Transformed Lives Transforming the World in 2019 – Obeying God’s Will

The will of God is not a ‘fate’ to which we must submit, but a creative act in our life that produces something absolutely new . . . . . Our cooperation consists not solely in conforming to external laws, but in opening our wills to this mutually creative act” (Journals of Thomas Merton).

I distinctly remember the visceral ripping away of years of debate and anguish about knowing the will of God for my life when I first read this quote. These were my questions: What exactly does it mean to say that God has a “will”?  Isn’t God’s will the same for everyone – desiring an intimate relationship with each of us?  How do I know what God’s will is for me?  What if I never find his will?  What if I refuse to do his will?  Years of teaching Merton’s concept of our collaboration with God  have shown me that many Christians have the same difficulty with understanding the will of God. 

A friend told me the most disturbing story I’ve heard about seeking the will of God. A college student was preparing to leave academia and make her way in the world. She wanted to make sure she was “in God’s will,” but she was confused.  She knew she wanted to be a missionary, but she wasn’t clear about whether God wanted her to serve in India or China.  Since she didn’t want to make a mistake, she decided not to be a missionary at all.  Merton would say, I think, that wanting to use her gifts and talents as a missionary would be a creative activity that God would be delighted to partner in – whether it were in India or China or her own hometown. 

Dallas Willard speaks boldly to our many questions about the will of God in Hearing God:

There is a neurotic, faithless and irresponsible seeking of God’s will, which is always taking its own spiritual temperature. In this state, people are far more concerned with being righteous than with loving God and others, and doing and enjoying what is good. . . . We may insist on having God tell us what to do because we live in fear or are obsessed with being right as a strategy for being safe. But we may also do it because we do not really have a hearty faith in his gracious goodwill toward us. If so, we need to grow up to Christlikeness, and nothing short of that will solve our problem. Certainly more words from God will not!”

Given our understanding that God wills to collaborate with us in faithful lives of service and that we are safe in his Kingdom no matter what loving tasks we undertake, how can the spiritual disciplines help us as we mull over the will of God in our lives.  Here are some small practices that may be useful:

  • Keep your eyes open as you walk through your Christian life. Where is your heart calling you?  What fascinates you?  What intellectual and spiritual gifts do you have to offer God? We often are afraid to learn God’s will because it might be something stark and frightening that requires a sacrifice which makes us forfeit what we love.  Why would your Creator want to consign you to a life you will not enjoy or not be good at.  God is a conservationist: He wants to make use of what He has created. God delights in working with us as we create a life of joyful giving and service.
  • Spend time alone. Often. Intentionally. Without a sense of Duty. Without your phone, i-pad or computer. We can’t hear God unless we listen.  We don’t have to go on 3-day retreats – although I have found those opportunities to be not only meaningful but also delightful. We just need to step away from our lives (as Jesus often did) and listen.
  • Find a spiritual director.  Meet with that person monthly.  That person will be the Holy Spirit’s conduit as you listen and speak together.  I remember when I retired for the last time.  I was happy with the decision, but somehow felt guilty that I wasn’t being productive. The bottom line was that I was afraid that God was upset that I wasn’t busy for him; I wasn’t doing his will.  My spiritual director listened to all my angst and then said, “Maybe right now God just wants you to rest.”  What a lovely gift of permission he gave me.  In years that followed I did find ways God wanted to create something new with me, and I accepted them joyfully.  But I never forgot the creative act of rest that my spiritual director shared with me.

Transformed lives can transform the world.  Finding the sweet spot where we and God can work together in his world, collaborating, creating, and loving, creates transformation in our lives and in our worlds.

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From My Reading

“When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence – the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends – I will always remain tempted to despair.  The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown young man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump [Isaiah 11 1-2],, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.”  ( iGracias! – A Latin American Journal (December 2, 1981), copyright © 1983 Henri J.M. Nouwen. Published by HarperCollins).

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“Hatred corrodes the container it is carried in” (Senator Alan Simpson during the funeral for President George H. W. Bush).

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“Disciples are those who, seriously intending to become like Jesus from the inside out, systematically and progressively rearrange their affairs to that end” (Dallas Willard).

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“When our desire for recognition and approval is ordered rightly, it is transformed away from the vice of vainglory towards the virtue of magnanimity. Magnanimity is derived from the Latin words magna and anima, which literally means “greatness of heart” or “being great-souled.” Great souls attract, they’re magnetic. They draw people to themselves and then steer people towards God.  . . . . The ironic thing about magnanimous people is that their lives are worthy of recognition but they don’t seek it, that’s one of the least things they’re interested in. What they’re interested in is becoming more like Christ and helping others do the same”(Jonathan Bailey, jonathan@jonathanrbailey.com December 16, 2018).

