Good Hope

It took some courage to open up and share their story of struggle with me.  A heavy cloud seemed to surround us as we spoke and it felt like all the exits were closing.   At those moments when words are not enough, and only listening matters, it is a struggle to remain positive.   When the sun is shining down, the birds are singing, the bills are paid and no problems seem to plague us, we naturally feel hopeful.  Having hope when it appears all hope is lost, can be a soul crushing challenge.  When it feels like nothing is left, still there reason to hope in God.  Hope in God is like a shaft of light from the heavens that transcends our darkness.   In the words of Helen Keller, “hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible.”  The promise to us from God is, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Rom 8:28)

Hope in God gives us the ability to look at the garbage of our lives and see compost, a fertile future in the Lord.

Hopeful people do what is right even when they don’t see how it will all work out for good.  Like Caleb, the Old Testament man of faith, they believe the promises of God and they are not afraid even though there are giants in the land.  If obedience was easy and it’s rewards were immediate, then everyone would do good.  Lot’s of people have wishful thinking but hopeful people take action. Someone has said, “hope is the ability to hear the music of the future, faith is the ability to dance to it today.”  May God gives us ears to hear and faith to dance.

Hopeful people are patient and willing to wait for the best things. They treasure most those things that last forever. If we put all our hope in the passing treasures of this world, we will be disappointed again and again. Naturally, we want to feel secure and know our needs will be met. Beyond necessities however, the expectation that this life will deliver on a promise of true happiness and joy will lead to much dissatisfaction. There are eternal treasures reserved for those who hope in God, who choose not to long for the pleasures of this world. Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Treasuring love, pursuing peace and practicing the virtues of generosity and kindness, will enrich our lives in ways money and things never can.

Hope is hard work and takes great patience but good things do come to those who wait.  Hope in God, He is always faithful.

How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.  Psalm 146:5

Metamorphosis

met·a·mor·pho·sis

  • A marked change in appearance, character, condition, or function;
  • Biology – the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly,

A white butterfly danced across my path the other day.  As record warm temperatures bathe our city, nature is changing and blooming early this year.

Like nature all around us, we yearn for change and aspire to fullness of life.  I know I do.  Metamorphosis, is radical change and it represents the possibility within each of us for new beginnings. Real change always starts within, but it affects everything else once it truly happens.

Like the caterpillar, the human soul is born with a capacity for something as radical as transformation to a butterfly.  I imagine as a caterpillar it must be hard to believe that such complete reordering of life is possible.  But the caterpillar doesn’t question, rather it follows the instincts of nature.  It eats and eats and then wraps itself in a leaf with a mile of silk forming a cocoon.  Now, “the caterpillar begins releasing enzymes that literally digest nearly all of its own body.  What’s left inside the chrysalis is mostly just a very nutrient rich soup from which the butterfly will begin to form.”  Amazing!

In the spiritual experience the inner working of divine grace, along with the compliance of the human will to God’s, makes change possible.  We are not meant to remain earth-bound among the crawling creatures forever.  Jesus, uses the image of the new birth to show that those who receive him are reborn,

“ not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:13

“A man is raised from the earth by two wings,” says Kempis, “simplicity and purity.”  Purity is like simplicity and together they are the pathway to inner life change.  The best kinds of peanut butter, in my view are the kinds with just one simple ingredient, peanuts.   The opposite of purity is to be double minded and to love many varied and changing things.  The pure of heart aspires above everything to be in union with the one eternal good that never changes, God.

Where there is impurity there is complexity and a lack of clarity.   One of the inconveniences of ageing is the loss of clear eyesight, not to mention forgetting where you put your glasses.  It can be frustrating not being able to read the label on a can or jar of peanut butter.  How much more frustrating it is to be unaware of the spiritual realities within and around us.  Jesus linked purity with clarity when he said, “Blessed are the pure on heart for they shall see God.”  Matt 5:8.   When he spoke in parables, Jesus understood that people were unable to comprehend the direct impact of divine light.  It is easier for us to see the stars and the moon than the sun, because the intensity of the sun would blind us. “Oh that we had ears to hear and eyes to see,” cried the prophets.  Impurity in our souls is like cataracts on our eyes.  Spiritual realities seem preposterous to our blind carnal minds.

