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

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 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

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.

Love That Won’t Tie You Up.

The wedding party of smartly dressed young men and colourful bridesmaids lined the front of the chapel as the bride glided slowly up the aisle to meet her husband-to-be.  At the right time, I began to recite,  “Dearly beloved we are gathered here today . . . . ” Within any wedding crowd there are a variety of people:  some  married, others not;  some fondly remembering their wedding day, while others have sadly moved on. Yet, each one knows that this day is good, and love is wonderful. The two become one and live happily every after.   In reality they spend their first few years figuring out which one they will become. One piece of advice I shared that day was to love in such as way as to gradually, learn to set each other free.   True love is the most liberating and beautifying energy in the world.   Love that liberates however, also calls for the highest degree of devotion, forsaking all others.

Love, it will not betray you or dismay you or enslave you, it will set your free.  Mumford and Sons

Jesus love for us, bound him to the suffering of the cross, but in freedom He lives today.  His love releases us from the inner prisons of the soul that keep us bound.   Inside of us are self-destructive addictions that take root and wind around the soul. These passions keep us tied to destructive responses to life, such as rage. We are usually able to stay composed but then out of the blue our impatience flares up with even the smallest slight. In rage we feel for a moment strangely in control but then we are left with an emptiness. The ego self is energized by a desire for self protection and relief from the pain of living.  Yet, living for the benefit of our ego self we start to view others as obstacles to our happiness.  We can try to apply ourselves to the commandment to love others as ourselves, but our good intentions fail us.  The pure love of God can free us from our blindness, but we must be willing to be accept a love that won’t cater to our self centred demands.

Much of human life can be understood as addiction to patterns of life that ease pain but are physically and spiritually debilitating. They give the appearance of help but conceal the price. – Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire.

Like a flower opening up to the sunshine, a soul that is daily lifted up toward the source of light,  Jesus,  is able to outgrow the weeds of sin. Be captivated by this one great desire and love will set you free.

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast!
Yet sweeter far Thy face to see
And in Thy presence rest.

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.

Melting into God

The Great Slave Lake can be powerful and majestic when its mighty swells are driven by the winds, or it can be bleak and frozen and still like the winter ice.  It is a marvel to me that a lake as vast as an ocean can become frozen over each winter.  Yet, it is even more of a wonder that the human heart can do that too.

The human heart can be majestic and inspiring, reaching the heights of God’s love, or it can be as hard as the rivers that turn into trucking roads in the far North.  Hardening begins subtly, like the lure of Turkish Delight that the White Witch used to captivate Edmund in Narnia. Then the chill of cynicism or the freeze of trust results in the loss of natural affection.   God’s way seems like a fairy tale, and love becomes a passing sentiment.   Simply being emotional does not mean the heart is tender.  The heart is more than emotions; it is mind, will and emotions combined.   Tenderness of heart includes being sensitive, pliable and yielding.  Puritan Richard Sibbes say the tender,  “quakes at threatenings, obeys precepts, melts at promises and the promises sweeten the heart.“

The heart of man is in such a desperate state that there is no remedy except for a heart transplant.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.  Ezek. 36:26

This new kind of heart enjoys the word of God and beats wildly when touched by His Spirit.   Yet still, my old nature threatens to undo the good work of the Spirit at every turn. It seems I live in a world where Turkish Delights are offered on every corner.  The pleasure and profits of the world are competing with the Spirit for my affections.  Who will I yield to today?   “The hard heart is like wax to the devil and stone to God or goodness.”  says Sibbes.    The one we yield to is the one who gets our heart.

Here we need the Spirit’s help.   In my struggles I discovered the simple prayer of King David,  “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!”  In praying this, I turn my heart away from the lure of pleasure and profit and even away from the inner battle and trust in God to direct my heart to his promises.  “The highest form of prayer”, says Julian of Norwich, “is to the goodness of God.

”God only desires that our souls cling to him with all of its strength,  in particular, that it clings to his goodness.  For of all the things our minds can think about God, it is thinking upon his goodness that pleases him most and brings the most profit to our soul. “

St. Theresa of Avila