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?

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

Thin Places

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness… Matthew 4:1

The desert is symbolic of the harshness and isolation we can often feel, even in our crowded world. Rejection, failure and the disappointments of life can send us there, feeling thirsty and barren.  It does not usually occur to me that God might be leading me there.   Feelings of emptiness and isolation are usually ones I seek to avoid or fill in some temporary way. However, when I have been able to share those painful feeling of exile with God, I have found He is very near.

The discovery of my weaknesses as I complain about even the smallest inconvenience, is a humbling thing.  The truth is, the testing experiences of life are the ones that most often form character and liberate me from my vices.  No wonder the early disciple boasted in their weakness and gloried in their shame.  In those humbling moments their faith grew in proportion to their endurance of hardship.

In the stories of the Bible from the time of Moses to the era of the prophets, people met God in the desert and found hope and courage. They were socially and physically isolated from the centre of life in what the Celtics call thin places, but never alone.  There on the fringes where the sense of isolation is most acute, often the heavens opened for them.  Like Jacob seeing angels on a ladder, people who were thrust into the wilderness discovered, Bethel, the house of God.   Into the wilderness, Jesus was led by the Spirit.  There he overcame temptation by utter trust in the Lord and then the Bible says,

. . . . . .the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him. Math. 4:11

What desert places have you been led to?  Can you see God’s hand guiding you even in your wilderness experiences.  Many have found Him to be a source of refreshing streams of water when they needed him most. He supernaturally transforms deserts into blooming gardens.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus Isa. 35:1

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.

The Alphabet Prayer

One Sunday morning, a young shepherd boy was caring for his sheep when he heard the bells of the church ringing. Watching the people walk by on their way to church, he thought, “I would like to talk to God, but what can I say to him?”

He had never been taught a prayer. So, kneeling down, he began to recite the alphabet. Although the boy was hidden from view, one of the men going to church heard the boy’s voice. Peering through the bush, he saw the small boy kneeling with his hands folded and his eyes closed, continuing to say, “V, W, X, Y, Z . . . A, B, C . . .”

He interrupted the boy. “What are you doing, child?” he asked.

The boy replied, “Praying.”

The man seemed surprised and said, “But why are you reciting the alphabet?”

The boy explained, “I don’t know how to pray. But I want God to take care of me and my sheep. So I prayed the alphabet, hoping God could make the letters into words. He’ll know what I want and what to say.”

The man smiled and said, “Bless your heart, God will!” And he carried on to church, knowing that he had already heard the finest sermon he could possibly hear that day. His encounter with this young shepherd boy reminded him of Jesus’ teaching,

“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 18:3,4.