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“With a Little Help from my Friends”

My vision of 2019 being a “better” year faded quickly. Within a week my husband was diagnosed with severe COPD and out-of- control-diabetes. As his “nurse” and health manager, I was faced with purchasing, organizing, and tracking more meds, finding a Medicare-approved company for more equipment, monitoring his blood pressure and blood sugar, and encouraging him to eat – and choose a healthier diet. The weather was dark and gloomy and our attitudes were the same. He was feeling miserable and I was dragging.

On January 3, I woke up dreading the day. I needed a blood test to prepare for an appointment with my oncologist next week. That and a bone survey I had just after Christmas would determine if I would have to resume chemo.  When I  walked downstairs and out of our apartment and was immediately blinded by the sun.  I was  surprised and relieved.  This was a good sign. 

I drove to the Cancer Center and got in the check-in line. An elderly man came in right behind me, and I glanced back at him to see if I knew him.  I did not.  He was rail thin and bent over. He was dressed in jeans and a jacket, and a well-loved baseball cap covered somewhat shaggy gray hair. I sat down to wait for my blood draw. Soon he claimed a chair a seat away from me and waited for his.

I was not in a particularly friendly mood, but I have learned that smiles and greetings are really important in this office. So I smiled and greeted him. A few minutes later a nurse came to get him to  “clean his port.” He responded that he had to go to a Grand Rapids hospital the next day for a procedure, so maybe the port didn’t need to be flushed today?  She agreed that he didn’t need it and walked away.

He looked over at me and said, “Ports are better than IV’s.  When you have IV’s, they just stick the thing in and it hurts!  They don’t even numb you.”

I smiled and said that I don’t know anything about ports, but I do know that IV’s can hurt. Just then I was called in for my blood draw. While the nurse  prepared to take my blood,  she asked, “How was your Christmas?”  Determined not to be gloomy or negative, I said, “It was great!  A group of friends got together behind my back and bought me several Meijer gift cards to help cover costs for my insulin and other medications.”

“That’s wonderful!” she said as she slipped the needle into my vein.  “It added up to over $2,000!” I volunteered.  She gasped. “Oh, my gosh!”  I sheepishly told her that  I had burst into tears when a friend brought me the gift cards along with more than a dozen Christmas cards filled with wonderful notes. “I can’t believe they gave me this much money!” 

 “You know,” she responded, “that gift says a lot about you. Your friends are returning the love you have already given to them.” I nodded tearfully as she put a band-aid on my arm. 

As I walked out of the room, the man said to me, “How did it go?”  “Fine,” I responded and stopped in front of him.

“Do you have cancer?” he asked softly.  I nodded my head. “What kind?” 

“I have multiple myeloma. It’s a form of blood cancer, and it is incurable. It’s under  control for now, but this blood draw will show if I have to start chemo again. If  I do, it  will be hard because I have to take care of my husband.”

He nodded; his eyes were soft and gentle.  “My wife is my caretaker, too. I don’t have my license anymore, so she has to drive me everywhere.  It’s really hard on the wife, isn’t it?”  I nodded. He went on, “I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and doctor said I had 6-8 months to live.”  He grinned.  “That was six and a half years ago.”

“Oh, how  wonderful,” I said.  We spoke a little longer, and then I turned to leave.  “Good luck,” I said.  He answered, “There’s no luck about it. It’s all about the good Lord. “

I nodded and my voice cracked as I said, “I’ve learned that I live in the unshakable kingdom of God. No matter what happens I am safe. And I’ve also learned that life is all about  being and having friends.  Thanks for being my friend today.”  

He smiled and nodded as I walked out into the sunshine. 

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Transformed Lives Transforming the World in 2019 – Introduction

When I became the first Director of Spiritual Formation for my church, my goal was to teach and motivate people to strive to “be like Jesus.” When a new pastor arrived not long afterwards, the staff set out on a journey to create a new mission statement. After much study and discussion, we agreed on one that I wrote:  Transformed Lives Transforming the World. That statement incorporated our need to be transformed on the inside before and as we live like Jesus outside in our own little worlds – and some-times in the big world, too.

