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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A Lesson from a Hallmark Movie

This blog hosts more than 800 posts, so occasionally I plan a “re-run.” This post was first published on Nov. 14, 2016.  I think that as another tumultuous year winds down, it is a blessing to watch a movie in which love wins out – and which also teaches a life lesson.  So here’s another toast to Hallmark movies!  

I admit it! My guilty pleasure in times of anxiety and stress is watching an occasional Hallmark movie – especially at Christmas time. My favorite movie of the season is The Christmas Ornament. I also admit that even though I  have watched it at least four times, I still get a nervous feeling in my stomach, hoping that everything turns out right.

This morning I caught my husband (a dedicated non-romantic) watching this movie! Promising myself that I would, after all, DVR it and watch it one more time, I stayed in the room just long enough to hear [spoiler alert] a widowed Kellie Martin tell a grieving-a-broken-relationship Cameron Mathison, that she was finally readychristmas-ornament-2 to go forward with their blossoming relationship. Teary-eyed, she says, “I thought I had to give up Scott [her much-loved deceased hus- band] to have you. But I don’t.”

The phrase struck me immediately. My mother never came to that recognition. When my father did not return from World War II, she never really could give herself to any relationship because she thought she would have to give up Rolly to have happiness – and she wasn’t willing to do that. This failed vision cost pain in every relationship in our family.

But the phrase, “I thought I had to give up ___ to have ___” has theological overtones as well. How often has this equation, “I have to give up ___ to be a Christian” stopped someone from surrendering his or her life to a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus the Christ? How often do committed Christians stay stuck in their relationship with God because they fear that giving too much to God will cause them hardship and pain? How often are passionate Christ-followers stopped from growing and learning by the concern that change is something they must fear – and ultimately refuse? The entire narrative of Scripture convincingly reveals that when people give up everything for God, they still win.

The Christmas Ornament is not an overtly “Christian” movie, but when you tire of eating and watching football and Christmas shopping in the next few weeks, you might want to give it a try. The ups and downs in this relationship between a widow and a jilted boyfriend are real, the courage they show as they battle their fears is instructive, and the recognition that they can love again without giving up their memories is heartwarming. Even more, the hidden lesson that a Christian can take from this experience is to stop worrying what you may have to give up to follow Christ because what you will gain will be priceless.

P.S. I watched it again in 2017 and about a week ago!

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Waiting with Mary

 During the season of Advent (the coming; the arrival) we wait with Mary, the mother of Jesus for the birth of her unexpected, though long-awaited, child. She (and we) experience all the feelings of waiting  – anticipation, awe, concern, joy, anxiety.

What if you let go of your intellectual understanding of Scripture and allow the Bible to speak to you in new, less analytical ways? What if you added a new tool to your reading Scripture tool box – your imagination? Imagination can take you to new and deeper places in the Scriptures and new and deeper places in your relationship with God.

Let’s use our imagination as we read the story of the birth of Jesus as told in Luke 2: 4-7:

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (NIV).

Imagine being present with Joseph and Mary during this time in the stable.  First imagine what you might see? For example, do you see Mary creating a home amidst the straw and animals?  How are the animals reacting to the invasion of humans? Is Joseph pacing while Mary is in childbirth? Is it dark? Is a fire making shadows on the wall? What else do you see?

What do you hear? Are animals shuffling or chewing   Is Mary groaning or sobbing? Is Joseph praying? Do you hear a baby’s first cry? What else do you hear?

What can you smell or taste? Straw, human sweat, animals?  Is there a fire burning or food cooking? Can you taste bread or wine? What else can you smell or taste?

What can you touch or feel?  Animal skin or fur? The rough wood of the manger? The soft swaddling clothes Mary has laid out for her first child? Mary’s sweaty forehead? A baby’s soft skin and damp hair? What else do can you touch or feel?

Now look around at the people around the manger.  Who is there? What do they look like? What are they doing? What are they talking about? What do you think Joseph is feeling and thinking? Put yourself in young Mary’s place? What is she feeling, giving birth so far away from home.

Next imagine that you are a character in this scene. Perhaps you have traveled with Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem to assist them on the journey. Maybe you wondered what you were getting into when the innkeeper led you to a stable to stay for the night. You watch in wonder as Mary’s baby comes into the world. You think about all the rumors you have heard about this baby.  You stare in amazement as shepherds crowd into the room, saying that angels have sent them to find the Savior.  You watch Mary calmly holding the baby as the shepherds jabber away. What does this birth mean to you? Do you believe this is the Savior?  If not, why not? if so, what does this mean for the rest of your life?

