Wisdom

Failing to Acquire the Fire We Desire

A few times a year I hear some variation of being on fire. Someone might say, “I was on fire for God after that experience.” Or perhaps giving voice to an aspiration one might say, “I want to be on fire for God.” Of course there is the idea that the church is too lame/boring/irrelevant and if only it were “on fire” then all would be right with the church. We talk about being on fire in all sorts of ways with the understanding that there is something overwhelmingly positive and admirable about being on fire.

However much we might long to be on fire, it seems that too many of us are not. How is it that we can desire something so deeply, so often, and so intensely but rarely acquire this fire we desire?

Photo by  Siim Lukka  on  Unsplash

Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash

Amma Syncletica is one of the few desert mothers that we have some writings of. She puts her finger on perhaps why we are not on fire as often as we might desire:

“In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to life a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said, Our God is a consuming fire - Hebrews 12:24). So we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and heard work.” - Becoming Fire, Edited by Tim Vivian.

This saying has multivariate meanings to be sure but one of those is the pain, tears and work that is required on our parts to help foster the ignition of fire. Some of the smoke of practicing the disciplines is that they do not “produce” anything or that we might even feel silly doing them. Praying to God does not seem to make anything happen and we might even feel like it is magic thinking to talk to an ineffable and immeasurable God. So just as we begin to step away from the work of kindling the fire.

in our efforts to fully immerse ourselves in the waters of life, we might overlook that if we want to be on fire for God, that it is very difficult (if not impossible) for water-soaked wood to catch fire. Jesus had to go to the desert. The disciplines are often practices that draw us into emptiness (fasting, sabbath, giving, serving, etc.). The spiritual life might be thought of trying to dry us out so to catch fire. No wonder we are unable to acquire the fire we desire. Immersed in waters of business and novelty we are unable to dry out and catch the flame.

Three Monks and One Sees

Benedicta Ward’s book has this story:

There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found hims also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see hims who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water.’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. They he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

Today there are two major camps in the UMC. One claims the importance of peacemaking (Conservatives) while others are claiming the importance of tending to the sick (Liberals). Both camps have a good and Biblical claim on their task, and both are making good on the call. However, we now find ourselves in a bind where both camps are failing in spirit and there is such a turbulence in the Church. Neither camp sees the value of being quiet and still. Both camps are righteous in their cause and pouring water out, baptizing the work they do. Neither camp can see, as they churn up water, that we are drowning.

Photo by  Haley Phelps  on  Unsplash

The flailing and hand waving and crying out all is in an effort to ensure we can all stay a float through these troubled waters. It is the wisdom of the third monk that we need. The one who elevates silence, stillness, patience. Of course we do not give any merit to such posturing as it is seen as irrelevant and useless (all the while forgetting that Nouwen cautions us to the temptation of relevancy and that prayer is being “useless”).

And so what is the local church and church leader to do? How can we harness the wisdom of the third monk? Perhaps we can at least recall Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”

Church leaders, there is nothing wrong with the wisdom of the third monk. There is nothing wrong with stillness, waiting and trusting. There is nothing wrong with not doing “something”. There is nothing wrong with trusting in the buoyancy of God.

Is that not our call?

Be Good To The Imposters....

Who likes an imposter? They are fake and phony. They are a shame and a con. Of all the people in the world, those double-crossing pretenders are among the worst.

I think we can all agree.

Among the worst types of imposters are those who use their fake-ness in order to freeload off the hard work of others. We all know the type. They are everywhere, and the last thing you want to do is encourage the behavior. Which is why I don’t give money to anyone who I know is faking it. They are taking advantage of the welfare of others and, if I had my say, we would eliminate all welfare everywhere.

There is a Talmudic teaching about the potential risks of freeloaders on the welfare system that instructs the faithful, “to be good to the imposters, for without them our stinginess would lack its chief excuse.” (source).

Ouch.

The great thing about this teaching is how it calls us to pay attention to where the source of the sin or problem is. The one who is stingy, needs the freeloader in order to justify being stingy. For without the freeloader the stingy person would not have an excuse to be stingy and they would need to become generous. And if there is anything a stingy person does not want to become it is generous. So if you want to remain trapped in being stingy, then you better be kind to the freeloading imposter.

Be good to the one who angers you, for without them your superiority would lack its chief excuse.

Be good to the one who wrongs you, for without them your resentment would lack its chief excuse.

Be good to the one who you hate, for without them your hate would lack its chief excuse.

Failing To Be In The Service Of God

There is a little book by Thomas Merton called The Wisdom of the Desert. It contains not only some wonderful reflections by Merton but also a short primer on the desert mothers and fathers of the Christian tradition. Additionally, this book contains some of the “sayings” of the desert saints. These sayings can be easy fairly straight forward but rarely are they easy to understand much less live out. For instance:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour.

Here is a desert father who on his death bed and he is recalling how he worked hard and spoke well. This is the sort of thing that we all might strive for in our lives. To be able to not be a burden, drain or freeloader but to be one who worked hard for their bread and earned it all. Additionally, to be someone who spoke their mind with clarity and such wisdom they had no regrets.

However, I cheated. This is not the whole saying. This is the last line of the saying:

And thus I do to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God.

Pambo understands, but apparently only on his deathbed, that being in service to God requires receiving the service of others and reconciling with neighbor. If we live the life we think we are supposed to live (i.e. self sufficient and without need to apologize) then we have failed to be in the service of God. We have failed to be agents of giving the gift of receiving another’s hospitality as well as failing to speak in any way that might upset someone so that we don’t say anything meaningful at all.

The western value of self-sufficiency and the Southern USA’s value on being “nice” are not Christian values. Beware of the false teachers in the world who say the things that look like they are of the way, but in fact lead to destruction. Self-sufficiency and “niceness” sound like they are good, but ultimately they get in the way of the values that lead to salvation - humility and repentance.