There are those lessons in life that you have to examine and wonder, “did I get that right?” Or, those “a-ha” moments that cause you to question if you really learned what you were supposed to learn. There is this great moment in a movie from a while ago called The Princess Bride where the character Inigo Montoya in the movie says, “you keep using that word, I’m not sure it means what you think it means.”
And, truth be told, I’m at that spot right now. Let me explain. I’m in seminary getting my masters degree in ministry, and there is a class that has asked the students to extrapolate a lesson or two from our textbook, Foundations of Spiritual Formation: A Community Approach to Becoming Like Christ by Paul Pettit, and combine that with our own life experiences to give us a glimpse into what we need to work on in our personal walk with Christ, and a plan of action to get there. The assignment is to blog about it, so here goes.
What did I learn?
There are so many things covered in this book that I need to work on that it was almost impossible to narrow one down. Yes, I’m a work in progress. However, I did manage to find a theme that I waiver on: Love.
Now that seems remedial for a Pastor, I’m sure, but even though I know that I’m supposed to love God and love others, I don’t always do it effectively. What I believe, and what everyone believes about loving God and others is relative to what they’ve already experienced and what they’ve been taught. But those experiences are all as different as we are as human beings. So how do I love correctly? Here is what Pettit says,
“Only when people are completely secure in the unchanging, unwavering, and fierce love of God are they prepared to love the way God calls them to love. Why will people risk the possibility of rejection, shame, manipulation, and pain by giving of themselves for the sake of another? The only reason people will do this is if they have a foundation so unmovable and so fulfilling that putting themselves on the line in service to another does not threaten their sense of identity. Rather, when we associate ourselves with Christ, the ultimate servant leader, we are both inspired by his example of service and secure in our identity in him.”
There it was, the “oh boy I should know this” moment. I love people. I do, but not like that. I want to see everyone experience Christ. I want to love God by being obedient. But what happens when God is calling me to obediently love others the way Christ loves, even when I’m uncomfortable with the community I’m serving? To serve in such a way that is unmistakably incarnational and only thinking of others as Jesus serves. Am I missing it? Turns out, on many occasions, I was. I was loving for some of the wrong reasons. Pettit helped me see those reasons by illustrating the right ones.
The author goes so much further in depth about loving than we have time or space for in this blog, but, there are 5 basic principles. I’m going to summarize and take some literary license as I do so. Just know that all of these come directly from the book that I’ve already cited. First, love doesn’t default to status quo. Just doing Christian things isn’t enough if you don’t mean it. It’s not out of requirement that we love, it should be out of response for God’s love of us. Second, love is not concerned with sinning less. No one is asking you to sin. Your focus should be on being loving, not preserving your Christian persona. You don’t have to drink too much at a party to be good company and show the love of Christ right where you’re at. Third, love is a dynamic process. You need to honestly engage with others in an individual way. Learn the needs of the person, not put someone’s needs onto everyone and serve the same way. Fourth, love must be a commitment in all seasons. Your neighbor might be your neighbor for life. Do you really think that they need you to serve and love them the same way at 50 years old then they did when you were in your 20’s? Each season holds different triumphs and challenges for all of us. Be sensitive to the season each person is in. That’s how God calls us to serve and love. Finally, principle five says love is sustained when we experience His love. How can we selflessly serve this much? What about when we need help? Our Father in heaven provides that. He is loving us and strengthens us through that same love.
What’s The Plan?
So now that I understand it better, I want to do better. I’m prayerfully seeking to do “better” by creating a plan of action to incorporate my new understanding of love and spiritual formation. Apparently, the author has prayed for us to do this since 2008. He writes,
“My greatest fear for the body of Christ is that we might consistently say that we are committed to loving others—we might give cognitive assent to the primacy of the Great Commandment—and yet never effectively express love in action. If spiritual formation does not result in a people who are learning to love well in every season of life and in every community, then we are engaged in a spiritual formation that is missing the mark.”
Step 1 in this plan involves me getting out of my comfort zone and going into situations that are uncomfortable. I’ve got some neighbors that aren’t Christians. In fact, almost all of my neighbors aren’t Christians. Am I serving them well? Am I loving them and leading them to Christ through servant leadership even though I know they think I’m weird for doing so? In some ways, but not to the extent that my heavenly Father asks me to. So, I’m deliberately asking questions and placing myself in the community that I hope to serve better.
Step 2, I’m going to take the time to get to know my neighbors’ stories. Perhaps the similarities will be far greater than the differences. We won’t know that until I take the risk. But, what if in that risk, eventually, I lead them to Christ? Sounds worth it to me.
Step 3, invite my church to do the same. I’m a pastor at a local church and this is something that I believe most of the congregation has been missing. We love a Sunday morning. But, are we serving the community we worship in? Are we incarnationally being Christ to our neighbors? Do all of our neighbors even know that we are Christians? I’m going to push for a series on being the neighbor Jesus wants us to be. Imagine the impact if every single member of our church learned how to love their neighbors in this way? I’m encouraged.
Are You Next?
There might be someone reading this blog right now thinking, “wow, this guy is boring.” I don’t blame you. Or maybe you’re the one saying, “I’m thinking of going into minitsry and seminary sounds good but, I don’t think I need it.” That’s fine. I’ve been there too. I used to think that I knew enough to do what I wanted to do. I’m called to be a Senior Pastor. So, I read Matt 22:37-40 which says,
“37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Isn’t that it? I mean, that’s the ball game, right? What more do we need to know? Well grasshopper, here’s the real deal. There was a level that I was at in my ministry that was bearing fruit. I thought that meant I was on the right track. And, truth be told, I could have stayed there and I’m sure God would have been pleased. But then, the call, and opportunity of which I did not seek out on my own, to expand my knowledge and lift the lid on my ministerial leadership capabilities came, and I chose to listen. I listened to a multitude of Godly counsel that told me not to miss this. They told me that seminary will give me even more tools to use for God’s glory. Many of the tools they listed, I really didn’t have. Or worse, I didn’t know I needed. I listened to my growing emotional intelligence that had to admit the embarrassment of not even knowing where that Matthew scripture was and, if I’m to be a Pastor, shouldn’t I know that? And finally, I listened to God’s word which clearly states,
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” - Proverbs 1:7 NIV
Am I a fool that I should not want to take the opportunity to learn, be instructed, and increase my fear of the Lord? I was. Not anymore.
If I had to give one piece of advice to a student thinking of going into seminary, or even just full-time ministry, it’s this: Be ready for what God is going to teach you through what you are being taught. You honestly don’t know what you don’t know, but you will if you are open to learning and not phoning it in just to get through it. God will give you a new supernatural language, new tools, and new gifting that you had no idea you could have. I know you’ve heard C’s get degrees, but God has so much more for you than that, if you give Him more than that. Do you want a degree, or do you want a great ministry? You choose. I’m rooting for you.
Pastor Tony Mosti