Thursday, September 26, 2013

Into the Fire

I send a scripture verse to my husband each day.  It's one of the ways I love on him.  I want him to know that I am undergirding him with more than just my own desires for his well being.  I am lifting him up with Strength which comes from beyond me. 

Today's verse:  "The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts" (Proverbs17:3).

The Lord tests our hearts, not so that He can see what is within them, but so we can. 

It seems this was God's intention when He sent the Israelites into the desert, rather than sending them immediately into the Promise:  "Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. . . .  Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the LORD your God disciplines you.  Therefore keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him" (Deuteronomy 8:2, 5-6).

Again and again we see God working through Israel's circumstances to bring them to the place where they recognize the stubbornness of their own hearts, each time asking them to surrender this heart hardness for an authentic relationship that leads to blessing instead of defeat. 

God does the same thing with us.

Silver and gold are refined by fire, in the crucible, the hot place.  Where heat is so intense it melts the elements so that their impurities can float to the surface.  But that which has depth and weight and value settles.  The imperfections are then skimmed from the top of the melted surface and removed.  Once the metal has been purified, the heat is turned off.  As the silver and gold cools, once more taking on sturdiness, what remains is finer, more true to itself than it was before.  It can be melted, reshaped, but it is never destroyed.

I have seen the fire purify and shape my husband.  I am so proud of him for having the courage to stay in the heat, allowing God to reveal and remove those things that needed to go so that he could move forward into God's purposes for his life.  Because he held fast to God, trusting God in experiences that melted his heart, those hugely painful difficulties never had the power to destroy him.  They only made him better, stronger,  more of the man God created him to be.

I think of my own heart tests.  Those places where God has allowed the heat of life to reveal truth to me.  Each time I have melted from the intensity of anguish, sometimes returning to the same ache all over again because the first experience was not enough to rid me of the flaw threatening the good God had in mind.  What I have found in ultimately surrendering to the heat instead of running from it is that I have never missed the thing it removed from my tightly clenched hands.

Early on in my ministry journey I discovered Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote powerfully about the spiritual life.  In his book New Seeds of Contemplation Merton compares the human heart facing adversity to that of wax exposed to heat: 

Souls are like wax waiting for a seal.   By themselves they have no special identity.  Their destiny is to be softened and prepared in this life, by God's will, to receive, at their death, the seal of their own degree of likeness to God in Christ.  And this is what it means, among other things, to be judged by Christ.  The wax that has melted in God's will can easily receive the stamp of its identity, the truth of what it was meant to be.  But the wax that is hard and dry and brittle and without love will not take the seal:  for the hard seal, descending upon it, grinds it to powder.  Therefore if you spend your life trying to escape from the heat of the fire that is meant to soften and prepare you to become your true self, and if you try to keep your substance from melting in the fire--as if your true identity were to be hard wax--the seal will fall upon you at last and crush you.  You will not be able to take your own true name and countenance, and you will be destroyed by the event that was meant to be your fulfillment.
I have found the fire often brings us to a place where we feel intensely alone.  Like nobody understands where we are and nobody seems to care.  On the surface it may look as if we have been abandoned by all rational forms of help, and we storm Heaven angry that we have been mistreated by the life that was supposed to be our promise.  Yet a spiritual aloneness is often the desert God sculpts  so that we may come to a truer understanding of Him and His purposes for us.

If this is the case, then no one can rescue us from His hand.  And we leave it prematurely at our own peril.  Because God brings us to this lonely place, not for our destruction, but for our salvation--as a way of delivering us to a new place of well-being that cannot be disturbed by external influences, a new solidness grounded not in our human capacities but within His Holiness.  If we allow it, the lesser things of our character burn away, and we learn to hold more fiercely to His Being rather than our own.   The truth of this desert experience is that we can only stand on God's Holy ground shoeless.  We have got to relinquish some things if we are to receive from God everything we need to escape the oppression of our circumstances.

I have found myself there, like Gomer stripped of my idols, painfully aware that everything I had trusted in was nothing.  Idols never have power to save us.  The fire simply reveals their instability.  After a while I discovered that raging at the fire would not bring my idols back.  Only when I was ready to see and accept the truth of my own heart was I ready to be healed and restored.  Then I could turn more fully to God, ready to accept what He offered me instead:

Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.  From there I will give here her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.  There she shall respond as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.  On that day, says the LORD, you will call me, "My husband," and no longer will you call me, "My Baal."  For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth  and they shall be mentioned by name no more.  (Hosea 2:14-17)
Surrendered into God's hands, our valleys of trouble bring us to new doors of hope.

The fire reveals, and we get to choose what the fire does in us.  Exposed to heat, impurities always rise to the surface.  We can hold tightly to them, adding bitterness, resentment, and outrage to mix (further alienating us from the life we were meant to live).  Or we can recognize them and surrender them to God's hands, trusting His power to remove them so that we can be more His, more of who He intended us to be.  We can come forth from the experience more of ourselves than before.  Truer.  Stronger.  Sturdier.  Lovelier.  Whole.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How to Wear Yourself Well, or What I Learned From Molly Lou Mellon

Do you feel it?  The tug and pull of opposite forces within: On the one hand there is this radical sense of okay-ness, that my imprint upon the world is necessary, needed.  And then there is another feeling altogether:  Perhaps it was a mistake to show up on this life stage, for who am I to try my hand among so many others who seem more adept at this adventure than me?  How can my presence matter?

The questions are cavernous and empty.  But the assertion that one's humble presence matters gives birth to possibility.  This belief in oneself, even if tenuous,  cracks open experience and gives it the opportunity to expand, to grow bigger than our expectations.  What if we lived every moment squarely planted in this radical sense of okay-ness, letting it become the soil of our lives?  Not the occasional blip in our status quo, but rather the new way of making our way in the world?  I'm not advocating conceit which lifts us up higher by viewing others with contempt.  Instead I suggest gracefulness, extending to all, yet encompassing ourselves. 

