Let your longings work for you.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

(Book of Hours, 159, translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows)*

I’ve been in a season.

The worst of it is that this season seems typical of people like me — middle-aged, empty-nested, hard-working. It looks like I’m just unfulfilled and cranky.

Nothing could be further from the truth (well, maybe cranky … but certainly not unfulfilled). I love my family, my work, this stage of life. I love Jesus and am motivated to plumb the depths of following him. I love my people, and have no desire to escape them. Mine is not a mid-life crisis, though it does look like a yearning for something more. Or different. Something.

The yearning has frustrated me. I’ve flailed about looking for the cause, blaming it on my own lack of progress in my main area of ministry. That is usually my dafault setting. If things don’t “feel” right, ministry must be to blame. I seem to live in a chronic state of discontent with what can be but isn’t. Sometimes the discontent motivates me to try harder; most of the time, I allow those frustrations to push me right down into a pit of discouragement.

A friend who lovingly listened to my angst said she suspects I’ve been misdiagnosing my longings. She has heard me sing this song before. Hearing the same tune again, my friend asked a profound question: “What if you let the longing work for you, and not against you?”

She went on to poke around in my spirit and we discovered that yes … my deepest desires are vertical, not horizontal. I do want to know the heart of God. Far more than temporary successes, I hunger for deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit. I long for eternal things. My spirit resonates deeply with Paul’s: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am grateful to know the Holy Spirit groans with me when I don’t have words to express my own deep yearnings (Romans 8:26).

Yet, the frustrations and unidentified aggravations that mark life have been trained by time and repetition to roll down into some undefined rut of unfulfillment — manifesting as empty complaints, causing me to search for cures in the wrong places. Work harder, my frustrations urge. Or look for an escape hatch. Netflix. Mindless surfing. Words with Friends. Anything to divert me from transcendence.

But what if our longings are not for things we can consume, but for something else entirely — something deeper, more legitimate, like Heaven, or the Kingdom to come or for deeper, more intimate communion with God? What if they are for worship or for the souls of lost people waiting to be found? Surely this would be a better target for my longings. Is it possible it is also the right target? Is it possible that what feels like frustration over the horizontal is actually our whole spirit groaning for the eternal? For transcendence, because that is how we’re made?

Misdiagnosing causes us to lean out, to allow our lack of spiritual imagination to steal all the good and eternal out of what ought to be holy longings. Misdiagnosis saps us of spiritual productivity. On the wrong trajectory, our groans work against us. No wonder so many middle-aged people buy Harleys. We’ve lost our ability to interpret the wordless yearnings of the Spirit.

How would a fresh diagnosis of your own deep longings change your next choice? How would it alter your prayer life, your work life, your church life, your next conversation with God, with someone in the waiting room with you? Are you leaning out, when you should be leaning in?

Go to the limits of your longing, the poet advises. Flare up like a flame. Don’t let your last emotion get the last word. Transcend. Rise above. Get in touch again with the Deep, with the Holy Spirit. Let your longings take you toward the Kingdom, which is home for you.

Which is what you were made for.

 

*I’m grateful to Ruth Burgner for passing this poem along. Ruth also deserves credit for asking life-giving questions.

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How to dampen a spiritual fire

The Wales revival broke out in 1903 and fizzled by 1905. During those two years, people came from all over the world to swim in those revival waters and that spirit went back with them when they went home. One of those people was a man named Frank Bartleman. He was a preacher and journalist in Los Angeles who began to write about revival and about what was happening in Wales. He had written Evan Roberts to ask for prayer. Roberts answered him; Bartleman believed the prayer in the return letter came with the gift of faith. It was for him part of the stirrings of a movement in California. He wrote that the spiritual movement he sensed in California was “rocked in the cradle of little Wales. … Los Angeles seems to be the place and this the time, in the mind of God, for the restoration of the Church.”

About that same time (1906), William Seymour was being raised up under the discipleship of Lucy Farrow in Houston, Texas. Both of them were taught by a guy named Charles Parham, known today as the father of the Pentecostal movement. Parham led a seminary and invited Seymour to become a student there. Seymour was black and in that day, having him in a white school was highly unusual. But Parham saw something in Seymour. Listening through the window of Parham’s classroom, Seymour fanned the flames of his calling and began to preach. Before long, he gained the attention of some folks in Los Angeles, who invited him to come and be their pastor.

