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

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

 

Friendship, Servanthood and Love

Sometimes when I think of obedience, I’m reminded of those schools for training dogs. Their obedience is won with treats and repetition. Who hasn’t at sometime been told not to ask questions, but just do it? Maybe in the military such unquestioned obedience is a virtue, but in all other relationships, it leaves a person feeling alone, even unwanted. So when people talk about obedience to God, I naturally get a bit suspicious.

“Relationships first” is the way many cultures in our world get things done. Western businessmen are known to lose patience at the perceived time wasted in building rapport when travelling abroad. However, it is really mostly our industrial based European cultures that are more task oriented. I believe God is more relational than task oriented. In the stories of the Bible, God seems quite willing to put his plans on hold while working with a prophet like Jonah, or with his stubborn people on the way to the Promised Land.

A servant or employee is often expected to say, ‘Yes sir,’ whether he has an understanding of what the boss is doing or not. I imagine in some factories of the world, people have no clue what they are making or how it will be used.  Friends, on the other hand, talk it over and get on the same page.   When Jesus spoke about obedience and servanthood, it was not a militaristic or industrial age type of command. Rather, He spoke about friendship with God and love in the same sentence.

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15

God has invited us into a relationship of understanding that moves us from slavery into a new kind of servanthood. When God was planning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he talked to Abraham, his friend, about it.

“Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)

This invitation is given to us to enter into a friendship that will include our whole being; mind, will, emotions, body and soul. God speaks to the listening heart, through many avenues.  Our awareness of  His Spirit’s promptings will mean being more in tune with our emotions and longings.   In this way knowledge of God and awareness of our own feelings are interconnected.  Emotional intelligence enhances our spiritual awareness.

“With honest and open prayer, we come to recognize how our fear, anger, sadness, joy, or longing relate to the promptings of God’s Spirit and how the force of our emotions can be used to further God’s purpose in our own lives and the wider universe.” Kathleen Fischer

The Elusive Spirit

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

Snow leopards are one of the world’s rarest, most elusive and little studied large animals. They are generally very shy and well camouflaged, and hardly ever seen. Most encounters involve villagers looking for firewood or herding animals. The first photograph of one in the wild was taken in 1970 by the legendary zoologist George Schaller. Its long tail gives it amazing balance as it scales mountains as high as 18,000 feet. Known to catch a falling rock with its paw, the snow leopard can sneak up on its prey and not to be heard.  It is so elusive the locals call him the Holy Spirit of the mountains.

Have you ever felt like God’s presence is as elusive as the snow leopard? He shows up, it seems, in his time and usually by surprise. Then, just as often it feels as if he has left you waiting for some sign or sense that he is near. Living in this linear time bound world, I can easily miss precious, life changing, “sightings” when God is breaking in. The feeling that life is somewhere up ahead and that I must strive for it, or that life is behind in some former lost and lamented time, can squeeze life now in God out. However, God is always in the Eternal Now, as Thomas Kelly describes it. Behind this busy active life of time and place, the Eternal Now of God is knocking, and He desires to enter our world through us and change time for eternity. This invasion of God’s presence can be upsetting to a life driven by the ticking of the clock of progress. Don’t we sometimes look upon those who are yielding to the Eternal Presence as odd and out of place? Yet, we intuitively know there is something entirely credible about their compliance to God.   Sighting are not as rare for those who wait on God, those who learn to live in both times zones simultaneously – time now and Eternal Now.   Yes, and that is the Christian calling and joy.

“The sooner we stop thinking we are the energetic operators of religion and discover that God is at work, as the aggressor, the invader, the initiator, so much the sooner do we discover that our task is to call men to be still and know, listen, hearken in quiet invitation to the subtle promptings of the Divine. “ (Thomas Kelly)

 

Jesus in Disguise

Being present with people in conversation and living in the moment, isn’t always something that comes natural, at least to me. Perhaps this woolgathering comes from insecurities or my short attention span. Being on the introverted side of the personality scale, I know I can be less interested in small talk and tune out unless the subject grabs me.

In an attempt to overcome inner obstacles to being present with others it helps me to remember Jesus words,

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matt. 18:20.

He is putting a value on human relationships in promising that this is a place where God shows up.

It is a worthy desire to seek after an encounter with God. Through the centuries people pursued these experiences through prayer and solitude and truly this is one of the most important spiritual paths. We discover the depth of God when we develop an inner stillness that allows his presence to be recognized and our earthly self to be quieted. However, bringing this sense of being present with God into relationships can be a challenge. We might even conclude that it’s easier to avoid relationships. Yet, God himself dwells in the perfect relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

Being a pastor I am called upon to be with people in their difficult times, to listen and learn and see God as a present helper. However, today’s leaders are often conditioned to believe that it is the big events in front of the crowds that matter most. We might even begin to believe that one on one encounters aren’t that important in the work of God. If we think this way we will miss many opportunities to see God in the disguise of another human being. It seems from Jesus words that no encounter with another person is trivial to God.

When someone like mother Teresa says she saw Jesus in others she reminds me that God can be encountered in the ordinary interactions of life. She says,

“We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us to put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.”

With this open hearted approach, self is forgotten and God is discovered in even the uncomfortable conversations of our lives.