It seems that one of God’s preferred methods for removing impurities from our hearts is the fire of suffering.   Like gold that is refined by fire, so our faith is tested and purified by trials of various kinds.  We are in need of patience and endurance in all our earthly difficulties.

 “But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” James 1:4

The painful experience of metamorphosis is the necessary price of becoming a butterfly. But oh how wonderful it is for those who attain it.  Through death and resurrection, we are becoming butterflies.

Life That Lasts

I recall singing that old hymn, “Where the Roses Never Fade” at funerals. Tears fell down as people gathered to say their last farewell to a lost loved one.  During those times, when words never seem enough, I’m always grateful for the promise of a life that never ends.

I am going to a city 
Where the streets with gold are laid,
Where the tree of life is blooming
And the roses never fade.

We pass through many shadowed valleys here, and the soul is weighed down by the grief and loss of all that fades in this life.  What comfort it is to lift our souls up, and to look for the roses that won’t fade.  

“Too many people feel like emotional robots these days, and are not willing or able to engage in the ups and downs of life.” says psychologist Betty Phillips.   “This emotional numbness,“ she says, “feels like the phrase from Shakespeare, ‘creeping in this petty pace from day-to-day until the last syllable of recorded time.’”  The antidote to emotional barrenness, is found in our ability to smell the roses, and experience a full range of emotions such as joy and love in beauty.

The roses that don’t fade are the great spiritual virtues such as faith, hope and love. By desiring and pursuing these qualities within us, we will discover the life that lasts.

 “A man is raised from the earth by two wings–” says Kempis, “simplicity and purity.”  

The soul is transformed like a butterfly when it looses itself in Christ so that it may gain heavenly wings.  The Messiah proclaimed in his suffering, “I am a worm, and not a man.” Psa 22:6.  We understand from this that Jesus on the cross was reduced to the likeness of sinful man, the worm, in our place.   Because of Jesus, like the butterfly, we who were the worms are becoming people of righteousness.  This transformation happens when we learn to despise all that is passing and hold on to what is eternal.  Teresa of Avila says,

Oh, to see the restlessness of this charming little butterfly, although never in its life has it been more tranquil and at peace! May God be praised! It knows not where to stay nor take its rest; everything on earth disgusts it after what it has experienced, when we are transformed like the butterfly, having risen from the cocoon, we never again find a permanent resting place in this world. (Interior Castle)

Nevertheless, our new freedom brings with it new desires and the enjoyment of the things that last:  eternal qualities such as faith, hope and love. These qualities are the nectar the little butterfly now drinks.  

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  John 12:25

Faith inspires in us to see beyond our immediate situation and its passing troubles.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

Hope gives us an ability to rise above our dashed expectations and remaining optimistic about what is still possible.  “Hope is not disappointed,” says Paul, for it trusts in the ultimate goodness and mercy of God.

Love finds a way to heal and restore everything that is broken.  Love conquers all.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.  1 Corinthians 13:4

What Do You Desire?

Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.
Songs of Solomon

Here is a question I ask myself once in a while.  What do I want, really?  How would you answer this question?  At various times, my answer includes things like happiness; consolation; peace; a solution to a problem and forgiveness.  

Let’s suppose, in one grand moment, all of what I desire happened.  How would that feel?  Even if all our desires in the life were fulfilled it would only be temporary and I imagine we would still want more.   So then I have longings that this world cannot fulfill and that leaves me in a dilemma.  I can keep trying in more and more ways to satisfy desire or just try to ignore or deny it altogether.   However, desire has an eternal quality about it that does not go away.  When I am aware of the longings within me that cannot be satisfied in this world the best I can do is lift my heart to God who is our highest good.   

When we attempt to numb our desires by our business, or to suppress our desires through religious guilt and fear it is like closing a door on the very best our hearts could aspire to, perfect love.   The antidote to unmet hunger is not to avoid it, but to be present and awake to it.  Desire is telling us something about ourselves and about our relationship with God.   

“Contemplation is understood as the desire to awaken from our dark sleep.”  Wendy Farley.

Desire fully awake can sound a bit frightening, it feels dangerous, like a wild river at flood level.  Like the river guided by it’s banks to the ocean, God intends that we set our desires upon Him.   He longs for us and His desire is that we want Him in return.  He considers it a form of adultery when we love the world and ignore Him.  He cannot be counted on to give us everything we want in this life.  He can be counted on to give us His highest good for our souls.

