Live from the Center: Old Wisdom from Thomas Kelly for Today

Our lives today are cluttered and crowded.

The list of responsibilities that we feel we must accomplish grows overnight like Jack’s beanstalk! We keep taking on more and more until before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, panting through a never-ending program of projects to complete, people to meet, and places to go.

We are too busy to listen even to the people we love, too hurried to enjoy the moment, too distracted to pray. We tell ourselves, “As soon as I fulfill this responsibility or solve that problem then I can relax.” One after the other the pages of the calendar turn and still we keep doing too much, still we are not living in the peace of Christ.

Frustrated with our inability to change our lives we blame our problem on the complexity of life in our fast-paced, technological society. We think that life was simpler and easier in times past. We fantasize about living somewhere else, perhaps in the country where the grass is greener and we might have a slower, less stressful life.

Our Real Problem

But our problem is not on the outside it’s on the inside—it’s an issue of soul, not environment. The problem is me.

My over-crowded, over-stressed life reflects the lack of integration within my self. I am not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. In me there is the…

  • Parental self
  • Worker self
  • Financial self
  • Rescuer or hero self
  • Make-people-happy self
  • Needy self

In the situations of the day each self within me shouts out what it wants and the chairman within me is pushed and pulled from one to the other, rushing back and forth to appease whichever self is shouting the loudest at the time—that’s anxiety!

“Take Heart” from Thomas Kelly

Almost one century ago Thomas Kelly (1893-1941), a Quaker missionary and educator described the stress and strain of modern life in similar words as mine above. (Life wasn’t automatically simpler and more peaceful back then.) Longing for a deeper, richer life in Christ he formed a small group with seven of his students to read the classic books of Christian devotion. As they talked and prayed together each week their love for God and one another grew. They did this for three years until Thomas’ premature death in 1941 at just 48 years of age.

After Thomas Kelly’s death some essays he wrote were published as A Testament of Devotion, which became a spiritual classic just like the books that revitalized his life and those of the students in his group. His prayer, “Lord, make my life a miracle!” was answered!

“Lord, Make My Life a Miracle!”

This bold prayer echoed through the decades to Ray Ortlund Sr. It became his own prayer and it moved him to start discipleship groups in the spirit of Thomas Kelly’s group. Lord, Make my Life a Miracle! became the title of Ray’s own best-selling devotional book.

Decades later Thomas Kelly’s miracle prayer of devotion to Christ reached me when Ray Ortlund Sr. became my spiritual mentor and friend. Ray spoke to me about the influence that Thomas Kelly had on him, inspiring him to live for Christ, “warm and close to the Center.” That made me excited to read A Testament of Devotion.

So I read A Testament of Devotion, not just curious to learn something, but with desperate, holy longing. For three hours on my knees at my old wooden altar I prayed each word from my heart. Then I fell on my face before God for another hour and prayed over and over, “O Lord, I want to live with Christ as my Center in all that I do as Thomas Kelly and Ray Ortlund Sr. did! O that I would be wholly devoted to you as they were!”

I invite you to join me in savoring these words from Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion. “Take heart” from him. Absorb his devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ and make it your own. Let his words from A Testament of Devotion inspire you to learn to live “warm and close to the Center,” affectionately abandoned to the Spirit of Christ who dwells within you.

A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly

Listen to the Holy Whisper

“Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by… We have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center! If only we could find the Silence which is the source of sound! …Where the fretful calls of life are integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence…

“We have all heard this holy Whisper. At times we have followed the Whisper, and amazing equilibrium of life, amazing effectiveness of living sets in. But too many of us have heeded the Voice only at times. Only at times have we submitted to this holy guidance. We have not counted this Holy Thing within us to be the most precious thing in the world. We have not surrendered all else, to attend to it alone…

“But if we center down, as the old phrase goes, and live in that holy Silence which is dearer than life, and take our life program into the silent places of the heart, with complete openness, ready to do, ready to renounce according to His leading, then many of the things we are doing lose their vitality for us…

We Find Time for What We Really Want

“Let me talk very intimately and very earnestly with you about the Lord Jesus Christ who is dearer than life. Do you really want to live your life, every moment of your life, in His Presence? Do you long for Him, crave Him? Do you love His Presence?… Does every breath you draw breathe a prayer, a praise to Him? Do you sing and dance within yourselves, as you glory in His love? Have you set yourselves to be His, and only His, walking every moment in holy obedience?… Do you intersperse your work with gentle prayers and praises to Him? Do you live in the steady peace of God, a peace down at the very depths of your soul, where all strain is gone and God is already victor over the world, already victor over your weakness?…

“If you say you haven’t the time to go down into the recreating silences, I can only say to you, ‘Then you don’t really want to, you don’t yet love God above all else in the world, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.’… We find time for what we really want to do…

“Our real problem, in failing to center down, is not a lack of time; it is, I fear, in too many of us, lack of joyful, enthusiastic delight in Him, lack of deep, deep-drawing love directed toward Him at every hour of the day and night.

A Revolutionary Way of Living and Loving

“I think it is clear that I am talking about a revolutionary way of living. Spirituality isn’t something to be added to our duties, and thus make our lives yet more complex. The life with God is the center of life, and all else is remodeled and integrated by it. It gives the singleness of eye. The most important thing is not to be perpetually passing out cups of cold water to a thirsty world. We can get so fearfully busy trying to carry out the second commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ that we are under- developed in our devoted love to God…

“There is a way of life so hid with Christ in God that in the midst of the day’s business one is inwardly lifting brief prayers, short ejaculations of praise subdued whispers of adoration and of tender love to the Beyond that is within. No one need know about it… It is a sacred trust…

“Now out from such a holy Center come the commissions of life. Our fellowship with God issues in world-concerns. We cannot keep the love of God to ourselves. It spills over. It quickens us. It makes us see the world’s needs anew. We love people and we grieve to see them blind when they might be seeing, asleep with all the world’s comforts when they ought to be awake and living sacrificially, accepting the world’s goods as their right when they really hold them only in temporary trust. From this holy Center we love our neighbors as ourselves and are stirred to be the means of their awakening…

“Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes not time, but it occupies all our time.”

(Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, written in 1941, p. 92-100.)

A Changed Life Begins with One Breath

A simple Breath Prayer offered continuously from our heart can help us to live in the “fellowship of the Transfigured Face” as Thomas Kelly did. Breathing a prayer from Scripture is a simple way to be intentional with your body in order to engage your mind and heart with God’s Word. You just whisper or think the words of the prayer as you breathe in and out, slowly and deeply.

Center yourself in Christ as you pray with me: “Jesus, be my Center… Selah.” (Inspired by Matthew 17:6, MSG.)

• Breathe in: “Jesus, be my Center…”

• Breathe out: “Selah.”

What responsibility or stress is distracting you from the risen Christ at work in your heart and all around you? Name this before the Lord and then pray: “Jesus, be my Center… Selah.”

What committee members in your head are clamoring for attention: the parental self, the worker self, the financial self, the rescuer self, the hero self, the make-people-happy self, the needy self? Identify the committee members that are pulling on you and then seek to be integrated in Christ as you breathe your prayer of the heart: “Jesus, be my Center… Selah.”

Then as you do whatever you do today follow the inspiration of Ray Ortlund Sr. who taught me do all that I do the name of Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:17) as I continuously to “shoot up a little prayer.” It’s how we learn, more and more, to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It just takes a breath to begin: “Jesus, be my Center… Selah.”

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