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

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

Beguiled By Love

The trees look forlorn under the weight of a September snowfall, an early reminder of the chills to come.   My mind drifts to any number of friends that might be waking up today feeling like those branches. The grief for a lost love one, the concern for a troubled relative, the hoping against hope for recovery from cancer, are the burdens they carry.  Prayers are always welcome, but in the end it is love that remains.

“God is love”, says St John. This disciple whom Jesus loved has seen his share of visions. The presence of the risen Jesus once left him on the ground like a dead man.   Jesus said, “Do not be afraid!” (Rev. 1:17) “Perfect love drives our fear,” adds John from experience. (1 Jn 4:8)

 “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. “ (1Jn 3:1).

It can get confusing trying to understand the love of God, especially when we suffer.   Is the “do not judge” Jesus really the same God as the fire and brimstone one?  Or,  as Marcion thought, is the angry God of ancient times a more primitive lower Deity?   I’m learning to appreciate the mystery of God as much as the answers.

The cure of the soul, as it is in the case of chemo treatment for cancer, may seem worse than the disease,  nevertheless the intention of God is for our good, for love seeks the good of the beloved.

God came near in the person of Jesus, as if he could not contain himself any longer.  In God becoming human, we see the true character of our unchanging, loving God.

God is “as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide in all things.” –Pseudo Dionysius

Some children passed our yard in backpacks and winter coats on their way to school this morning. They pulled the snow-laden branches and released a joyous downfall as great soft clumps of white fell all around them. These troubles that weigh us down are “light momentary afflictions,” that are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Co 4:17)

In the sacred center of our being, the ground of being as it is often called, we encounter the love of God that can carry us through every season of living.