The Holy Nudge I feel is quiet, yet persistent, playing its song underneath the busyness of my life.  It's not so much calling me toward a new direction as much as asking me to reorient my attitude toward myself and this already life I lead.

"Have confidence" I hear the Spirit whisper.  "Live in confidence."

As I ponder what it means to do just that, I can't help but reflect on one of my new favorite books; every month Jeremiah receives a new one in the mail.  A while ago we opened up Stand Tall, Molly Lou Mellon.  It is the story of a tiny, buck-toothed girl who is fumble fingered and croaks her songs.  Her grandmother speaks wisdom into her life, teaching her to walk with dignity and joy, seeing her difference as gift rather than obstacle.  In Molly Lou Mellon I see a person who wears herself well, even in new and difficult situations.  I want to be like that.

The word "confident" originates from the present participle form of the Latin word confidere:  from con which means "with" and fidere which means "to trust," "to rely upon."  It is a verb form which implies continuous action.  So to live in confidence means that we are to live continually with trust, with reliance. 

--What exactly am I relying on as I go forth into new and potentially difficult or challenging situations? 

--What belief undergirds my going forth?

--What exactly is confidence asking of me?

These are not empty questions.  They challenge me to dig deep.  I could just say "Jesus" as my answer.  Jesus is who I rely on as I go forth.  My belief in Jesus undergirds me.  To be confident means that I must trust Jesus on each step of this journey.  And all of these are true answers.  But the Spirit asks me to go deeper.  Because it is always easy to give the Sunday School answer.  And we are at a place in our walk together where the Spirit knows and I know that Jesus permeates all.  I sense God is asking more of ME.  And I have to decide if I'm willing to give it.

At this point I want to say that how we answer these questions is very personal.  It is a God conversation, that only God can guide and give illumination to.  Each one of us must enter the Holy Conversation and listen for the Spirit resonating within, knowing that it's expression may differ, person to person.

I'm not sure all my resonating is finished yet.  This answer is just the initial rough draft:

--I am confident that I can laugh at myself.

--I am confident that I will learn some valuable things on this journey.

--I am confident that sloppy, creative joy is a better use of my energy than careful, calculated perfection.

--I am confident that good will come from my failures and disappointments.

--I am confident that while there may be limited opportunities to start something new, there are many opportunities to try again.  And that is why it is okay to boldly start something new, even if I don't have a clue about what I am doing.

--I am confident that this path is drawing out the best from within me, that my life will be richer for it, and that it will produce a deeper quality of blessing for those around me than if I never ventured forth. 

--I am confident that I am being shaped and honed by my experiences for something good.

The truth is that I have no idea where the future is leading, where God is leading me.  But I am absolutely convinced that who I will be, who God is calling me to be, is firmly grounded in the good stuff of who I am now.  And I can put my confidence in that.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

It's That Time of Year Again . . . .

During my time as a campus minister I taught a freshman orientation class on campus called University Experience.  This class is designed to assist first year students in making a successful transition to college and to help them establish the good habits early on that will ensure they finish their education.  My teaching strategy was one of joining them on the journey of discovery:  not to lecture them on how they should do college, but to accompany them in the discovery of what works, what doesn't, and why.

Bottom line, folks:  The stuff we learned in that classroom still applies.  Even after the diploma has been mailed.

And here it is early September.  Time for my favorite beginning of the school year activity--The Time Chart!

It is really a simple exercise.  It all begins with a simple grid:  days of the week across the top and hours of the day down the side.  Participants are then invited to label the boxes according to how that block of time is spent.  Next each activity should then be color-coded so that each segment of time can be easily and quickly recognized when it is glanced at throughout the course of the day. 

One such example here:

Fill out one of these and you never have to wonder to yourself, "where does the time go?"  You get to see it, in living color. 

When I introduced this project to my students, I brought in an empty plastic tub of butter and a bag full of toy cars and trucks of various sizes.  (Yes, my props came from my sons' play room.)  After choosing a volunteer, I instructed my "helper" to put all of the toy vehicles into the tub.  Of course they only fit if the big ones go in first.  The moral is that we only get a one size fits all week, one plastic tub of life to fill anyway we choose.  And that tub can fill up pretty quickly with insignificant small stuff, while the really big things that matter get squeezed out.  The great tub-o-life fills up, mostly when we are not looking. 

I find it helpful to open my eyes and really see what's in there.  To ask myself important questions, like: 

-What is the stuff of this life I'm living? 
-Am I spending my life on things that matter? 
-If I could wipe the slate clean and carve out the life I want to live in just the perfect way, what would perfect look like? 
-How can I fit some of this kind of perfect into what I already have to work with?

I am amazed that no matter how many times I do this activity, I always learn something new.  What I've learned this time around is that our life commitments (marriage, children, friendship, GOD!) must show up somewhere.  If they don't, something is wrong.  When they do, something is right, even if it means at the end of the day you are spent.  (Doesn't it make you feel good to know you are spending yourself on the things that really matter?)  The other thing I've learned is that even with a "golden opportunity" to follow my dreams, my time is limited.  I really don't have as much time as I think I do, and I had better use the time I do have well.

I guess at the heart of this activity is one question:  Am I living the life I am supposed to live?  Then there is the important follow up question:  If not, what can I do to change it?  Because all of us have the power to redefine at least some of our tub-o-life boxes.  We can all do something differently that will move us toward the life we really want.  The gift of this simple exercise is that it helps us discover that one step toward a better life that is within our power to do.