It’s funny, the things I remember from my childhood. By things I mean literally things – objects – the stuff that was part of the warp and woof of our home. For instance, I can remember a vase that stood on a stand next to our front door. I probably remember it well because my brother – Dennis – and I were passing a football back and forth as we went out the door. If memory serves me right, I did not make the catch at the clutch moment – which ended the vase’s career.
But I also remember books. My parents – thankfully – had books everywhere. I suppose that is where I became a bibliophile. It is also where I learned to write notes in the margin of my books. I remember picking up books around our home and finding the notes that my mom had written – or sections that she had underlined. After she passed away, I was fortunate enough to get a few of her books – especially a few that held a place in my memory.
So, this morning – as is my custom – I walked into my study with a cup of coffee and was about to settle into my normal routine when a little yellow book on the lowest shelf of my bookcase caught my eye. I recognized it at once because it took a prominent place among my mother’s books – in fact I often saw it beside her Bible. I decided to throw my routine to the wind (which – if I’m being honest happens more often than not). I plucked the book from the shelf and started to flip through the pages of my mother’s copy of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.
Today most folks don’t really know much about Kempis – and I will not go into much detail – but he was a remarkable thinker. Suffice it to say that he was a priest and theologian – of sorts – who lived and worked and prayed and studied in the 14th / 15th century (1379-1471). He wrote four books, which are all compiled into one – under the title, The Imitation of Christ.
Perhaps the most important contribution from Kempis is that he focused on spiritual maturity and depth. His insights into what it means to take care of the soul, what it means to walk deeply with Jesus have given shape to a lot of the world’s most well known Christians. In fact, The Imitation of Christ for ages was said to be a must-read for every person who professed faith in Christ and – if you have ever read it you know why it is so revered. Kempis doesn’t gloss over the human condition nor does he pull back on what is required of those who truly want to walk with Jesus. He provides insights into the soul and develves deeply into spiritual formation as only someone in the 14th and 15th centuries could.
The book was so important and so highly valued that for a very long time it was often given as a gift. In fact, my mother was given her copy by our pastor and friend, Rev. John Thrasher, in March of 1982. And sometimes a gift given once is a gift that extends beyond a singular recipient – and that is certainly the case with my mother’s copy of The Imitation of Christ.
This morning, as I thumbed through Kempis’ book, I came across a section that had been starred and underlined. I think that was my mom’s way of saying, “Look here! Read this!” I’m glad I obeyed because Kempis puts forth an amazing prayer that speaks to me about something I tend to avoid.
Kempis wrote, “Ah, Lord God, holy Lover of my soul, when you arrive into my soul, all that is within me shall rejoice. You are my Glory and the exultation of my heart; you are my Hope and Refuge in the day of my trouble…Set me free from all evil passions, and heal my heart of all inordinate affections; that, being inwardly cured and thoroughly cleansed, I may be made fit to love, courageous to suffer, steady to persevere…Let me love you more than myself…”
I can’t recall the last time I saw suffering and persevering in any sort of discussion related to Christian maturity. Most of the time I – like many others – tend to avoid talking about suffering and persevering – especially the way Kempis does. I think a lot of those who went before us – those who lived in centuries that dealt with plagues and political turmoil and economic disequilibrium and food shortages and those who were willing to say no to themselves – no to certain attitudes and behaviors that run counter to biblical principles – have something to say to us in the 21st century.
From what I take from Kempis, part of what it means to grow in Christian maturity is owning up to the fact that our desires are not always on track with what it means to be Christian – and thus he prays that God would free him from that and help him to suffer through saying no to himself, no to desires that aren’t in accord with the Bible – and continuing to say no when that thing resurfaces. That’s the internal struggle and often that struggle is like suffering and just like physical suffering, it can be a tough row to hoe. We’d much rather indulge and confess and try to repent than suffer through self-denial. At least, that’s true of me. But Kempis makes it clear that we really can’t expect to go very deep in our walk with Jesus if we are unwilling to suffer and persevere.
I don’t like it but, in my heart of hearts, I know Kempis is right. I know it is best to pray as he prayed – and pray so that I will love God more than I love myself, which means being willing to place God’s best for me above my own desires. Saying yes to God often means saying no to myself. And therein lies the rub – doesn’t it? To love God more than myself should mean that I’m willing to say no to myself and willing to suffer and persevere when necessary.
At any rate, I’m grateful that my mom had this book around. I’m grateful that it was one of the things that fill my childhood memories. And, I’m grateful to know that a prayer my mom read – a prayer that somehow spoke to her – is speaking to me today.