We brought in James Bryan Smith’s Apprentice Series and more than 200 people learned about living in the safety of the Kingdom of God and about practicing spiritual disciplines. Every year we chose a church-wide spiritual formation theme and emphasized that theme through classes, small groups, through sermons, and in booklets that I wrote. And it worked! Teachers, business owners, factory workers, city council members, dentists, entrepreneurs, single parents, married couples, senior citizens – were cooperating with the Holy Spirit and seeing their lives transformed. And that transformation just naturally spread to the worlds they lived in. 

That experience taught me that intentionally cultivating and practicing a “long obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson) results in becoming like Jesus.   My mission in life became to  share the principles of a transformed life. with anyone who would listen.

Dallas Willard has said, “Disciples are those who, seriously intending to become like Jesus from the inside out, systematically and progressively rearrange their affairs to that end.” This post is the first of several occasional  posts in 2019 which are intended to help us all to seek and work at continual transformation so we can make a difference in this grimy, depressing world in which we  now live in – the place C.S. Lewis called ” enemy-occupied territory.”

Cultivating Patience

We begin this series with a comment by Jonathan R. Bailey, a “serial entrepreneur” and chairman of the board of Renovare.  In his Micro Essay blog post for December 30, he reminds us that

[Students of spiritual formation] don’t need fresh knowledge, we need to practice what we know. Knowledge above practice is like water rising above our heads. If it gets too high, we drown. We must let go of all the chatter around the Spiritual Disciplines and simply start practicing them.

Often we think of spiritual disciplines or “soul-training exercises” as onerous time-eating tasks. We feel we have to “gird up our loins” and prepare for drudgery. To me a spiritual discipline can be as simple (and difficult) as making a choice and then following through on it.

I thought about this recently as I became increasingly irritated with a hard-boiled egg.  I have studied all the tricks for cooking and peeling these eggs,  including cooling them in ice water before I try to peel them. My  husband eats two of these beastly creatures every morning, so  fourteen times a week I can choose to grouse, cuss,  throw the egg across the room, swear I will never make another hard boil egg again – or choose to use this frustration as a spiritual exercise for developing patience.  It’s making the choice that is the most difficult part! Once I say, “This is just an egg. I choose to be patient until there is no trace of shell on it,” I relax and calmly just peel until it is ready to eat.

Another exercise I use for to help in my  transformation from a raving maniac to a patient person comes in the car while I am waiting for a 100 car train to meander by. Here is the scenario. The traffic is backing up – twenty cars ahead of me and behind me. I will definitely be late even though I gave myself ten minutes for the 15+ plus stop lights that are in my path.  I decide to take Jon Bailey’s advice and simply practice what I know. I stop counting cars, looking endlessly for the caboose or calculating how fast the traffic will proceed once we are freed from this madness. Instead I choose to enjoy the view or listen to the radio, or take deep breaths, or drink some water – or remind myself that waiting is not a sin nor is being late –  or all of the above.  

A more consequential use of this practice involves my relationship with my husband.  I am now basically his “nurse.” I bring medication four times a day, take his blood pressure, urge him to eat, remind him to use his inhaler,  and the list goes on.  Sometimes he does not want to be bothered or is tired of taking pills – or he just doesn’t want to give up control over his body. I get it!  But when he gets angry and I retaliate or feel sorry for myself,  nobody benefits. So I am learning before I go through the door of the room to stop and remind myself to act as lovingly as Jesus did in all his relationships – no matter how difficult they were.

I will need the help of other spiritual disciplines to become a patient and loving helper to a  man who feels awful most of the time.  But I believe that transformed people can change their world – and I will keep on keeping on.  Stay tuned. 

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Seeing Life Differently

This blog contains more than 800 posts.  This post was written in on December 30, 2012, at the end of my first year of blogging.  It’s still pertinent.

Long ago before I heard of the concept of “spiritual formation,” I discovered Stephen Covey who taught the need to be  effective not just efficient. He emphasized that to accomplish this would take paradigm shift, a willingness to change  perspective and seeparadigm shift the world differently. After a paradigm shift, when we see things differently, we can think differently, feel differently and behave differently. (Check out Covey’s moving ex- ample of a paradigm shift at the bottom of this blog.)

Covey’s way of thinking changed my life.  And so when I was introduced to M. Robert Mulholland’s definition of spiritual formation (“the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others”) in An Invitation to a Journey,” I was immediately at home.  It was another “paradigm shift.”  And the “process of being conformed” became my life’s work – for myself as well as in my job.

Peeling an Onion

The imminent arrival  of New Year’s Day  jump-started my realization that the more I think about “being conformed to the image of Christ,” the more it seems like peeling an onion.  I want to live the life that Jesus did. Therefore, I want to live without anger or fear or bitterness or judgment or the need to control.  So how do I do that?  It’s not as simple as making a New Year’s Resolution and whipping up my will power.  To me,  behavior change involves paradigm shifts and “first causes.”

