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In a recent editorial planning meeting, our conversation turned to the phrase spiritual vitality. We all agreed the concept is extremely important for church leaders. (In fact, we decided to make it next issue's theme.) After kicking it around for a while, however, we realized that the elusive word for many of us is the second.
Why? Somehow by dint of hard work and discipline we manage to be spiritual-within acceptable limits. We schedule prayer time, attend church functions, carry out the duties of good Christian soldiers.
But spiritual with vitality? Spirituality that we enjoy and get excited about? That's another question.
Sometimes we mistakenly resign ourselves to the loss of excitement as an inevitable consequence of growing old. Vitality is associated with youthful energy. George Bernard Shaw said the ideal is "to combine the experience of an old hand with the vitality of a young one."
But the word has a deeper meaning associated with growth and longevity: the capacity, in the case of spiritual matters, to remain enthused long after the initial ecstasy of rebirth has gone. Vitality in its truest sense means life-the more vitality, the more we know life is being lived in its fullness.
There's the rub. Something about the modern pace of living squeezes vitality out of spirituality, and most of us are left panting with the question: How does one retain it?
In some ways, church life accentuates the problem. By thirsting after full participation, we schedule ourselves to the hilt. We leave no time for anything serendipitous. We slavishly fill every time slot in our date book, and the only break we get is a cancelled appointment, which is really no break at all because of the frustrations of rescheduling.
We neglect to space our lives with "broad margins," the spaces around our activity in which Henry David Thoreau said we should live most of our lives. Too often our margins are so narrow we type ourselves right off the page.
I sat recently with a friend who had lost his vitality: "Life has gotten very difficult. It's all hard edges. Everything I do seems painful, like I'm barking my shin against a concrete step. I keep going, but all the while I long for soft pillows to cushion the blows. I never dreamed life could be so hard."
Where does vitality come from? Vitality comes from having some time to think, to plan, to act spontaneously. By setting aside such think time, we must reduce some of our activities. But the ones left take on new meaning.
Vitality also comes from the satisfaction of being available to help those in need. Marshall Shelley and I recently sat with a layman who had developed a "philosophy of broad margins." He described it this way: "I saw that if I continued to schedule my time 100 percent full, I would be unable to react to emergencies, in the church or in my family. Realizing this, I consciously began to allow time not only for rest and relaxation, but also for a definite category I call 'Samaritan time.' Naturally, I don't know when or what those times will be. But it has added a new vigor to my life just to know the time is there, and I can enthusiastically help people when they need it. It has really eased my former guilt about not having time to help."
There's a further dynamic regarding spiritual vitality. We tend to divide our time too sharply between spiritual and nonspiritual things. When we're being spiritual, we shut out everything else as if it didn't belong. We do the same when we're "off duty" spiritually. This does more than just impoverish the experiences of both realms. It actually feeds the tendency to overwork ourselves, because the spiritual realm of our lives is the governor that keeps all the other chores of life properly prioritized.
Muriel Lester spent years working with the underprivileged in the slums of London. Her experiences in those sometimes thankless tasks taught her much about living with poise and power in the face of a dark, gray world. She told a story that typified her approach:
"Some hillsmen of a primitive race in South America were carrying the baggage and scientific instruments of a party of men who had been doing research in the interior. They had got on very well, the intellectuals and the primitives, but on the long trek back to the coast, time was running short, and boats don't wait. The porters were told the facts and did some extra miles for several days. Then they began to lag behind. Their employers appealed to them, then strode ahead, trusting to their friendliness and sympathy. When they looked back no porter was visible. They retraced their steps and found them all serenely sitting on the baggage. They did not move as the scientists approached, just sat there looking particularly restful and receptive. Seeing the white men's look of anxious enquiry, one of them quietly explained: 'We are only waiting until our souls catch up with our bodies.' "
Perhaps more than anything else, loss of vitality in our spiritual life is a sign that we are running so fast we have allowed our bodies to get way ahead of our souls, and we need to sit down and wait until the two get together again.
Terry C. Muck is editor of LEADERSHIP
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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