pride, selfishness, and covetousness, for they are contrary to the very essence and "benevolence of His character."4

6. The rule of God is not based on blind submission, but rather it freely appeals to the intellect and con science. There is here a great religious liberty principle: God cannot accept a homage that is not willingly and intelligently given. In any relationship, such homage is useless, even harmful. How many foolish crimes have been committed by so-called Christians trying to force people to worship God in certain prescribed ways.

God gives us a wonderful gift the power of choice and we can yield our will to Christ and ally ourselves with the power that is above all powers.5

7. Here is another hopeful and morale-building statement regarding spiritual growth: Our character is revealed "not by occasional good deeds and occasional misdeeds, but by the tendency of the habitual words and acts."6 At the heart of such deeds is the call to consistently tend our own spiritual fires.

8. Ellen White gives us two simple and yet dynamic statements regarding the vitality of prayer. She says that prayer is "opening of the heart to God as to a friend" and that it is a key, that is, our "key in the hand of faith to unlock heaven's storehouse" of spiritual nourishment. 7 It is especially arresting for leaders to consider the far-reaching implications in this "storehouse" metaphor: that in prayer we hold the key to such richness!

9. Some mistaken individuals see the pinnacle of spirituality in quiet and permanent retreat-like separation from the world. But God does not expect His disciples to retire from society, their fellow human beings, and the world's responsibilities. He expects Christian leaders to live like Christ, between the mountain and the multitude. A retreat can be spiritually invigorating, but I need to be in social life and involved in meaningful, down-to-earth earnest activity for God and His Church. Otherwise, we can easily lose the subject matter of prayer, so that our prayers become formal, routine, and selfishly detached from the dynamic realities of life situations.8 I need the challenging and sanctifying influence of others; colleagues, friends, spouse, children, and, yes, grandchildren!

10. Jesus says that we should be of "good cheer" for He has overcome the world for us. Nourishment provided by a positive attitude is needed to achieve consistent growth in spiritual stature. Joy and gladness drive spiritual development. A "horse-face" Christian is a contradiction in terms. Gloom and moroseness starve and crush the spirit. We need a sanctified sense of humor.

I do not need extraordinary abilities or great occasions to work for God. Together we need to go forward by faith, step by step, quietly and humbly creating ripples that will swell into waves of divine blessing.

We don't need to weary ourselves with anxiety about success. Spirituality does not "quench the light of joy."9 Christ discerned in every human being infinite growth potentiality. Today, we are still imperfect, but the redeemed will stand "without fault before the great white throne," every imperfection having been removed by the blood of Christ. The joyous glory of Christ's character is imparted through divine grace.10

The words of the incomparable hymn writer Isaac Watts summarize the challenge of God's love and our response as we tend our spiritual fires, nourishing our union with Christ: "Were the whole realm of nature mine / That were a tribute far too small / Love so amazing, so divine / Demands my life, my soul, my all."

1 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1892), 18.

2 Ibid., 20.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Ibid., 30.

5 Ibid., 48.

6 Ibid., 58.

7 Ibid., 93-95.

8 Ibid., 101.

9 Ibid., 121.

10 Ibid., 126.

 

 

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Bert B. Beach, Ph.D., is former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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