“He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?  But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  James 4:5,6

The problem we face is that we are too weak to lift our desire wholly to God and so we attach our desires to the temporal world instead.  In this way we settle for less that the best.   Farley states that,

“The problem with desire is not that it desires the wrong objects: the problem is that it relinquishes its erotic structure for the economy of possession.  Desire, ever restless, ever yearning, does not seek heaven to still its lust for pleasure eternally and completely.”

To guide our awakened desires, we need the gift of discernment.  Saint Ignatius teaches that our feelings can guide us to God’s purpose in our lives.  On his sick bed, using his imagination he would follow his immediate longing to their goal.  Then he would notice how he felt about that end.   He discovered that if it was a God desire it left him with feelings of consolation and when it was a selfish end it led to feelings of desolation.  So then he chose to pursue the feeling that led to consolation and this was his calling to give up all and become follower of Jesus.

Thomas a Kempis similarly instructed his disciples to discern the movements of grace and nature.

The Voice of Christ:  My child, pay careful attention to the movements of nature and of grace, for they move in very contrary and subtle ways, and can scarcely be distinguished by anyone except a man who is spiritual and inwardly enlightened.  Kempis.

With grace, patience, the word of God, wisdom, and spiritual mentors we will find our way to our ultimate source and our purest desire, God. Purity of affection leads us to loving in this world without seeking to possess it.

Being awake to love can in fact be entirely counter cultural and inefficient.  We will be challenged by love to give up our clinging to lesser things in order to embrace something better.   Awakened desire however is it’s own reward.  Gerald May says,

….. love calls us beyond using God to satisfy our needs, to heal us, to get us out of trouble, or to enhance our efficiency. Love calls us to gratitude, relinquishment, celebration, service, play, praise, companionship, intimacy, communion, and always to deeper yearning. In other words, love calls us to love. Gerald May

 

The Year of More Grace.

The Oprah Magazine has declared 2016 the year of YOU.  This announcement is about what we might expect from O magazine, but would someone tell me how I can handle another year of me. Definitely, knowing and improving ourselves is helpful but only if we are willing to be brutally honest in the process.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Psalm. 51:6

My desire is for more grace that will help me be patient in trails, to grow in my disappointments, to turn my heart more often to heaven and put my hope in eternal things above things of this world.   I need more grace to live more often in the presence of love and be okay with its inefficiency.

Inside of us are two conflicting natures wrestling for the title role of our affections.  As Jesus said, we cannot serve both God and the world — something must give.   The human nature with its disordered affections competes with my true desire for the pure nature of God.   I need great grace if I am to remain in peace in my present condition and even more grace if I intend to change. 

Paying attention to the movement of grace and nature within is an important practice for those who long for greater freedom in God.

……pay careful attention to the movements of nature and of grace, for they move in very contrary and subtle ways, and can scarcely be distinguished by anyone except a man who is spiritual and inwardly enlightened.  Thomas a Kempis

In describing the struggle within, Thomas a Kempis calls our fallen human condition nature, and the divine nature he calls grace.   He points out that the only way for grace and human nature to cohabit is for nature to submit to grace. In other words, like the Odd Couple, there are two roommates inside me that can only get along is if one is willing to give in to the other.   In the case of grace and nature, one is from above, one from below, one seeks the will of God the other it’s own way.  We participate in the divine nature of Jesus when we choose to pay attention to the subtle movements of grace and ignore the more demanding voice of nature.

If I am to grow in grace this year, it will take some humility and brokenness as I realize the truth that I am nothing and can do little if any good without God and a great deal of His grace.  In this place of surrender and weakness, I also discover that by grace, I can do all things through Christ who strengthen’s me. (Philippians 4:13)

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us toc his own glory and excellence,d 4by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 2 Peter 1