Seymour went, and the short end of the story is that he started preaching in L.A. and people started coming. It was a small group at first, but as the Spirit moved the house where he was staying began to be packed nightly. Parham invited his old mentor, Lucy Farrow, to come and preach about the Holy Spirit and all Heaven broke loose

It is no small thing that the Pentecostal movement was born out of the ministries of a white man, a black man and a woman, all three preaching what Seymour called, “old-time repentance, old-time pardon, old-time sanctification, old-time power over devils and diseases, and the old-time ‘Baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire.”

Frank Bartleman, the L.A. journalist, followed Seymour and wrote this about his ministry: “Divine love was wonderfully manifest in the meetings. They would not even allow an unkind word said against their opposers or the churches. The message was ‘the love of God.’ It was a sort of ‘first love’ of the early church returned. The ‘baptism,’ as we received it in the beginning, did not allow us to think, speak or hear evil of any man. The Spirit was very sensitive, tender as a dove.”

After outgrowing the house Seymour lived in, the church rented a building at 312 Azusa Street. That address is still famous today in Pentecostal circles. Millions of Pentecostals would say that their spiritual birthplace is Azusa Street and dozens of denominations trace their roots to that revival.

As with too many spiritual movements, it was human brokenness that stopped the flow of the Spirit on Azusa Street. The organization beneath the movement had its share of dysfunction. Too much enthusiasm and too little structure led to infighting and jealousies. Along the way, someone got mad with someone else and ended up leaving and taking the mailing list with them. Without a mailing list, there was no way to get the word out about meetings. When the crowds stopped coming, the revival waned.

As J.D. King has written in his article about this revival in Charisma Magazine, the real lesson from Azusa Street is that revivals rarely end because of conflicts outside the walls, and more often because of conflicts within.

That is a sobering thought. To think that the attitude we bring into the Body of Christ could actually stifle the flow of the Holy Spirit and the growth of a movement should cause all of us to examine our hearts.

As part of a spiritual community, I must ask myself: is my attitude stoking the fire, or is it “water in the wood”? Am I contributing to the health and spiritual awakening of my community, or am I dampening the spiritual fires because I’d rather have it my way or not at all?

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How to start a fire

Do you know how a log catches fire? There is more to it than meets the eye. To get the log to “catch,” it has to be heated to a temperature sufficient to evaporate the water within the wood. The bigger it is, the more heat the process takes. The wetter the wood, the longer it takes.

The wood won’t “catch” until the water within it burns off.

And what happens with wood happens with people. I notice that people tend to want spiritual fire to happen instantaneously. We pray for revival like it can sneak up and catch us without us noticing. Or we pray for personal renewal like God is going to zap us with it without warning. But that thing that happens with wood — that process of heating the log to burn away the water before the log will ignite — is probably a more accurate picture of how big revivals and personal renewals actually happen. Not overnight, but over time. Not by surprise but by design. There is a season of heating up. There is spiritual preparation.

The stuff that dampens our spirits has to burn off before there is enough heat to “catch.”

Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated. Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it and you will end up frustrated. You can also do a lot of damage.

I don’t agree with the whole message but I like the title of a sermon written by Gilbert Tennent, an evangelist who traveled with George Whitefield. Tennent talks about “the danger of unconverted ministry” — of leading a ministry when he or she is not spiritually prepared. Gilbert says, “an unconverted minister is like a man who would teach others to swim before he has learned himself, and so is drowned in the act, and dies like a fool.”

In my years as a pastor, I’ve witnessed it more than once. It is that pastor who fails to take his own soul seriously. The same year Mosaic started, our Annual Conference birthed ten new churches. Thirteen years later, only three remain. Not all were the pastor’s fault. Some churches never “ignited.” But some pastors also left the ministry and two of them had affairs.