As you draw back from your involvement in the scene and reflect on what you have experienced, you may sense God’s presence. What does this story  mean to you now? What would you say to Mary? How do you feel about this child and his birth? How does the humanness of this situation affect your understanding of who Jesus is? Is God asking you to do something? Worship? Love Jesus more deeply? Tell someone about the adventure you have witnessed?

When you bring your imagination to a passage of Scripture, you may find a deeper awareness of the significance of the words to your life. You may notice stronger faith, deeper love. You may feel conviction of sin and a need for forgiveness. You may be over-whelmed with praise or gratitude. You will certainly place yourself in the position to be transformed by the Word.

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Praying with Scripture – Psalm 25: 4 – 10

Advent is a time of waiting. As Henri Nouwen re- minds us, “It is waiting in the knowledge that someone wants to address us. The question is, are we home . . . . ready to respond to the doorbell?”  Advent is a great time to become ready to respond to the doorbell. Psalm 25 reminds us the longings of our hearts – longings  which are promised by God. Perhaps these prayerful questions will help us focus on the blessings that are available  from God and through the coming of Jesus.  

Psalm 25: 4-10 (MSG)

Show me how you work,God;
School me in your ways.

Where have I seen God at work in my life recently?  What can I do to pay more attention to God’s activity in the world and my world?  How does God “school” me?  Am I listening for God’s direction  and/or God’s correction? Why not?

Take me by the hand;
Lead me down the path of truth.
You are my Savior, aren’t you?

Do I follow as my shepherd leads me to green pastures and beside still waters.  Am I allowing God to take my hand? What can I do during Advent to confirm or profess that Jesus is my Savior?

 Mark the milestones of your mercy and love, God;
Rebuild the ancient landmarks!

What are the milestones in my life that mark God’s mercy and love?  Do they still influence me or are they long forgotten?  Do I have to rebuild these landmarks so that they will always be present in my mind.  How can I do that?

 Forget that I sowed wild oats;
Mark me with your sign of love.
Plan only the best for me, God!

Do I feel marked by a sign of God’s love?  If I am unsure that God loves me always and wants only the best of me, how can I recognize the mark of God’s love? How do I learn to trust God more?  What “wild oats” have I sowed that remain unconfessed or even hidden from myself? 

God is fair and just;

He corrects the misdirected,
Sends them in the right direction.

 He gives the rejects his hand,
And leads them step-by-step.

From now on every road you travel
Will take you to God.
Follow the Covenant signs;
Read the charted directions” (MSG).

Do I fully believe that God is “fair and just?”  Am I holding something against God because it seems as if life is not fair? Have I felt rejected by God or by any person? Am I willing to give up my fear or resentment and let God lead me step-by-step to the assurance of his love and to the forgiveness I need to show to others? Am I willing to find God on every road I take, or do I walk some paths I would never want God to know about?  What are the “Covenant signs” for my life?  Where can I find the “charted directions?”

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From My Reading

“The poor are the center of the Church. But who are the poor? At first we might think of people who are not like us: people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets, people in prisons, mental hospitals, and nursing homes. But the poor can be very close. They can be in our own families, churches or workplaces. Even closer, the poor can be ourselves, who feel unloved, rejected, or abused” (Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey).

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“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy” (Thomas Merton).

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“This week I read that we are in a particular kind of moment right now — a crisis of discipleship; a failure of spiritual formation. This was said by Michael Wear, who formerly worked in the White House as is now part of the leadership of The And Campaign, which is trying to educate Christians with an end in mind: compassionate policies, and a healthier political culture. (Uh, sign me up.)

And this about our moment of crisis: “[It’s as though] the only purpose of politics is to achieve security, whatever that means, and power, so that we can continue to be Christian in our personal lives. But God has a claim on more than that. So we need to be thinking as a church about what spiritual formation for public life looks like.”

. . . . We are in a crisis. But Fleming Rutledge taught me that “the New Testament Greek word krisis refers to a distinction, as between time and eternity or death and life, which calls for judgment and decision.” We are in a crisis, and its time for judgment and decision. What kind of people are we committed to being?” (Kate Kooyman in Reformed Journal: The Twelve, November 15, 2018).

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“It is a powerful practice to be generous when you are the one feeling in need” (Allan Lokos).

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“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these” (George Washington Carver).