O most blessed grace, which makes the poor in spirit rich in virtues, which renders him who is rich in many good things humble of heart, come, descend upon me, fill me quickly with your consolation lest my soul faint with weariness and dryness of mind. Let me find grace in Your sight, I beg, Lord, for Your grace is enough for me, even though I obtain none of the things which nature desires. If I am tempted and afflicted with many tribulations, I will fear no evils while Your grace is with me. This is my strength. This will give me counsel and help. This is more powerful than all my enemies and wiser than all the wise. This is the mistress of truth, the teacher of discipline, the light of the heart, the consoler in anguish, the banisher of sorrow, the expeller of fear, the nourisher of devotion, the producer of tears. What am I without grace, but dead wood, a useless branch, fit only to be cast away? Let Your grace, therefore, go before me and follow me, O Lord, and make me always intent upon good works, through Jesus Christ, Your Son. Thomas a Kempis

5 Practices – To Put a Spring in Your Step

Our life doesn’t have to be going great to experience joy.  Even when things are going well, it is easy to take it all for granted.  Whenever I am able to live with an awareness of God’s presence, even when things are bad, a can sense this joy.  Most often, it is our response to life and our outlook on our pain that determines our attitude. Here are five practices that will improve your response to problems, and put a spring in your step.

  1. Be Grateful

If you find that gratitude is a challenge at times, and let’s face it, faking it doesn’t really count,  try saying this old prayer.

Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart,
Not thankful when it pleases me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

George Herbert

  1. Be Optimistic

A positive outlook, it is fair to say, is a much more helpful way to live.  For instance, studies show that optimists are generally healthier.  However,  being a realist, my heart needs reassurances; so I  remind myself that because God is good, and because His love for me is great, all will be well.  This reminder truly helps me to stay positive.

  1. Count Your Blessings

My mind goes back to an old hymn we used to sing, “Count your blessings name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Memory is a powerful ally when we are tempted to despair.  We could learn this practice by doing what my great grandmother did in her rocking chair each night:

“What are you doing?”, my Mom would ask her.
“I’m collecting my thoughts,” she would say.

Saint Ignatius spiritual practice of reviewing the day, is a way we recall the good of our days, and place value on the blessing of being alive.

  1. Use Your Gifts

A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great. Prov. 18:16 

When we practice the things we are most naturally good at and enjoy doing, we will feel so much better about ourselves, than when we try to force ourselves to fit into someone else’s mold.   When family and friends are gathered in our home, I’m in my element when I’m helping prep the meal, serve the coffee, or fix up a tasty dessert.  I don’t resent it, I enjoy it;  and of course my wife appreciates it too.  What is your gift? Please share it,  be blessed and be a blessing.

  1. Share With Others

It is truly more blessed to give than to receive.  There is great joy in living for the benefit of others.

History shows that people who put others first are the ones we remember and are inspired by.  Our chief example of this is Jesus of whom the Bible says,  “For the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Heb. 12:2)

We will experience some of this unspeakable joy while we lay down ourselves for one another.  This is not doormat theology, but rather it is a daily practice, refreshed and refilled by God’s love.

Staying Open

I want to stay open to the stirrings of God’s Spirit more often this year.  He is pursuing us daily but I so often miss those moments. This year, I want to be more tuned in.

With all that science, can you tell me how light enters the soul?” Henry David Thoreau.

Discovering God’s love is like finding the ivy-covered gate to a secret garden that has been closed for years and forgotten.   Once discovered, we have the choice to enter the garden and be changed, or remain outside with our longing and our safe life.   One of our human contradictions is that the thing we long for is often the very thing we work to keep out.   Like young lovers who play hide and seek with their affections, we are perhaps afraid of getting hurt by love.   We may simply fear the cost of true love, and the grace that is free but not cheap. The oddest part of this scenario is that I might be working hard at getting to know God while at the same time resisting Him.

“Divine intimacy can be powerfully appealing and yet frightening at the same time,” Mary Ann Schofield.

To move past my natural fear of change, is a choice I want to make more often this year.   That choice can mean leaving some of the familiar surroundings that feel safe, but may be blocking my growth. The self limiting perspectives and the unquestioned assumptions that I cling to,  are being tested.  The unbounded love of God cannot be controlled or tamed but continuously moves us to the boundaries. The Spirit draws me beyond the need for intellectual order into the cloud of unknowing, where love remains.  Sometimes I recoil, however, these thin, liminal places are God’s preferred points of contact with the soul.   Here we are transformed as our ego self is diminished and the fire within is able to be ignited afresh.

God is pursuing a relationship with us continuously, even as we resist Him.  How much more beautiful life will be, when we can stay open and connected to His reality.

