Crackling Logs

“The little strength remaining in  the soul is like a spark hidden in ashes” Thomas a Kempis

Our TV fireplace with it’s warm orange glow and crackling logs doesn’t change the room temperature, but with a little imagination you can almost believe there is heat.   Add a few candles and  some background music and  you create  an instant cozy room with no smoke!

In the hearth of the soul there is a God-like spark but it is buried in the ashes of our fallen self.  Unless God introduces his holy fire into the hearth, there is little that is truly God-like within me.  What we need is a glowing flame that burns with love toward God and warms the whole house.  Thankfully God has not left us without hope. It is said about Jesus that “ a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” Isaiah 42:3  God is carefully watching over us to protect the small fire within and rekindle it.

When the fire lies dormant and all that’s left is a “spark in the ashes,” it’s tempting to substitute real flames for something fake.    It is hard to admit when my spiritual life has been reduced to burning embers and my human efforts have produced so little effect. If I resort to faking it and imagining the feeling of being warm, I can make a good impression but the fruit of genuine love will be lacking.   I can visualize heat, but when my prayers are cold and my heart is self-absorbed,  no one is warmed.  It’s the placebo effect.

Spiritual fervor is never at its lowest as when the hype is at its highest. The thrill of the sense world blinds me.  With self-satisfaction I underestimate the frailty that lies behind the curtain of my pretensions. The spiritual crumbs of  an emotional high won’t satisfy my deeper cravings.  God, by your grace re-light a holy fire. I offer myself on the altar of my heart as a whole burnt offering.

The prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven, but first he called upon God’s people to choose who they will serve.  (1 Kings 18:38)  The choice to be made is between the selfish desires of our own will and God’s desires, the will of the flesh and the will the Spirit.  When that choice is settled and a holy fire is rekindled there will be a fresh awareness of the light and heat of God’s presence. In the heat of this fire,  new character is forged and impurities are removed.

Lord, you are the fire that burns without consuming.  We know the fire is catching when there is smoke and tears.  This smoke is the loss of our old nature and it can be a painful process.  We are not, however, so consumed by His fire as to lose ourselves completely. God you do not annihilate us in consuming us, you liberate us.

“Oh!  Fire above every fire, because You are the only Fire who burns without consuming, and consume all sin and self-love found in the soul, not afflicting her, but fattening her with insatiable love.”  Catherine of Sienna, Dialogues

Optional Christianity

Talking to a Sunni Muslim women recently, I was curious about her practice of Ramadan.   She shared that not drinking water all day was the hardest part;  and that the fast in Calgary, is from 3:40 am to 9:40 pm.  She explained that all Muslims are expected, once they reach puberty, to participate, but there are a number of exceptions such as health and pregnancy.   I pointed out that Jesus anticipated that Christians would fast also.  She was curious whether Christian fasting included not drinking water  like Sunnis do.  Oh, I replied Christian fasting is optional, people can do whatever they want.  

This got me thinking about our Christian practices.  Jesus spoke about fasting and prayer often but he also warned against basing our religion on external exercises.  “When you fast Jesus said, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Matt. 6:16)  All traditional spiritual disciplines whether solitude, silence, fasting, bible reading, prayer, worship, giving and others, can become forms that are empty of spiritual reality.  Yet, without them, it is impossible to imagine a person will make much true progress in their Christian faith.  Just as Ignatius had his “Exercises” and St Benedict had his “Rules”, we need our own set of practices tailored to fit the rhythms of our life.

Imagine playing for a sports team where workouts were optional.  Or, suppose a dietician recommends a diet of chips and pop, where vegetables and fruits are non-compulsory.  Picture learning piano from a teacher who said practice is elective. Have we turned the grace of God into freedom to do what I feel like? How often do you feel like taking up your cross daily to follow Christ?

James said, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2:17)  

In other words, every person whose life exemplifies what it means to be a follower of Jesus, develops a set of compulsory spiritual practices to follow.

How do you practice your Christian faith?  What “rules” do you live by to give structure to your spirituality?  Do you feel it is helpful to have patterns of daily spiritual practice?

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

A Word to Encourage

Our lives are filled with many words.  Each day 30 billion Whatsapp messages and 20 billion texts fly across cyber space.  In addition, the airwaves are filled with radio and TV messages, words and images filling our thoughts.  Among all those words, how many are healing or encouraging those who are burdened and full of care?   In all this, where can you find a word of encouragement to support the weary?

Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”  He is the one who can provide us with a word to sustain the weary.

 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. Isa 50:4

Listening to the voice of the Spirit within is the most encouraging and uplifting experience we can find here on earth.   His word within us is true and therefore real and trustworthy.  Even his word of correction is filled with love.  When he speaks it is for our good to lift us from our heavy load and unchain us from life’s burdens.  We can do nothing better for our souls than to have moments of solitude in the presence of God and allow him to speak into our lives.