Increasing Our Heart Capacity

Solar PanelWhen I was buying a car battery at Walmart, I asked another man buying batteries for some advice, as he seemed knowledgeable. He told me about his home solar system that generates enough power to run most of the lights in his house. However, it lacked the storage capacity it needed to carry him through the dark nights and overcast days. To be completely self sufficient, he needed to add another battery or two. I was buying a battery for a car with a parasitic drain. It occurred to me that, like the solar guy, we need to increase our soul capacity with light of the Lord, so we can shine on in the dark nights, the cloudy days and through the deep valleys of life.

Jesus told a story about 5 foolish virgins and 5 wise virgins. The five wise virgins had extra oil to watch through the night for the coming of the bridegroom; the foolish virgins were left in the dark as their oil supply ran out before the big day. We need a healthy capacity of virtue if we intend to make it through the darker days of our lives without losing our way.

You can’t just close the bag of chips, turn off the TV, get up off the couch and go run the Boston Marathon. You’ll have a heart attack on heartbreak hill. You need to train to run the Boston Marathon. Training increases our capacity to run the distance.

Training in the Christian life means spiritual disciplines like: prayer, bible mediation and solitude. These are not ends in themselves; but means to the end, of an increased capacity for service to God. Solitude may be the most challenging of these, it is for me. Without these my storage capacity is not expanding, and may be shrinking.

“Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works, note that they would bring far more profit to the Church, and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer . . . Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. Through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.” (St. John of the Cross)

A continual development of our inner life will keep us effective and fruitful in the Lord.

2 Peter 1:5-8 “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For, if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Destiny Delayed

The summer storm fills the night air with a the rare freshness of much needed moisture. Rain falls across the windshield as we pull into the short term lot near the arrivals area our missionary friends will walk into.  We quickly scoot into the terminal and up to the arrivals board to check on the flight.   Only now does it occur to me that this will be a late night.  Most of the flights have been diverted or cancelled due to the storm.  The worst kind of waiting is when you don’t know how long it will take.  We alternate between walking the corridors and sitting among the other displaced travellers.

Our lives, it seems to me, are too often regulated by the ever present ticking clock, and so unwanted pauses are uncomfortable for me.   I  remember the carefree days of childhood where time flowed with a rhythm of play, eat, rest, work and imagine. That’s more what God’s movements are like.  God is not going to allow us to fit him into our calendars and clocks.

“OBJECTS AND EXPERIENCES ACQUIRE VALUE THROUGH THE ACT OF WAITING. . . . IF INSTANT GRATIFICATION DEVALUES, IF IMPATIENCE IS A FORM OF GREED, PERHAPS PATIENCE, THEN, IS A GENEROSITY, AN INTENTIONAL GIVING OF ONE’S TIME, A GIVING OF ONESELF.”  On Waiting, Harold Schweizer

“Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha blurts out.  Her confusion and grief overwhelm her as she questions the Lord’s sense of timing. (John 11)

By the time Jesus had arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days and the mourners were already gathered.  By any cultural standard that is too late.  Too late for a miracle and barely on time for a pastoral homily.

Time, chasing us like the crocodile in Peter Pan, threatens to run out on us before the opportunity of a lifetime comes along.  We think, “I’m too old and too weak or out of ideas and money, empty of hope and full of despair. Lord it’s too late for me.”   “How long, Oh Lord?” David prays in the Psalms.  However, when we are completely out of options, it is never too late for God.

HEALING IS OUT OF THE QUESTION NOW FOR LAZURUS, BUT NOT RESURRECTION! “LAZARUS COME FORTH,” JESUS CRIES. AND THE DEAD MAN LIVES.

When the plane finally arrives, I lost half a night of sleep and moved my car a half a dozen times to save money. Our guests have endured worse, having flown through traumatic turbulence that left them looking ghost like. They, like Lazarus, have passed through death and still live, happy to be alive.

Trust Jump

A heart of trust is discovered on the outskirts of the familiar and the known.  As one poet said,

When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for you to stand upon, or, you will be taught how to fly.   Patrick Overton

I’m not one for heights but I couldn’t pass on a chance to join a couple young guys in their reckless and wild jump of a rock into the cold lake below.  Once my feet left the rock, hoping this was a good idea, I was fully committed.    It takes courage to move beyond the limits of our experience and into a realm we have yet to discover.  This is the realm where Google maps have yet to go, and where there are few guides to lead us. This last frontier is spiritual, and there is One who will lead us if we will trust him.

Trust is a matter of the heart according to the Proverbs.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Prov 3: 5,6

It involves a certainty that there is an author and director behind the scenes of our life.

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew.  Prov 3:19

The one who has gone this path ahead of us is Jesus.  He said of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  (John 14) The Bible also states that he is the Word and through him all things were made. (John 1)  Therefore, we can have great assurance in our guide.

Knowing about God and trusting in Him is not the same thing.  I can know about aerodynamics and yet never dare to fly.  Religion can help us get to the edge of the light, but it is the person of Jesus Christ who holds our hand in the dark.  We are not alone; one is walking the road with us and removing the obstacles that can trip us up.

Nothing intensifies the mind like uncertainly and danger.  Trust is not passive; rather it is like the thrill of jumping from a rock into the lake below.  You feel in the moment fully alive.