Woodstoves and the Spiritual Life
Learning how to use a woodstove isn’t all that complicated until you actually buy one. You would think that, once it’s installed, all you would have to do is put wood in it, light a match, and then close its door. However, for those of us who grew up in Southern California, where people’s heaviest winter coats would be useless in New Hampshire by Halloween, a woodstove can be a bit of a mystery. Even living in Connecticut for thirty-four years wasn’t much help, as winters in Connecticut are, well, wimpy compared to those here, at least so we’re told. We had lots to learn about keeping warm, and as is often the case with northern New England newbies like us, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
Putting wood into a woodstove isn’t rocket science, for instance. But, we were putting wood in our stove incorrectly for much of our first winter here. We figured it was just like putting wood in a fireplace, so that’s what we did. Wrong. The stove doesn’t work efficiently if you put the logs in sideways. (We got this right because sometime in January we finally got around to reading the directions that came with the stove in August.)
Likewise, getting the fire started wasn’t always easy either. Lighting a barbecue is easy; all you have to do is douse the charcoal with lighter fluid and toss in a lit match. But, this isn’t recommended for woodstoves. (We knew this because we did initially read some of the directions that came with our stove, mainly the part that tells you how incorrect usage can result in burning your house down.) So, we learned, slowly, how to build a fire. Not having been a Boy Scout, this took time, and entailed setting off our fire alarm a number of times because on cold days the smoke from our spluttering fire poured out into the living room instead of up the chimney, which then entailed opening windows and doors and turning on our ceiling fan for ventilation. Since our intent was to warm the house and not cool it, this was annoying and not a little frustrating.
And then there’s the matter of exercise. A woodstove needs wood if it’s going to keep you warm. This entails stacking wood, splitting wood, lifting wood, and carrying wood from the woodshed into the house. Buying a cord of wood turned out to be the equivalent of joining a gym. The wood guy delivers your wood and dumps it in a big pile on your driveway; you take it from there. I enjoyed the exercise so much that it brought about my first-ever visits to a chiropractor.
However, our most recent adventure with our woodstove was what inspired this communication. As some of you may know, it can still get cold here in April, even though the days may be warm (at least by New Hampshire standards). It was a bit below freezing when we got up this morning, so a fire in the woodstove seemed a good idea. I came down, wadded up part of Sunday’s newspaper, got out the fat wood, and put a small log on the fire. However, instead of a brightly burning fire, we ended up with a smoky mess. It looked like the fire wasn’t getting the oxygen it needed, and soon we realized that there was something wrong with the flue. Tapping on the chimney above the woodstove, we soon realized that the chimney was semi-blocked and in (desperate) need of a chimney sweep. And so it was, when I later unhooked the stovepipe and looked into a chimney chock-full of creosote. Not good. Not good at all. I went out to the shed and got my chimney brush and extension poles. In no time, the chimney was cleared, and the stove was working like it should.
As I thought about the chimney and all that goes in to making a woodstove work, it struck me that it was a good analogy for the spiritual life. The spiritual life, like a woodstove, entails work. Yes, God’s grace is central. Yes, we are saved by grace (and grace alone, for all you Reformed types). Yes, no efforts of our own devising make us pleasing to God. Yes. But, as is the case with any human relationship, our relationship with God entails effort—work (not, mind you “works”). If our woodstove is to work as it should, I need to get wood, stack it, split it, lug it into the house, and then build a fire. The odd thing is, I enjoy all these things. I like—love—splitting logs. I like being outdoors and being in the fresh air as I stack wood in our woodshed or beside it. I loved being out in the woods with one of our guests, who came back a couple times last fall with his chainsaw and helped me cut down some trees out in our woods. There’s nothing better than being active, close to God’s creation, and breathing clean fresh air.
If the woodstove entails work, it’s a kind of work that’s fun. It’s like the effort that goes in to maintaining a relationship with God. It takes discipline and effort to make time to be still and quiet, so we can be attentive to God’s presence and God’s word. It takes discipline and effort to carve out time for prayer, or study. It takes discipline—and sometimes huge effort—to turn off smart phones, dumb phones, laptops, desktops, and all-news-all-the-time hysterics. It takes effort to spend time with God and time to get to know God, yet, it’s fun. It feels good. When you get into it, it doesn’t seem like work.
But, too many of us are like our woodstove this morning. With the chimney full of creosote, the fire couldn’t get enough air. Instead of a good fire, all we got was smoke. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’re not getting enough oxygen and your life isn’t burning as brightly and warmly as it should.
What does that mean, not getting enough oxygen? In the Bible, the same Greek word, “pneuma,” expresses the ideas of wind, breath, and Spirit. To not get enough oxygen is to not get enough of God’s breath—Spirit—into our lives, and this can happen all too easily. The creosote that blocks our spiritual oxygen supply can be confused priorities, where God’s work is more important to us than God, or where our own concerns are more important than God and His Kingdom; a misguided (and usually unconscious) belief that we are more essential to God’s Kingdom than God is; a sense that our relationship with God depends more on our zeal than God’s love for us. Creosote can be a life situation where we know God as an idea and not as a person and a presence. It can be fear of failure or fear of being in over our heads. It can be fearing people and pleasing them, rather than fearing God and pleasing Him.
Spiritual creosote can be all sorts of things. The foregoing isn’t an exhaustive list. The point is, it chokes out the spiritual fire of our lives. It is anything that prevents the Spirit of God from burning brightly and warmly within us. Just as our stove’s chimney needed a cleaning today, so too our spiritual lives need periodic cleaning as well so that our inner fire is re-kindled and refreshed. This cleaning doesn’t come with a wire brush and a pole; it comes from turning to God. Repentance is commonly taught as turning—going the wrong direction and then turning to go in the right direction. In repentance, the “turning to” is more important than the “turning from.” To turn to God in this way and to seek Him is to experience what the old hymn describes:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in his wonderful face; And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of his glory and grace.
Repentance is needed not just when we know we’ve sinned, but when we realize that we haven’t been paying attention. That’s probably what’s most responsible for our spiritual creosote.
As our woodstove burned better when I cleaned its chimney so the fire could get enough air, so too our lives burn more brightly and warmly when we decide to unclog our lives from all the clutter that blocks us from breathing in God’s Spirit. Too often we live with clogged chimneys. God loves us. He calls us to come away to Him, to rest and relax with Him. In such a setting, spiritual disciplines like prayer, study, meditation and reflection turn out to be peace-giving, fun even. When we choose to get away and spend some quality time with God, we start to breathe again, spiritually.
I enjoy all the work that goes with our woodstove, even when it entails trips to the chiropractor! How much more are we intended to enjoy the efforts and disciplines that go with knowing the God Jesus made known to us as Father?