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

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

 

 

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

The Bully and the Baby

Young Tom would come to class with a hat pulled down over his eyes, and he never smiled. In and out of foster homes for many years, this young boy was very lonely and very angry. Mean to his classmates, belligerent, disruptive in class – he had no friends. When the Roots of Empathy Instructor brought a young single mom and baby to the class, the teacher was worried that Tom might harm the baby. Upon the advice of the ROE staff, he was placed right next to the baby. Imagine Tom’s reaction when the baby smiled at him. During the first class visit, the boy smiled and interacted with the infant. During the second visit, he took off his hat when he was near the baby. And, at the third visit, he brought a dirty pink feather to tickle the bottom of the baby’s feet. What Canadian founder of Roots of Empathy, Mary Gordon, has discovered is the disarming power of the infant in the presence of the bully.

And one starry night in a stable in Bethlehem a young mother gave birth to a baby whom the Prophet said will be called Immanuel, God is with us. Into the power hungry world, of gladiator fights and public executions, God came humble, meek and weak. The aggression became so intense she had to flee to the desert for a while to escape.

I love the story of Christmas but how can I get my head and heart around the mystery of the creator of the universe nursing on Mary’s lap? Christmas, it seems, is meant to disarm us, to leave us defenceless in his presence.

One of the church fathers has beautifully stated it like this,

“Nature teaches us all the value of infancy. Over what barbarity is infancy not victorious? Father’s know it well and mothers feel it, everyone experiences it, man’s very bowels bear witness to the fact. And so it was in infancy that He wanted to be born. He wanted to be loved, not feared.”

We all have a shadow side, a nemesis that if left not owned and reclaimed, could potentially destroy us, just as the person who cannot identify with weakness, becomes a bully and their rage at weakness causes their downfall. In taking upon himself the full weakness of human form, Jesus shifted human power structures forever. In Christ, crying in the manger and dying in weakness on the cross, we are invited to embrace our shadow side and discover his grace and acceptance. The Christian call is not to move away from being human but is an appeal to a fuller more complete humanity, as we were created to be.

“Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected so we might know that Love would go that far?” ― Francesca Battistelli

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)

 

Risk Valuing Others

The Most Important Thing In Life Is To Learn How To Give Out Love And To Let It Come In

“There can be no peacemaking or social work or anything else to improve our world unless we are convinced that the other is important.”  Jean Vanier.

One person who sees the value in another can alter that person’s life.  I would like to be that person to someone just as I have needed someone like that in my life.  The truth I sometimes face is that valuing others can feel risky.   How do I view other people with value and overcome the darker urge to one up them?  If I lift others up, does that mean I’m putting myself down? What if my service to others is really about needing to be a Savior to someone?

“How hard it is for people to live without someone to look down upon- really look down upon.  It is not just that they feel cheated out of someone to hate.  It is that they are compelled to look more closely into themselves and what they don’t like in themselves.”   Martin Luther King Jr.

The walls of our world are most often created by a fear that someone else’s success or prosperity is a threat to mine.   The competitive drive that motivates so much of modern society is based upon this self protective insecurity.    The divisions in our world between rich and poor, good and bad, powerful and powerless, result is broken relationship and distrust.  The end game becomes, get more power than the next guy.

Behind the falsehood, what we so often dread deep within, is the feeling that we are of no value or that we are not loved.

“When you look at all these kinds of fear, the common denominator is the fear of being pushed down or being seen as valueless or non existent. “ Jean Vanier

The antidote to fear is to grow in the understand and experience of the love of God.  Being secure in the knowledge of God as lover of my soul, overcomes the worry and strain of working at being worthy.   Then our living is free and our love is genuine.  As God fills our emptiness with his abundance of love and grace, we are able to risk loving and valuing others.

……..that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  Eph. 3: 18,19

 

 

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
 

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.”