"Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water." Numbers 31:22-23
One of the first signs of spring in my hometown corner of the world was a trip to my grandfather's sugar shack, usually with my cousins. It was a crude little dirt-floored structure nestled at the edge of a stand of sugar maples. At one end of the shack, a huge metal vat the size of a bathtub filled half of the shack. Underneath the vat, and of a similar size, was a wood burning stove with a curvy little stovepipe that rose from behind the vat and escaped through a hole in the slanted aluminum roof. Bright winter sunlight broke through a thousand tiny cracks in the walls, and on every available stud inside, nails held ladles, spoons, nets and filters. Two folding chairs and a small homemade table were the only other furnishings. It wasn't especially colorful or comfortable inside the shack, but I remember it with a smile. Maybe it was the smell. For 2-3 weeks every spring, a sweet, woodsy aroma of smoke, syrup, moisture and the earthy outdoors combined with the barn-like smell of my grandfather's coveralls. I can almost taste the hope of spring as I type.
The syrup making ritual involved checking sap buckets daily, collecting it in 50 gallon size containers that would then be dumped into the vat in the sugar shack- 43 gallons of sap yields just 1 gallon of sticky, sweet syrup, so this was truly a labor of love. Mixing, testing, stirring, feeding the fire that raged below the vat, skimming the syrup with a net to remove impurities that were distilled to the surface, day and night, batch after batch, waiting for the exact moment of perfection- too long and it would burn, too short and the flavor was weak.
For my part, I was involved as a tourist, but for my grandfather and uncles, it was laborious. The end product? Clear glass quart jars of syrupy, caramel-colored goodness would file into my grandmother's mudroom weeks later.
Today, during this same season of the year, I am involved in an entirely different ritual of purification.
With my prayer, "Cleanse my heart Lord. Purify me from impurities."
I imagine, "Turn up the heat in the old wood stove. Load on the firewood Lord."
With the common practice of giving up something for Lent,
I imagine the excesses of my life being distilled at a rumbling boil, escaping through the curvy stovepipe of my spirit into the vastness above.
With the difficult work of self-reflection and prayer,
I imagine the physical labor of my family members, toting heavy buckets of sap, standing or sitting around a steaming vat day and night, chopping and feeding logs to a ferocious fire for days on end.
And the end result of both processes? A beautiful sweetness that can only be produced through a process- a process of bringing what I have to the sugar shack, stoking the fires of reflection hot, releasing that which is impure (allowing another to skim off the really nasty stuff), and looking forward to the hope of a sweeter, closer relationship with my Maker.
As I allow Him, God is happy to illuminate the clouds of my watery self being released toward Him. He accepts it, releases me from the burden of carrying it, and I anticipate the closeness of knowing Him in all of His flavorful goodness as the days of Lent progress.