To prepare you heart for such a word requires a discipline of silence and a practice of turning off the noise.  Human nature will resist this quietness, for it prefers the false comforts of a noisy world.  Alone with God, our true hearts are revealed and it can be painful to see.  The heart of man is deceitful, says Jeremiah. We often deceive ourselves and are easily deceived by others through the flattery of self love.  However, it is the truth that sets us free.  God desires hearts that are true.  This attracts him because he is true.

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

The voice of God within is a still small voice that is easily drowned out.  Going about our day chewing on a morning word from God, is a way to cherish what we have heard and keeps our hearts encouraged in the Lord.  This practice of listening to God’s voice will also be a blessing to some weary soul as we learn how to sustain the weary with our words.

  A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Prov. 25:11

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

A Well-ordered Life.

Time to go; don’t be late. Leaving the house: got my gadgets, got my glasses, wore the right clothes, used mouthwash, locked the door, got my keys, oops. Once again the well-ordered life evades me. A new set of plans begins, call for a ride and worry about the keys later.

Living a well-ordered life can be monumental in our multi-tasking, distracted world.   Is it that we are trying too hard to do too much? Or is this how life is, so we have to get with it or be left behind. Unfortunately, what is left behind might be something more valuable than my keys, like my well-being and peace of mind, my family or even my faith.

What I’m discovering, when driven to distraction, I need to stop and check in with my soul. Is it “well with my soul,” or has distraction filled my inner life too?

A well-order life is a beautiful thing and it doesn’t depend on a fully put together exterior.  The pursuit of a well-ordered life is a choice to be uncluttered even when all around is chaos and confusion.    “Set you affections on things above,” the Bible says. (Col. 3:2) The difficulty I face is not just a scattered mind but disordered desires.   I love how the apostle Paul was able to sift it all down to “this one thing I do.” It is the one thing above all things that kept his life on course.   That one thing was to be like Jesus. (Phil 3:13)

Pure water contains one thing, H2O. Okay, technically water is two elements, but you get the point. Moving from inner chaos to inner simplicity can only be accomplished by grace and more grace. By grace and some healthy soul-searching, we can gain inner victory over our disordered affections, but we have to get to the root of the problem. We must do more than separate ourselves from temptation, we need to uproot the wanting of lusts and passions that will only corrupt and confine us.   “The man who only shuns temptations outwardly and does not uproot them, will make little progress,” says Thomas a Kempis.

“The greatest obstacle, indeed the only obstacle, is that we are not free from passions and lust, that we do not try to follow the perfect way of the saints.” Thomas a Kempis

The result of a well-ordered inner life is the ability to live fully in the moment, to be present to God and others, to be free compulsions and maybe get out the door without forgetting anything important.  This inner beauty is cultivated by allowing God’s presence to dwell within us daily.

Order my steps by your word! Do not let any sin dominate me!  Psa. 119:133

A Spark in the Ashes

I am not much of a boy scout, but I love the outdoors. When I try to start a fire, I usually end up on my knees with my face in the fire pit, coaxing, blowing and pleading with the fire to start. If I could apply the same desperation and attention to stirring up the fire of God in my soul as I do when lighting a fire, I’m sure I would eventually get some good results, spiritually that is.

Thomas Kempis in his writings, makes reference to a  “spark hidden in the ashes” of his soul.  In his prayer for more grace, he speaks of this little strength within our weak human nature which

 “has the power of judging good and evil, of seeing the difference between true and false, though it is not able to fulfill all that it approves and does not enjoy the full light of truth or soundness of affection.” (Imitation of Christ).

Tending to this spark within and fanning it into flame is the way we rise up out of the ashes.  The threat of descending into a cold world of hatred and despair must urge us on to love and good works.

Keep It Real

Around Christmas on a local cable you can watch the virtual burning log channel 24 hours a day. You’ll even see this guy come along once in a while and add a new log.  However, just like a virtual fireplace cannot warm the body so the virtual comforts that this world parades before us will not warm the soul.

Quenching the Spirit can happen easily, when we turn away our hearts to external desires.  Love of the world with its pleasures and honours, is a distraction that can drown our desire for God.  On the other hand, the spiritual practices or adoration, meditation on the goodness of God and letting his word dwell richly in us, will stoke the fires of heavenly desire.   However, don’t throw the big logs in too soon.

We learn about the goodness of God not by contemplating the goodness of God but by watching a butterfly.  Richard Foster

Richard Foster counsels experiencing the joys of a water brook and feeling the water on your face without trying to find God in the water. (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home)  In connecting with the tiny pleasures of life, we will gradually and naturally begin to rediscover adoration.

Spiritual Friendship

Another common practice for rekindling a holy fire, is spiritual friendship.  In the same way that logs burn better together, so a spiritual companion adds fuel to the fire of God’s love.  The fire within us will warm others as well as ourselves. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced this.  They said to each other,

“Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32

Fan Into Flame

The Apostle Paul reminded his protégé Timothy to “to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”  This flame is the true source of the spiritual power, love and soundness of mind that we need, Paul says. (2 Tim. 1:6).  The flame though small at first, will grow as we continue to make space for it.