Going Somewhere?

Sometimes we can feel like life is going nowhere.  It is like the realization, when someone is travelling, that he has passed this way before, and he wonders, “Am I just going in circles?” Once in a while I look at myself and lament how little I have moved or changed on the inside, for all my going.   Every day around the world more than 8 million people fly somewhere and billions are spent in air travel.  Unless we honestly ask ourselves “Where am I going?” and I mean internally, in a spiritual sense of going and growing, we are in danger of moving a lot but going nowhere.  Jesus said, “I am the Way”, or in other words, in him we are truly going somewhere to Someone and to an eternal destiny.

The way of Jesus, the narrow road, is an inward journey of the soul, an exodus out of our weary burden of sin.  His way is the second exodus that far eclipses the first. He frees us from cruel slavery of the task master that refuses to let us go.  His way leads out through the testing of the desert, and into the paradise of the promised land.  His cross is our Passover and his resurrection is our new life.

Leaving is half the battle.  Just as Israel left Egypt but still longed for the pots of meat and bread, so it is hard to let go of this world and its temporal comforts.  We despise the daily miraculous provision of heavenly bread, when we go to the world to fill our hunger. We also forget what cruel burdens accompany those pleasures.  The apostle Peter, before he denied the Lord, was “warming himself” by the fire.  In a similar way, when we seek to warm ourselves by the pleasures of this world rather than heavenly consolations God supplies, we are also easily tempted to say like Peter, “I don’t know him.”

The way of Jesus is a journey of faith.  The pilgrims of the past all left not knowing where the path was leading.

“And he (Abraham) went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11:9,10

These pilgrims chose the difficult path knowing that it leads somewhere beautiful.  Like Moses who left Egypt, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” Hebrews 11:26

What we are being called to leave is small, in comparison to the eternal gains of knowing Jesus and the eternal joys at the end of the road.  Leaving our earthly burden’s behind, we are able to climb to the highest places in God and to taste his eternal pleasures.

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,  which shines brighter and brighter until full day. Prov. 4:18

This is not the popular road nor is it the easy path, and at times we may feel like we’ve taken a wrong turn.  However, with the inner companionship of the Spirit to guide us and the word of God as a flashlight on the path, we will make our way home.

“Your word, says the Psalmist, is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psa. 119:105

 

 

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

 

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.

5 Practices – To Put a Spring in Your Step

Our life doesn’t have to be going great to experience joy.  Even when things are going well, it is easy to take it all for granted.  Whenever I am able to live with an awareness of God’s presence, even when things are bad, a can sense this joy.  Most often, it is our response to life and our outlook on our pain that determines our attitude. Here are five practices that will improve your response to problems, and put a spring in your step.

  1. Be Grateful

If you find that gratitude is a challenge at times, and let’s face it, faking it doesn’t really count,  try saying this old prayer.

Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart,
Not thankful when it pleases me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

George Herbert

  1. Be Optimistic

A positive outlook, it is fair to say, is a much more helpful way to live.  For instance, studies show that optimists are generally healthier.  However,  being a realist, my heart needs reassurances; so I  remind myself that because God is good, and because His love for me is great, all will be well.  This reminder truly helps me to stay positive.

  1. Count Your Blessings

My mind goes back to an old hymn we used to sing, “Count your blessings name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Memory is a powerful ally when we are tempted to despair.  We could learn this practice by doing what my great grandmother did in her rocking chair each night:

“What are you doing?”, my Mom would ask her.
“I’m collecting my thoughts,” she would say.

Saint Ignatius spiritual practice of reviewing the day, is a way we recall the good of our days, and place value on the blessing of being alive.

  1. Use Your Gifts

A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great. Prov. 18:16 

When we practice the things we are most naturally good at and enjoy doing, we will feel so much better about ourselves, than when we try to force ourselves to fit into someone else’s mold.   When family and friends are gathered in our home, I’m in my element when I’m helping prep the meal, serve the coffee, or fix up a tasty dessert.  I don’t resent it, I enjoy it;  and of course my wife appreciates it too.  What is your gift? Please share it,  be blessed and be a blessing.

  1. Share With Others

It is truly more blessed to give than to receive.  There is great joy in living for the benefit of others.

History shows that people who put others first are the ones we remember and are inspired by.  Our chief example of this is Jesus of whom the Bible says,  “For the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Heb. 12:2)

We will experience some of this unspeakable joy while we lay down ourselves for one another.  This is not doormat theology, but rather it is a daily practice, refreshed and refilled by God’s love.

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

 

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.

The Lighthouse Keeper

Visiting the Battery Point lighthouse in California, I thought of Jesus words, “You are the light of the world.” Our tour guide told us of the old keepers, one who lived there for forty years and raised his family. That daily routine and the isolation must have been enough to drive a person to distraction.   “Sick day, or I’m bored of this job day”, you say, that would put someone’s life at risk.

Keeping the light on, trimming the wicks,  and lifting the weights defined the pattern of one’s life.   The weights, wound every 8 hours, worked much like the mechanism on an old grandfather clock, turning the light “automatically.”  The lighthouse we visited in Crescent City, CA still has a volunteer keeper but the task is less demanding with an automated halogen bulb.  Still, to volunteer for a month at an old lighthouse, there is a three-year waiting list.

When Jesus said, “You are the light of the world;” he was alluding to one of those old style oil lamps.   The flame within us is God’s love, and it is ours to receive from Him and to share it.  We did not create the fire but we can neglect it and someone will miss it when it is gone.

  Keeping the light involves the simplicity of allowing our life and routine to revolve around one great purpose.

A re-orientation of our life is discovered when we realize that it is a calling to be a light for Jesus.  God does not require always-great things from us, but he is pleased with our faithfulness. Trimming the light within daily, through constant connection with God’s loving presence, we are living as a light.

“Deep within us all, there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of humanity.” Thomas Kelly – A Testament to Devotion.

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.