If I want to change a behavior, it doesn’t work to stiffen my resolve, although I guess that’s a good first step – like taking the thin brown skin off the onion.  What I really have to do is oniondrill down to what causes the behavior that I’m trying to change.  For example, when I get upset or angry, I can usually peel off the layers and find my (mistaken) belief that life is supposed to be fair. So when it doesn’t seem fair, something is wrong and I have a right to be upset.

It takes a major paradigm shift to eliminate that (or any) mistaken approach to life, especially since it came from my mother. In the emotional setting of  turmoil, confusion, and grief,  my 3-year old child’s mind learned that it wasn’t fair that my father, a minister, volunteered to serve in World War II.  It wasn’t fair that my mother’s marriage was ended before it really began.  It wasn’t fair that her plan to be a minister’s wife was disrupted by friendly fire in a war zone.  It wasn’t fair that her self-described “happily- ever-after” view of life was blown away in Germany during the bombing of a railroad track near a group of U.S. soldiers walking to freedom.  And since the answer to the prayer “thy will be done” was “unfair,” it was probably correct to say that God isn’t fair either.

It took many decades of peeling off layers and layers of emotional baggage before I realized that my response to life was rooted in determining what was fair and what wasn’t. A major paradigm shift to “life probably won’t be fair – and that is difficult” was necessary if I was to learn to think, feel, and behave differently. I had to unearth the “first cause” before I could begin to make a change.

Space for Grace

Another thing I learned from Stephen Covey is that in the physical world there is always a brief (infinitesimal) pause between an action and a reaction.  That pause in the world God created is a lesson to me. In Apprentice we call that pause a “space for grace.”   In 2013 my goal is to take more advantage of that “space for grace” – to peel the onion and learn “the first cause” of the reaction I am about to have.  Is it the Spirit of Jesus in me or a “blast from the past” that will determine how I respond?

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Stephen Covey on paradigm shifts, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

“Our paradigms, correct or incorrect, are the sources of our attitudes and behaviors, and ultimately our relationships with others.  I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York.  People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed.  It was a calm peaceful scene.

Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car.  The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.  The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation.  The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers.  It was very disturbing.  And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated.  I could not believe that he would be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all.  It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people.  I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ” Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it.  We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago.  I don’t know what to think , and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?  My paradigm shifted.  Suddenly I saw things differently and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently and I behaved differently.  My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain.  Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died?  Oh, I’m  so sorry!  Can you tell me about it?  What can I do to help?’  Everything changed in an instant.”

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The Lord is in our Midst!

‘”The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
        He will create calm with his love;
        he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, CEB).

I was introduced to one of my favorite prayer songs, God be in my Head, in morning Chapel gatherings at Hope College when I was 18.  As the daughter of a choir director, I loved the choral setting; as a writer I loved the parallel  construction of each line and the simple expression of  God’s availability and the need to give God everything within me.

God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking;
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.

But it took a very intimate picture near the end of the Old Testament painted by Zephaniah of a warrior God who sings tenderly over me as a mother sings over her newborn to help me understand the depth of God’s deep love and the breadth of God’s care for me. This is a God who will fight for my allegiance at the same time he loves me tenderly! This is a God who is not removed but in my midst!

At the very end of the New Testament, John goes back to this same scenario:

Look, I am making the whole of creation new. …. Look, here God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people, and he will be their God, God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain. The world of the past has gone” (Revelation 21:5; 21:3-4).

This is the blessing of Advent! The Lord is in our midst! The God who loves us individually and sings over us is doing great things among us! His love will “create calm! “This is our hope for 2019 and beyond.  The Lord is in our midst!

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Continual Renewal – the Renovare Way to Discipleship (part 7)

This is the final post in a series of seven which are based on the Renovare organization’s “best practices” – six Common Disciplines drawn from the six Traditions of Christianity explored in Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water. (Find earlier posts in the Categories list in the right margin menu on the blog home page  under Continual Renewal).

