Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Refiner's Fire

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire.

                        Malachi 3.2 

How Soon We Forget

Not much is certain about Malachi, the prophetic book that closes the Christian Old Testament. Working from a few slender references to past events, scholars place it roughly 250 years before the birth of Jesus. The Israelites have returned to their homeland after a 70-year exile in Babylon and reconstructed their nation. As they’ve prospered, they’ve grown lax in worship, giving, and daily commitment to the things of God. In fact, they’re so complacent, they’ve taken to grousing with Him about not working things in ways and in timeframes they prefer. Malachi reads something like a transcript of six discussions in which God takes His people to task for their vain ideas about who’s in charge, as well as their neglect of His house and those in need.

How soon we forget where God has brought us from and what He’s carried us through! Yes, it’s healthy for us to put past miseries behind us—but not to the point of discarding memories of the grace and mercy that soothed our doubts, calmed our fears, and restored our souls. When we’re engaged in great struggles, we plead for God’s intervention, often plying Him with big promises of ways we’ll repay Him for delivering us. These aren’t always idle or manipulative gestures, either. After He answers us, we start out strong. Over time, however, urgency fades from our promises. Conflicting interests arise and new issues surface. Losing all recall of God’s past provisions, we ask, “Where is He? Why doesn’t He do something already?” Demands of this sort became so common with Israel God finally responded through Malachi. The answer wasn’t pretty.


Chapter 3 begins with what sounds like a shiny promise: “Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.” But a “but” immediately follows. “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” This surely surprised Israel. God told them He’d do as they asked. Yet, true to form, He’d do it in an unanticipated manner. “When your Redeemer arrives suddenly,” He says, “rather than fix the problem for you, He’ll to fix you for your problem.” The prophecy goes on to explain rectification would work top-down, beginning with the priests. “He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness,” verse 3 says. Communication between God and His people had got so garbled with grumbling and chatter it needed cleaning up before anything else. Once Israel heard God’s voice clearly and approached Him in a more pleasing, humble fashion, the rest would fall in place.

Fix Me

One of my favorite spirituals is “Fix Me Jesus,” a plaintive, heart-melting appeal for Christ to do precisely what Malachi prophesied: refine me, clean me up, and purify me so I will stand righteously before You. The words are so basic they’re almost superfluous. The song’s meaning lives in its melody and tempo, which mysteriously pierce the mournful dirge of humble repentance with bright leaps of hope and faith. The whole of the refining process is there: sorrow for having forgotten God’s past goodness, shame in taking Him for granted, tremulousness while facing the discomforts of the refiner’s fire, and earnest desire to be cleansed. In its own way, “Fix Me Jesus” is as perfect as any Advent hymn can get by preparing us to submit to the purification that Christ’s coming brings.

Refinement and cleanliness are pretty. Refining and cleaning are not. They’re messy, laborious, and time-consuming. But we can’t bring God offerings of righteousness without passing through His refinery. We yield to harsh correction now to avoid far worse later. “So I will come near to you for judgment,” God tells Israel and lists offenses He will expel: sorcery, adultery, perjury, exploitative labor practices, oppression of the poor and homeless, and discrimination against outsiders. He ends this, saying, “Do not fear me.” The refiner’s fire is nothing to fear. The Refiner comes near to us to draw us nearer to Him.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Fix Me Jesus

(Tomorrow: Roots)

Postscript: Last Call

A few days ago, I suggested we collect our favorite holiday songs or recordings for a Straight-Friendly Christmas Album I compile and post as a kind of shared gift for us all. So far, though, we’ve not had many takers. Maybe everyone’s too busy to add his/her personal faves to the list. Or maybe it’s just a lousy idea to begin with—all that pointing and clicking! But I’m staying optimistic that we’ll have a last-minute surge of suggestions. As I said earlier, we’re a lively, eclectic, terrific crowd and I believe the variety of songs/recordings we assemble together will be equally lively, eclectic, and terrific. So this is Last Call. Post your selections (one or two) by Friday and I’ll turn it around over the weekend. 


FranIAm said...

As usual, with your rich posts, I often do not know where to begin...

It is interesting to consider Malachi in these times, isn't it? I think of all manner of things from Newsweek cover story (and I link on purpose to a good post about it) to the economic turmoil and so much more.

Deep sigh.

When I watched the amazing video of Fix Me, Jesus by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, tears sprung to my eyes. I saw a couple of things here...

I saw first the way that I understand and experience true sacrament - God reaches out and we respond. That is very clear in the dancers' moves.

Also I saw how we move in community, in concert to cooperate with the grace of God found in sacrament, and I speak of small s here and not big S sacrament.

What a beautiful and prayerful way to begin my day. Thank you, bless you.

As for the Christmas album, I will get you something. I have not been reading very many blogs these past few days!!!

FranIAm said...

OK, I am back with my Christmas songs:

Breath of Heaven from Donna Summer's Christmas Spirit CD.

The completely non-religious (insert bad "Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season-joke here and reflect on your great post about those words!) and delightful "Baby,It's Cold Outside" by Liza Minelli and Alan Cummings on the Broadway Cares, Home for the Holidays CD to benefit AIDS. (I mean Liza? Can you spell "teh gay?" with more love than Liza?)

And while I am not a big fan of his, I am a sucker for Josh Groban's O Holy Night.

Bringing up the rear, but should be up front as an Advent classic, O Come O Come Emmanuel.

OK, must run now.

Prayers blessings love and more to you and all readers here.

Tim said...

Fran, what a delight to hear from you--given the new job this week and everything. (Congrats, BTW, and we're praying for you as you start this venture...)

Quickly (as I should be working right now)...