“Contemplation is a long loving look at the real.”  – Walter Burghardt

 

On Following Your Heart

If you could have whatever you want, what would it be? Do you really know what you want? In my experience, my desires are all jumbled up. Sometimes, my wants are all about me. Then, it’s about money or affection. At another time, I’m benevolent and want others to be free and fulfilled. The longing for good is there but like Paul, “I don’t realize what I’m doing. I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15)

This question reveals our inner longings. The inner desires of the heart can seem like a scary underworld that we feel ill equipped to explore. Yet, within this underworld of the soul, we find the great hidden treasure of our true self.

Our deepest inner longings seek something outside of us for fulfillment. They seek the divine source from which they come.

In Christian tradition, however, misplaced and disordered desires are also within us. Alongside inner longings like, love, beauty, joy, peace and justice are urges and habits that keep the good far from us. These passions, as they are historically called, are responses of the ego either to the pain of life or the longing to be whole. The tragic reality of the human state is that we often destroy the very things we love and we hinder ourselves from attaining the good we long for. There is a disorder within us that defies our put-together exteriors.

Our problem is not with desire itself. The problem is that desire, which has an infinite spiritual source, cannot be satisfied with the pleasures and possessions that we often seek. Neither, will this thirst be cured with the more hidden responses such as jealousy or revenge. The Christian message is not opposed to passion, in the sense we understand it today as desire for the good, but warns of passions in the sense of misplaced desire.

Once, I was at the gas station and my mind was on many things. Before I knew it I was filling my car with diesel, not noticing the yellow handle on the pump. Since a gas car can’t run on diesel, I barely made it home and had to drain the tank before I could drive it again. We defeat desire, when we try to fill our emotional and spiritual tanks or ease our inner thirsty by attaching ourselves to passions that are destructive to others and ourselves. We are made for so much more than that. We were created for intimacy with divinity and nothing less can quench our inner thirst.

“Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” St. Augustine.

The Frustration of Happiness

As a kid I listened repeatedly to the song Happiness, from the musical “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”  The old LP spun a marvelous vision.  “Happiness is . . . . learning to whistle, tying your shoe for the very first time, . . . . . catching a fire fly and setting him free . . . . . and happiness is, anyone and anything that’s loved by you.”  I outgrew that song and some of those notions, but my search for happiness continued.

The flame and emptiness of holy desire calls us to happiness. The divine image will be satisfied with nothing less.   But here in this weary land we must constantly cope with the frustration of happiness. It is this harsh paradox at the heart of our experience that translates holy desire into addiction.  Wendy Farley 

Part of the frustration with happiness is that we can’t stop wanting it even in the face of our experiences in a world of pain.  An inner fragment of the Divine, a precious but forgotten memory,  “calls us to happiness.”  It is an inescapable longing within and we will travel the world in search of a cure.

The second part of the frustration is our own tendency to derail this pure pursuit. We get lost in the noise of voices, like the vendors in Vegas, that appeal to more immediate pleasures.  Not only does Vanity Fair call us, but our own inner compulsions mislead us.  Promises of less pain and more pleasure now seem an adequate substitute for our true calling.   These pain free pledges pull us away like a tide, further from the shore of God’s love.   In a world that consumes 14 billion doses of pain medication a day we need to ask deeper questions than “How can I ease the ache of living?”  Our attempts at happiness are turning us in to instant gratification addicts, content with momentary distractions from reality.

The frustration of happiness is further complicated by our attempts to find peace in religion.  Unfortunately, holiness rules, the emphasis on self sacrifice,  denial and control,  often communicate to our souls a message of shame, failure and guilt.  This misunderstanding of the good news of Jesus can place us outside of the experience of the love of God that we so desperately need.

The way through all of this complication is often something as simple as a compassionate, listening spiritual friend.  I have also found great comfort in the classic writings of people who have explored the heights and depths of Christian experience.

The yearning of our heart is for a deeper connection to the source of our longing, God.  “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in him,” St Augustine reminds us.  In Christian understanding, Christ is the fulfillment of this heart’s longing.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  and you have been filled in him. . . Col 2:9,10 

The abiding presence of the one who suffers with me, and for me,  is enough to sustain me in the pleasure and pain of life.  This is the beginning of real happiness.