I love to wear a cross on a neck chain, and I have some beautiful ones that we have bought in stores around the world. Many of them are sterling silver, and I thought of them as we read from Malachi 3 at church on Sunday. The prophet is announcing the coming of God’s Messenger, one who will test and purify the people of God, and especially their religious leaders and temple rituals. In chapter 3 verses 2-4, Malachi uses the image of a refiner of silver, and our preacher described to us the boiling of the crude metal in the white-hot crucible, followed by the blowing of air to oxidise and remove the impurities. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who shifted in my seat, as I considered the times in my own spiritual journey that I have felt the heat of the refiner’s fire.
Our theme on Sunday was self-denial – the beginning of a Tranzsend Lenten series focussing on support of overseas missions - and we were reminded that God’s testing and purifying activity can reach into our wallet and purse, despite (or perhaps in light of) in a time of global recession. I had my own Bible open, and my eye was caught by another image in the Malachi passage: the fuller‘s soap. Perhaps I noticed this because I have been reading World Without End, a book about country life in fourteenth century England, when the role of the fuller was an important one. His job was not only to rid the raw wool of its grease and impurities, and to bleach or dye it, but also to felt it. Felting is the processing of prickly open weave woollen cloth, so the fibres are matted together into a soft and warm fabric. In the old days, I learned from “The Worst Jobs in History” the process required human urine to work, but these days craftspeople just use very hot water and detergent. It occurred to me that just as the refiner of silver needed to “put the heat on” to produce a fine and beautiful metal, so the fuller has to apply strong soap, heat and agitation to get a more versatile fabric. I thought of how the Spirit has been at work in me in recent times, putting the heat on, yes, but leaving, I hope, a more integrated and useful life. In both cases, the means of refining is what we might call rough treatment, but the result is worth the pain.
Part of the Lenten journey of self-reflection is an honest assessment of one’s own holiness, or lack of it. When I was searching for a suitable name for this blog, I wanted a name that suggested something spiritual, but without any high-sounding claim to theological astuteness or philosophical wisdom. When I came across Eugene Peterson’s little phrase about a godshaped life, in Proverbs 11, I knew I had found the right handle. These words remind me, as a follower of Jesus Christ, of two important aspects of spiritual formation : one, that it is founded deep in God, and his resurrection life in me, and two, that its goal is a life that reflects the character of God, that is being changed into his likeness (2 Cor 3: 18) So my life is to be “godshaped” not only in the sense of being shaped by God; it is also being shaped into something like God, though “not because of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph 2: 9).
Eugene Peterson’s translations (in The Message) of the New Testament notion, of growing into the likeness of Christ, are great. In 2 Corinthians 3 he speaks of “our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful , as God enters our lives and we become like him." And in Romans 8, he follows the wonderful promise of God working everything "into something good,” with an even more inspiring passage:
“God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.” (Romans 8: 29 - 30, The Message)
It seems to me that the goal of God’s refining fire or fuller’s soap is to make us more beautiful and more useful. An old sermon illustration claims that the silver worker knows when the refining process is complete because he can see his face in the shiny molten metal. I don’t know if that is actually true, but it makes a lovely picture. God's cleansing and purifying work may be uncomfortable – but it will surely enhance our capacity to reflect his very nature.
To Chew Over: What purifying work has God been doing in your heart in recent times? Where has he been “felting” your life so it is more integrated and useful?
A Lenten prayer:
You who are over us,
You who are one of us,
You who are within us,
may all see You in me ….
Give me a pure heart, that I may see you,
a humble heart that I may hear you,
a heart of love that I may serve you,
a heart of faith that I may abide in you.