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Friday, November 4, 2011

Character and Spiritual Formation: Fitness for the Work.

Recently, someone asked me what do Christian people mean when they say someone is not ready to assume a certain role or take on a particular responsibility in the church. I thought it a great question. So we had a conversation and I surfaced what seemed to me to be a few essentials for determining who was and might not be quite ready to carry the weight of a substantial responsibility.

By the way, I'm not in any way, shape or form assuming: 1.) I've arrived and can pontificate from a position of superior maturity, and supremely seasoned readiness, or 2.) I'm quite the expert on such matters. I haven't and I'm not. I'm still on my way with all sorts of stubborn rough spots, self-absorption and immaturity to work through. Don't like that much, but it's reality. I desperately need the cross and the Spirit to turn me into someone useful for the Kingdom, even at 62. Borrowing a word Brennan Manning used well in one of my favorite books of his: I'm a ragamuffin . . . 24/7/365.

With that necessary disclaimer, I must also say I've been "on the team" so to speak since age 23. I've been in some manner of ministry leadership, both formally and informally since my late 20's. I've had all sorts of occasion to wrestle through being fit to carry the responsibility I was given (failed at that more than I'd like to admit - still do), and I had the great blessing and privilege of being around some very mature believers, male and female. I saw what it looked like many times from leaders and "followers." There are certain characteristics which manifest in a man or a woman who takes seriously the work of the Kingdom, no matter how great or small the responsibility, whether shouldered upfront or behind-the-scenes. Through such characteristics I think we glimpse Christ in them.

So I want to note a few character and spiritual qualities which seem especially pertinent.

All of them displayed a simple humility in spite of their "formal" spiritual or organizational stature. They got their hands dirty. They were not comfortable being elevated in the eyes of others. To the contrary, they preferred to be seen as anyone else: a person imperfectly trying to follow Christ, being loving and of service, no matter how menial. From them, I recognized gradually how important attitude was, especially "I'm not too important to be asked to do anything, or to be confronted with my sin and selfishness." Their humility reflected grace under fire in and out of the limelight. Humility demonstrated how fit they were for reflecting the values of the Kingdom of Christ.

Related closely to the above attribute was the fact they all, men and women, took responsibility for their own spiritual growth and character development. Once they had a grasp of how to do so, it was no longer the pastor's or the elders' or the leader's job to "grow them up and sustain them" in their spiritual maturing and character developing. Such leaders, teachers and mentors certainly contributed vitally, but at some point into it, these folks knew the buck stopped with them. So they carried forward developing the necessary spiritual disciplines, i.e., they read and learned to study the Scriptures, they read Christian books, they prayed, they worshipped alone and with others, they built relationships with believers or allowed others to build a relationship with them, they worshipped, and they developed the desire and ability to serve people, including, sometimes especially, non-believers. It took time, but they were in up to their eyeballs, full of passion  for learning to live with and follow Christ.

Thirdly, they had a desire to serve and when they accepted responsibility they followed through. They were the kind of folks who you know would accomplish the task if they shouldered it. It has to do with character and integrity. If so-and-so says she or he will do it, you can "take that to the bank." They just come through and you don't have to think or wonder about it. These folks also have a habit of asking how they can help or what they can do. Sometimes they just step up and get the job done without being asked because they see it needs doing. In fact, they look for opportunities to do so. I'm sure that if you've been around church for very long you've heard the maxim, "10% do 90% of the work." They gravitate by values to being in the 10% - they see it as the "normal Christian life."

Fourthly, they had a penchant for hard work. These men and women rolled up their sleeves and dove in. I've known men who routinely labored long hours at jobs and family life, then stayed up late or worked all weekend to pitch in with the church, (often behind the scenes), whether it was a project, event or a routine task needing doing. No matter, they saw all of their responsibilities as one service to God and others. They embraced obligation and duty as their usual contribution. I've also known women who dedicated themselves sacrificially to the church community and beyond, exhibiting a love of God and their brothers and sisters admired by all who knew them. Interestingly, when told of such admiration, some would get a puzzled look and others would turn red. They saw nothing extraordinary about their service.

 Lastly, much if not most of what these folks did, stemmed from love. They loved God and knew he loved them. In gratitude, they learned how to love him and other people. Their obedience grew from being loved by God. They came to grasp what he'd freely done for "the likes of" them, and responded by working at being loving people. Their spiritual formation (becoming like Christ), and character formation (embracing and living the values of Christ) made them fit for the work of the Kingdom. They served out of love, not some gushy, syrupy caricature of love, but a roll-up-your-sleeves, show-up-every-day love not about feelings, but conviction. Such love takes courage, persistence, resilience and even a sense of humor. They loved with words, and with actions backing them up.

The folks that came to mind as I wrote this are people I look up to and am inspired by. They mentored me, befriended me, served with me, challenged, encouraged, loved and taught me. They are my contemporary examples. I aim for their maturity still. They're real people with chipping feet of clay who still need the cross and the work of the Spirit, but they've chosen repeatedly to go deep into being formed by Christ knowing that without him their best righteousness is filthy rags. I've watched them.  I watch them. I will still watch them.

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May you reflect all this week on those men and women who've been spiritual and character exemplars (spiritual fathers and mothers, perhaps), to you and may you head deep into where Christ bids you go for his glory and your fitness in the Kingdom work beckoning you.

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