The Newsweek story is amazing. Thanks for the post. Jim at Straight, Not Narrow also posted it pronto. What a great gift to the GLBT community this time of year! Truly God is good.

Your thoughts on the Ailey piece are lovely. I'm not adept at interpreting dance very well. It took me a couple viewings to notice the female dancer never sees the male. She's oblivious to how he supports her moves and how, when she pulls away and sinks into confusion, he's right there to lift her out of it. That's when I cried...

Thanks for the excellent album picks. Donna, Liza, and Josh--as a straight gal you sure do us gay boys proud!

Run on, dear Fran, and godspeed!

johnmichael said...

Hi, this is a great post.
I tend to get lazy with worship when things are going well. And then I plead when things are going sour...so this post hits home.

My favorite Christmas song is....actually I have two...

Joy To The World by Mariah Carey
and really my all time favorite is
"Grown-Up Christmas List" by Amy Grant and there is a version by Plus One called "My Prayer For Every Year".

Tim said...

"I tend to get lazy with worship when things are going well..."

I think that's true of us all, John. The downside to blessings, I think, are that they often distract our attention from the One Who blesses us. Then, when blessing/recess time is over, we beat a path straight to His door. As I read Malachi, this message hit home with me as well.

Great selections for the album, BTW! Joy to the World is my favorite Christmas song--period! And Mariah does a superb job with it. And Amy, well, Amy and I go back a long way, to the days when she was this timid teenager from Nashville trudging through one Assembly of God church after another with her guitar. I confess to having a slight crush on her back then--she was just so preppy and cute! Putting her on the list adds a special kind of homey warmth to it for me.

Thanks! Have a joyous day!

Cuboid Master said...

Hello, dear Tim!

My favorite Christmas instrumental from childhood is a raucous version of "Jingle Bells" as performed by Herp Albert and the Tijuana Brass. I looked for it on iTunes but they don't have the version I remember. Sigh. As for songs with lyrics, my all-time favorite is "O Come All Ye Faithful" as sung by Nat King Cole. His voice is rich like mahogany, never failing to fill me with the dignity and love of the season.

"Fix Me Jesus" is a gorgeous song. I have been in choirs all my life and I plan on learning that one by heart. As you say, such supplications in song prepare us "to submit to the purification that Christ's coming brings." I must ask for that purifying grace every day.

You spoke of the complacency that comes with the fulfillment of prayer. I believe this is one of the reasons hardship is instructive: It forces us to our knees in open and ready acknowledgment that God, Alone, can restore equilibrium and peace to our lives.

In times of tests, we know with certainty that we are powerless before Him. Yet, when we experience fulfillment, we sometimes begin to believe we are responsible for our successes and forget to thank our Father. Hardship eliminates pride. Glory to God for this!

Thank you for your blog. You provide a wonderful service. I know Jesus shines upon you with His love.

With happiness,


Cuboid Master said...

Oh! I just read the Newsweek cover story FranIAm mentioned. It is wonderful! I pray for my young son to one day meet his life partner and have a beautiful marriage ceremony. He dreams of meeting a man as interested in human rights as he is and willing to adopt one or two special needs children. My son will be a wonderful dad! :-)

Thanks for mentioning that article...

Tim said...

Cube--it's wonderful to hear from you!

If Herb Alpert's cover of "Jingle Bells" is anywhere to be found, I'll track it down. And Nat King Cole's "Faithful" is without rivals!

I totally concur with your point that hardship eliminates pride. And I also believe its opposite is true, too: humility eliminates hardship. I'd guess most of the messes we get into come from our being to smug and hardheaded to admit we're not all that. So we just barrel into situations and stir up conflicts we're not smart or strong enough to handle. I'm so glad God's not like us, because if He were, He'd spend most of His time shaking His head and asking, "What part of 'Humble yourself' aren't they getting?"

What great joy to see you!

Be blessed during this marvelous season!


PS: Re the Newsweek piece--I pray that its bold position will encourage other "respectable" publications and people to come out swinging against intolerance, not only toward gay marriage or gays but toward all oppressed people. If that happens, and I expect it will, by the time your son is old enough to marry, it won't raise an eyebrow! Let it be so.

Cuboid Master said...

Whoops! It was the Mexicali Brass, not Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.


Annette said...


I'm going to chime in with my Christmas songs. I have over 20 CDs. I've bought at least one a year for the past few years. Any ideas for this year's CD???

My current favorite songs are: "Greensleeves" from A Charlie Brown Christmas - Vince Guaraldi - who can ever get tired of that classic CD.

The second one is "Baby It's Cold Outside" by James Taylor and Natalie Cole. There are lots of great versions, but this one is my current fav.

OH..and don't get me started on the Eartha Kitt version (is there really any other?) of Santa Baby.

OK...I've done my work here.


blake said...

Hey Tim. We've never met, but my name is Blake, I'm Annette Griffin's son.

She finally gave me your blog address today, so I'll be following closely!

Tim said...

Annette, thanks for the suggestions--they're going on the list pronto! And Eartha... well you gotta love Eartha for "Santa Baby"--and for being nervy enough to accept Nixon's White House invitation just so she could look him in the eye and demand he end the Vietnam War. That's the kind of move that turns cult figures into heroes.

And Blake, it's terrific to hear from you--welcome! Ironically, I was on your site for the first time today, too, and was busy writing you an email just as you were posting here.

I'll be following your blog closely as well. As I told you in my email, it's really sharp. I know you'll enjoy this spot, not so much for what I write but for all the cool people who swing through here. It's a very smart, yet very gentle crowd--and that's a rare combo these days. If anything here triggers thoughts, comments, etc., by all means, toss them our way.