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“If You Want to Change the World, Make your Bed” and other Random Thoughts


In 2014,  Admiral William McRaven  gave the commencement address  at the University of Texas at Austin. It focused on the ten lessons he learned from basic SEAL training. The “making your bed” story from that speech has been revitalized recently because President Trump decided to take potshots at the Admiral, who recently stepped down as Chancellor of the University of Texas System to battle chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Here are Admiral McRaven’s comments on the importance of  making your bed:

“Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors . . .would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.  If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

I don’t have to be encouraged to make my bed; I don’t like a messy bedroom. But as I pondered on McRaven’s words, I realized that most days now I need a motivator to just get out of bed.  My motivator is giving my husband a very important medication at 7:30 in the morning. Once I get out of bed to do that, I always manage to find the energy to keep on going the rest of the morning. I also realize that even at the age of 76, I still have the desire to “change the world,” something I can’t accomplish if I don’t get out of bed.


Recently my son Ryan related a story about watching college volleyball on TV or computer with his daughter. The game was being filmed by a camera located above the action.  He marveled at how much he learned about the strategy of the game by watching the players adjust their movements and positions from his bird’s-eye view. He was delighted by the new perspective. Later he shared this story with his college students to make the point that unless we get a perspective from above the fray, we can’t make wise decisions, or even useful comments.

This point is so important as we duke it out (mentally or verbally, hopefully not physically) in this politically charged atmosphere. We should be learning enough about our “talking points” so that we can present the argument from a bird’s-eye view – not from the sidelines.


Tales of frantic shopping on black Friday, reams of splashy ads in my daily paper, and the general hype surrounding Christmas this year have greatly informed my understanding of “less is more.”  The spiritual discipline of living simply has been my most helpful, and thus my favorite, discipline for decades.  This year, surrounded by the chaos of the world, it has been an easy decision for me to simplify Christmas, to go with less, to focus on what’s important by eliminating what is not. 

So – no gifts this year; special donations to causes important to me and my family will take their place. No Christmas tree or decorations this year, although I traditionally love them; I’m saving my time energy so that everyday life is less exhausting. No baking  Christmas cookies,  pecan pies, or  cinnamon rolls; this decision helps me keep my diabetes under better control, saves a lot of boring dish washing time, and eliminates freezer bags full of temptation long after Christmas has come and gone. Less is more! More time for reading, more time for conversations, more time for appreciating the beauty of this time of year – more time for making Christmas being about Christ.


In 2015, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I was advised to add a walker to our methods of transportation – just in case. Turns out I really didn’t need it for the cancer. So it just sat around, mostly in the way. Two years ago, when we moved from our house to a much smaller apartment, I was tempted to get rid of then walker because now it was even more in the way. But months ago when my back became painful and my balance worsened, I decided to try it out around the house. Now it is a necessity. However, when my family came over recently, my daughter-in-law asked, “Do you really need that?” 

I replied, “Yes, I do, but it has an unexpected silver lining.” I still have to schlep the grocery bags up our 14 stairs, but, once they are on the landing, they go into the basket in and onto the seat of the walker they go so I can push them into the kitchen. When I trudge down the stairs house to get the mail or the newspaper, the walker waits patiently until I get back, unload the Sentinel and magazines and junk mail and an occasional important envelope into the basket – and hang on to it while I take my coat and shoes off. Then we forge ahead.

The walker is also great conveyor of dirty laundry and clean, folded clothes. I put filled waste baskets on the seat and move them to the garbage container. And even more important, as soon as I think that something needs to be put in another place eventually, I put it in the walker basket. Most days I collect a full basket of stuff and go room to room easily putting things in place. It also is helpful when I clean – all the supplies go in the basket from room to room.  One more device that got in the way now keeps me safe – and makes less work.

As my son left the house that day, he said, “Everyone should have a walker to carry stuff in.”  More is less.

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“Continual Renewal” – The Renovare Way to Discipleship (Part 6)

This post is part 6 in a series based on the Renovare organization’s “best practices” – which are 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  home page under Continual Renewal).

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Common Discipline #5: By God’s grace, I will share my faith with others as God leads and will study the Scripture regularly.  (The Evangelical Tradition)

Transformation is the goal of our spiritual journey. Paul promises us that the Spirit is transforming us into the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18). And in Romans we’re told not to conform to the world but to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). Scripture also proclaims the expectation that Christians will be transformed: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

One of the ways we can be transformed is reading of the Bible. However, reading for transformation may require learning a new way of reading Scripture. We may need to cultivate a new expectation when we open the Bible, a new attitude when we read the Bible, and a new response to what we hear from God as we read.  As Richard Foster says, “Reading the Bible with the goal of interior transformation is far different from reading for historical instruction. In the latter case, we learn head knowledge; in the former heart knowledge” (Life with God; Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation).