Friends, there is nothing more dangerous than going after a spiritual fire when there is too much “water in the wood.” Perhaps this is why Jesus told his followers (Luke 24:49): “Stay here … until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven.” We want to focus on the part where Jesus promises a filling of the Holy Spirit. But I would not be surprised to learn that Jesus himself emphasized the word, “Stay,” when he was talking to his followers. Because he knew better than anyone just how dangerous it is to get out beyond the covering of the Spirit.

This is what separates the crazy from the courageous in spiritual work. It is not the Holy Spirit (because let’s be real here: some of the most spirit-filled people also look the most crazy). What separates the crazy from the courageous is that ability to “stay here,” to wait for Jesus to prepare the wood before trying to start a fire.

This is why we preach spiritual disciplines over and over and over. These are the things that dry out the wood. Spiritual disciplines prepare our souls for fire. Scripture, prayer, group life, worship, confession, accountability — this is how we prepare the wood for the fire. Not preparing ourselves is how we build dysfunctional lives and dysfunctional communities.

And this is why repentance is so important. This is why Jesus began his own ministry on that word: “Repent.” Because he knew that you can’t start a fire with wet wood. Repentance is the heat that burns off the water and makes the conditions right for awakening.

The fire triangle is what they call the three conditions that must be in play for a fire to burn: heat, oxygen and fuel (some kind of combustible material). If our spirits are the fuel and the Holy Spirit is the oxygen, then repentance is the heat that creates the conditions necessary for the life of Jesus to live itself out in me.

Listen: Repentance is not about behavior management; it is about changing my spiritual condition so I can catch fire.

Repentance clears the way for the Holy Spirit to do his work so if you’re ready to start a fire … start there.

 

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Sanctification is hell (or, a lesson on the vocabulary of freedom).

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by Kroger on my way back from Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon. I’d been sharing with another church so someone else from our preaching team had the message at Mosaic that morning. One of the first people I saw at Kroger was a Mosaic person. She hugged me and said, “Mark’s message today was great but it was hard. I’m telling you, sanctification is hell.”

Amen to that.

This person is a new Christian (or at least, a renewed one). She’s come home to Jesus after years away. Watching her find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life has been a joy for me. I happen to know, because I’ve prayed with her and listened and shared tears, that it has not been all fun and games.

She’s right, of course: sanctification is hell. It is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen something has to die, and deaths are not easy. Ask anyone who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work. Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse if not of where we are then of where we’ve been. We see in the rearview the depths to which we’d let ourselves sink.

Sanctification happens while we are doing it — like that boom that happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, or like when a spaceship re-enters earth’s atmosphere. We may not be able to see the line we’ve crossed, but there is an unmistakable shift. We feel it when we walk from death to life, from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation; it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on.

Holiness is not for wimps.

The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. This is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often dwell on. Sanctification isn’t designed to keep us safe; it is designed make us sanctified. Holy. Strong. Wise. Mature.

Paul closes his letter to the Colossians with these three words: “Remember my chains.” Those are the words of a man who is working out his salvation, who is practicing the art of holiness prolifically.

Remember my chains. People don’t say that kind of thing as they reach for a glass of iced tea while they sit by the pool. These are the words of a man who has learned to let every beating, every jailing, every debate become part of his sanctification. He has embraced the hard road because he knows that is the only road that leads to Jesus.

We do no one any favors when we preach a gospel that neglects the cross nor the process of sanctification. We help no one when we refuse to speak truth in love when it comes to things that shackle people and keep them from going someplace spiritually. We don’t help the cause when we avoid words like sanctification. My friend the new Christian proves that anyone can learn that word and grasp its meaning and find power in it as she practices it. We don’t have to shield people from the vocabulary of freedom.

“Remember my chains,” Paul says. Because he needs the people of Colossae to remember that this following costs, that things won’t always be easy. Sanctification can be hell when you’re in the middle of it, but the real problem in any morality equation is not sanctification. The real problem is the thing that got us stuck in a hell of our own making in the first place.

And that ends up being quite the point and quite the freedom of this beautiful theology we who follow Jesus are living. Sanctification is that part of the Christian life that points out our hell … and then delivers us from it.

Hallelujah.

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