Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Fires of Sorrow There was a time when I was reading a page from My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers every night, and every night it spoke to me, touching some spiritual nerve or confirming something that had happened that very day. I found this book of scriptural reflections by a Scottish Christian minister of the last century to be drenched in the Holy Spirit. Opening the book would unleash a torrent of insight and inspiration. Today, I want to share a portion of his thoughts on the place of suffering in our lives. Much of his teaching resonates with the Catholic understanding of trials and sorrows: "We say that there ought to be no sorrow, but there is sorrow, and we have to accept and receive ourselves in its fires. If we try to evade sorrow, refusing to deal with it, we are foolish. Sorrow is one of the biggest facts in life, and there is no use in saying it should not be. Sin, sorrow, and suffering are, and it is not for us to say that God has made a mistake in allowing them. Sorrow removes a great deal of a person's shallowness, but it does not always make that person better. Suffering either gives me to myself or it destroys me. You cannot find or receive yourself through success, because you lose your head over pride. And you cannot receive yourself through the monotony of your daily life, because you give in to complaining. The only way to find yourself is in the fires of sorrow. Why it should be this way is immaterial. The fact is that it is true in the Scriptures and in human experience. You can always recognize who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, and you know that you can go to him in your moment of trouble and find that he has plenty of time for you. But if a person has not been through the fires of sorrow, he is apt to be contemptuous, having no respect or time for you, only turning you away. If you will receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people." Now, I don't know what your initial reaction is to Oswald's thoughts. For me, there's an echo of this experience ringing in my soul. I can remember a sadness that came and carved out a valley in my soul and left it scoured and barren, and for a time no life grew there. But a spring did come (finally) and a rain fell again, and an unseen new life started to break through the hard earth. I've seen this in the natural world over and over again (how curious that God would create a world that mirrors our own interior life? hmmmm). I don't remember anything of comfort from those days except the presence of some friends who were with me in that valley. I say their presence, not their words. Others had words for me, but I don't remember them. When those rain clouds dissipated, I suddenly saw the mountains, and my vantage point was changed, deepened, and layer upon layer was added where before life was more of a plain where I thought I could see everything laid out. Now there was texture, and twisting, darkened, sun-dappled paths that always went upwards. After that time of plowing and pruning, I looked around and I thought to myself, this path that's no longer a plain is better. There's a richness to it's soil, and I felt as though I were walking a road that the ancients knew. It was a path called Wisdom. And the mountains called, and invited me: "Keep climbing!" The sorrows are still here. In fact they are deeper and more biting than ever before. But now I can look back on the path. I can remember the lessons learned in the darkness. I can remember that knot in my heart that could not seemingly be undone, the hot tears coming down and dropping into confusion and fear. I know that the knot of past sorrows was unravelled before by Unseen and Tender Hands. I believe it will be again. There is no way around the sadness, or the temporary blindness it causes our eyes, darkened and blurred by tears. But we have to remember our history. This was the lesson for the People of Israel... zakar, remember! The fire of sorrows still puts forth a light by which we can see. If we trust God in His allowing it, it can burn away all of our self-love, all clinging, all fear, all anxiety. In the midst of this Refiner's Fire, there is only light and no darkness. How is this possible? The answer lies in the light that streams from the most unlikely place imaginable: a wooden cross on a hillside where God Himself was consumed. _________________________ Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) was born July 24, 1874, in Aberdeen, Scotland. Converted in his teen years under the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, he studied art and archaeology at the University of Edinburgh before answering a call from God to the Christian ministry. He then studied theology at Dunoon College. From 1906-1910 he conducted an itinerant Bible-teaching ministry in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. My Utmost For His Highest, his best-known book, has been continuously in print in the United States since 1935 and remains in the top ten titles of the religious book bestseller list with millions of copies in print. It has become a Christian classic. For more on Oswald Chambers, visit http://www.rbc.org/utmost/index.php
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