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Common Discipline # 6:  By God’s grace, I will joyfully seek to show forth the presence of God in all that I am, in all that I do,  in all that I say.  (The Incarnational Tradition)

The word incarnation comes to us from Latin. It  means “in the flesh” (in = in; carnis = flesh). The dictionary definition of incarnation is “person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or abstract quality.” Jesus is the Incarnation of God (“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us”(John 1: 1, 14).  In the words of James Bryan Smith,

In the person of Jesus Christ, God became human, thereby putting his blessing upon the material, physical world in which we live. God as Spirit created a physical body to inhabit.  The Spirit. . . . The Incarnational Tradition forces us to change the interior first; it looks to the source of what we do and say. We first start cooperating with the Holy Spirit rather than resisting.  . . . . We start thinking about life as a harmonious unity, abandoning such distinctions as spirit/matter, sacred/secular, faith/work, soul/body”(Spiritual Formation Workbook).

What does this mean for our lives?  To me the Incarnational Tradition embodies the other five traditions:  I am asked by God to live the life that Jesus lived. We say, often glibly, that Jesus lives in us. But this tradition states that this incarnation is the prime fact of my Christian life. It is possible for me to become like Jesus, which means to embody the spirit of Jesus in everything I think, say, or do. (It’s what we mean when we say that Christians are “Jesus with skin on”).  Or I can refuse to become like Jesus.  It’s that simple.

This tradition is also often called the Sacramental Tradition, which signifies that in God’s eyes there is no difference between the sacred and the secular.  Everything is sacred.  How we think, how we imagine, how we create, how we decide – these are all sacred tasks. Keeping harmony in our relationship with our many selves, our relationship with God, our relationships with others, and our relationships with our environment is a sacred task. Choosing to act out of love, being joyful, seeking peace, cultivating patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is our sacred responsibility. And, likewise, our occupations, our driving, our voting, our house-cleaning, our golf or tennis games, our writing or painting or sewing or singing are sacred endeavors.

Common Discipline #6 is probably the most practical of all the disciplines because it infuses everything we do in life. It is fueled by all of the other disciplines – prayer, holy living, being empowered by the Spirit, compassion, reading and speaking scripture. It is also the hardest to fake, although many people try – including some “pew-sitters” in our churches. 

James Bryan Smith sums it up beautifully:   “The spiritual disciplines put our bodies in a place where God can work his goodness into us and bring harmony into our lives.  And when our bodies and spirits start to come back into harmony . . . . we easily move between religious and everyday activities, treating them as of equal value because God is present in both.  And all that we say, all that we do, all that we are becomes a means to make God’s presence real to those around us. When our life is a “seamless garment, we are free to reveal God to the world.”

May it be so in my life and yours!!!

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Like a Refiner’s Fire

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies.  But who will be able to stand up to that coming? Who can survive his appearance?

He’ll be like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes. He’ll scrub the Levite priests clean, refine them like gold and silver, until they’re fit for God, fit to present offerings of righteousness. Then, and only then, will Judah and Jerusalem be fit and pleasing to God, as they used to be in the years long ago” (Malachi 3: 1-4, MSG)

Martin L. Smith, an episcopal priest in Washington D.C. says that “many have difficulty grasping that the coming of God’s grace and truth [as in Advent] exposes and calls to account everything false and tonic in human relations, politics, business, and religion” (Sojourner, December, 2018).  (Living in Washington D.C. must bring this concept home to him daily!)

Smith goes on to ask: As we listen these words of Malachi in the Messiah this Advent season, how many of us “will connect the prophet’s holding to account of the corrupt temple priesthood with the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church over institutional failure to protest its children from clerical sexual predators.” Or, we may add, with the fawning support for President Trump by some on the American evangelical right.  Many of Jesus’ strongest words are spoken to the religious leaders of his time who represented themselves as God’s holy ones. The cleansing of white-hot fire was called for then and is certainly called for now.

Jesus is the Refiner’s fire!  If we don’t understand this, we might want to be careful what we wish for during Advent.  Eugene Peterson’s fiery words in The Message makes this role very clear; Jesus will be white-hot fire, the strongest lye soap. He will refine us and cleanse us until we are fit and pleasing for God. These words are set in the context of the announcement of the coming of the “Messenger of the Covenant,” the one we have been waiting for. This One-We-Have-Been-Waiting-For will not only usher in God’s Kingdom on earth – a kingdom of love and mercy and grace – but also give us His Spirit who, if we allow it, will train us to let go of our human failings and become more like Jesus in the process.

This reminder provides a new topic for meditation and prayer during this Advent Season. I pray, “Come, Jesus!” But will I be able to face this man Jesus, who is also the Son of God coming to us in righteousness and glory? What do I need to do to prepare for this encounter this Advent?  What needs to be scrubbed or burned out of my life? What do I need to say to the people around me, to the Church, to the world about this Refiner’s Fire?  I must, we must, be on our knees in respect to the Son of God who comes as a baby to save us from ourselves.

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