Reading the Bible for Information or Transformation

To understand the difference between reading the Bible for information and reading the Bible for transformation, let’s look at a few examples:

In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson compares the difference between reading the newspaper and reading a letter from a beloved friend or family member. First, how do we read newspapers? Usually we scan the pages looking for headlines that interest us. Or perhaps we have already heard a bit of news, so we skim the pages looking for more details about that subject. We may look for a specific piece of information:  Did our favorite basketball team win last night? What will the weather be like today? 

We may have a favorite columnist or sections of the paper that we may read more carefully, or we may respond in irritation to a ” letter to the editor,” but our approach to the newspaper is generally quite impersonal. We may even multi-task while reading the newspaper – especially if we get our news on our phone. We may read while eating breakfast. We may look over the paper while watching TV. I have even seen people scanning the paper while they are driving down the highway!  

Compare this type of reading to reading a letter  from a beloved friend or family member. We sit down in our favorite chair, maybe with a cup of coffee, when we are sure we have time to read every word. We savor every detail and even go back to read some parts more than once. We may even read “between the lines” because our goal is to identify with how the writer feels and to understand what the writer really means.  This type of reading is a personal experience; we are reading not only for information but to feel close to our loved one. Our relationship may even be transformed by the reading.

Another example of how reading/learning to be informed is much different from reading/learning to be transformed involves cooking. Think of a person who reads recipes faithfully and watches cooking shows on TV or YouTube in hopes of learning how to create a delicious and impressive meal. This person has a much different relationship with food than the person who raises the vegetables, cooks the meal, and then sits down to eat it.

Moving off the “Front Porch”

These examples show us that information is a means to an end but building a personal relationship is the end. Thomas Merton offers a helpful perspective on the relationship between these two purposes for reading scripture:

An adequate grasp of the Scriptures requires two levels of understanding:  First a preliminary unraveling of the meaning of the texts themselves . . . which is mainly a matter of knowledge acquired by study; then a deeper level, a living insight which grows out of personal involvement and relatedness . . . . ” For Merton, the task of acquiring information is simply the ‘front porch’ of spiritual reading (Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast.

So let us move from the “front porch” into God’s “living room” and invite, as Richard Foster encourages, a “Damascus road experience. [As we] venture on to the ancient roads of the Bible’s word with an open mind and an inquiring ear, we can expect to encounter the living God. All we need to do is ask Saul’s question, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Scripture is filled with the promise of the Lord’s reply” (Life with God).


Watch this blog for ideas on how move from “head” knowledge to “heart” knowledge and how to make the spiritual discipline of Scripture reading a transforming encounter with God.

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“Continual Renewal” – The Renovare Way to Discipleship (Part 5)

This series of posts focuses on the Common Disciplines that are the underpinnings of the Renovare organization’s understanding of discipleship.  These disciplines are based on the six streams of  Christianity described in Richard Fosters book Streams of Living Water, Celebrating the Six Great Traditions of the Christian Faith.  For other posts in this series go to the home page, then to Categories on the right side of the menu and click on Continual Renewal: The Renovare Way to Discipleship. 

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Common Discipline #4: By God’s grace, I will endeavor to serve others everywhere I can and will work for justice in all human relations and social structures. (The Social Justice  Tradition)

If you look closely at these common disciplines, you will notice that each of them begins with the phrase, “By God’s grace.”  The writers understand that all of our efforts to become more like Jesus depend upon our flowing in the stream of God’s grace. I believe this is especially true when we venture into serving others and working for justice.

I learned early on in my efforts to serve others about the danger of losing myself in the other person, commonly called enabling.  It took the grace of God (and a great counselor) for me find my balance and become able to help someone without trying to fix them). I recently read a new term for this controlling “helping” behavior. Cynthia Bourgeault calls co-dependency “collapsing into one another.” She goes on to say that [love] is better served by standing one’s own ground within a flexible unity” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, November 9, 2018). Maintaining this balance is very difficult in family relationships; it is just as hard when we are being servants.  Often we give too much and the other person disappears. Or we are judgmental in our serving and the other person is diminished.  Opening ourselves to God’s grace is the only  way we can minister to others in the Jesus Way.

We also need the grace of God when we attempt to affect change in social systems and social structures. This calling is so difficult because it seems we have to change other’s hearts to change their systems.  Or we have to display the power of many to challenge the power of the structure. We must bring love and forgiveness and understanding to the process. We must stop looking at “others” and keep looking at people. Life in the United States now is a huge laboratory for how to bring justice without stooping to the tactics of the unjust. We need perseverance and courage and the support of a community if we are going to bring down the fortresses of injustice and the castles of self-interest.  

After the United States mid-term election, I heard one newly elected official say, “Now we have the power!”  And I thought, ” And now we need the grace!”

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