The Challenge of Discernment

One Monday I heard both of these claims:

  • First, someone shared the exciting news of a special ministry event in which he had participated.  What made it so exciting, he said, was that “Satan was trying to stop us at every turn.”  He went on to describe a long strings of challenges and threats to the success of the event.  The team, with God’s help, overcame all the challenges, and had a wonderful, blessed time!
  • Then, less than 2 hours later, another man shared that he had been learning the lesson of discernment from this fabulous Christian book.  To sum it up, one can discern one is on track to follow God’s will as obstacles are overcome through seeking counsel, logic, wisdom, and God. The lowering of obstacles is a sure sign of God’s will!

So, which is it?  Do you know you are on the right track when Satan is throwing obstacles in your way, or when God is providing an obstacle-free path to follow.

Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices
Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices

Call me cynical, but the answer is obvious.  We discern we are following God’s will, or the right way, when we do what we have determined we will do. If obstacles arise, we ask God to overcome Satan. If obstacles don’t arise, we assume, I suppose, God has already overcome Satan.

The Christian tendency is to turn to “Biblical Principles” to direct discernment.  You know as well as I do that given enough time and practice at ‘spin,’ almost anything can be made to sound like a “Biblical Principle.”  Let’s face it: for years, slavery was accepted as a “Biblical Principle”!

What has your experience been in your quest for discernment?  Have you moved beyond finding the proper steps to under gird your own will? If so, how?

The Challenge of Discernment

Got (Theological) Questions?

Preached Sunday morning August 2, 2015 at Euless First United Methodist Church, at the 11 am serviceGotQuesitons
One of you, last week, asked me if reading the Bible would make God answer prayers faster.

I’d like to try to tackle that with you this morning on our way into today’s Got Theological Questions?

But first, I want you to know something about yourself that you might not know.  You are a theologian.

If you have ever wondered how or why or when or where or who about God or gods, you might be a theologian!

If you have more than one translation of the Bible, you might be a theologian!

If you ever pray, and ever wonder exactly how this prayer thing works, you might be a theologian!

If you hear the term “SUV” and wonder if it might be a new version of the bible, you might be a theologian!

If quadrilateral makes you think of Wesley, not geometry.

If you have questions after repeating the Apostles’ Creed, you might be a theologian!

In fact, let’s try that one

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Amen.

So: you might be a theologian.

I’m pretty sure you are a theologian.  Some of us pursue this more than others, but if you ever wonder, you are a theologian.

And if you are a theologian, you have theological questions.

Like, “does reading the Bible make God answer your prayers faster?”

The simple answer, I’m sorry for this, is “Yes and No.”

Yes, reading the bible will make God answer your prayers faster because reading your bible will almost definitely give you a better understanding of God.  Reading your bible will almost definitely deepen your relationship with God, your recognition of God’s love for you, and your desire to allow God to transform you as the bible offers.

People with a deeper relationship with God have their prayers answered faster because their prayers are more in line with God’s will.  They find themselves developing an appreciation for the complex ways God interacts with and works in the world, and their prayers are likely to show this difference.

and

No, reading the bible will NOT make God answer your prayers faster.  One of the first things we learn in the Bible is that our God, the god of the Bible, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses, David, and Elijah, of Mary, Peter, and Paul, is not a God that can be controlled by formula. You cannot make God answer a prayer by praying in a certain way. You cannot trick God or force God into agreeing with you – or disagreeing with you – based on who you are, what you think, how you act, or whether or not you read the Bible.

So, yes and no.

If you are left with more questions now than you had 3 minutes ago, you are definitely a theologian!

Since we are all theologians, and, I’m going to guess most, if not all of us consider ourselves Christian theologians, then it’s a good thing we are here this morning. Because I am quite sure it is critically important for us to faithfully wrestle and struggle with these things together. After all, Jesus said wherever 2 or 3 are gathered, he’s right there in the midst.

I’m not always good at this. For example, there is a card game that I won’t play with Rachel. I think it is called “Blink.”  I don’t remember for sure because we haven’t played it in more than 5 years.

It’s a game we got, I think for Christmas before Eliza was born.  We love games.  One of us doesn’t love this game.

I don’t like this game for the very simple reason: I never win.  We got “Blink” out and played it.  once, twice, three times, and I never won. Never even came close.

I’m not so competitive that I can’t take a loss here and there, but I NEVER won!

I hope I’m not the only one to have had this kind of experience. If I am, you can come and shame me after the service.

What does this have to do with theological questions?  Everything.

Perhaps the most important thing we bring to theology is our attitude.

How does it make sense to talk about a  loving God if most of what comes out of my mouth is bitterness? James 3:11 asks: Both freshwater and saltwater don’t come from the same spring, do they?

I am firmly convinced God welcomes our questions – when we ask with an appropriate attitude.

Theology isn’t just questions; it is questions with an appropriate attitude.

How is your attitude toward God?  How is your attitude toward people?

From what the Bible seems to indicate very clearly, your answer to the second question is the honest answer to the first question.

Our attitudes matter!  And, to paraphrase 1 John 4:20, if we say we have a good attitude toward God but a lousy, or bad, or bitter, or hateful attitude toward our neighbor, we are liars.

So I’m going to start with the first theological question I received: How do we handle/deal with/understand the idea of “eternity”? (It terrifies me)

First, based on what I’ve just said about attitude, maybe a little terrification is a good thing.

Second, When I was a young fundamentalist planning to be a preacher someday, I really wanted to use this: stand silent for one minute – 60 seconds – and then say something like, “that minute felt like a long time, didn’t it?  Just try and imagine how long eternity is – infinity minutes!

But time is not such a statically defined thing as that.  You know time isn’t always measured by seconds or minutes or days or years.

Sometimes time slows down. Our honeymoon, which we took on our first anniversary, was a week in Germany.  We had such a great time that it felt like it lasted for weeks!

Last week one of our families spent several days in the hospital.  One of our members had a stroke – a blood clot in the brain – then bleeding in the brain.  It didn’t look good from Sunday afternoon until late Monday night when, after 2 ½ hour brain surgery, he awoke with better than expected reaction and movement.

But that 36 hours from Sunday through Monday evening felt like a month and a half to the family.

Gretchen Rubin has put it this way: “the days are long but the years are short”

So, time is relative. But what does this have to do with eternity?

30 years ago I was convinced eternity was about forever – and that this meant a long, long time.

In the 90s, though, in youth ministry, I was confronted with the fact that not everyone wants to live forever. In other words, people would look around them, take stock of their lives, and say, “If this is what life is, I don’t want it to go on for ever!”

So, the answer to the question: the way I deal with eternity, and this is energized first and foremost by John 17:3 where Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God, that eternity is the kind of life that one would want to go on forever, and that this is exactly what God wants for us: the kind of life that one would want to go on forever!

In the same Gospel where Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God, he also says that he came so that we could have life—indeed, so that [we] could live life to the fullest.

The more I pursue God and a relationship with God – loving God and loving my neighbors, the more I find myself moving toward this kind of life – eternal life.

Which leads to this question, that one of you asked and many of us ask from time to time: Why does God allow/let such terrible things happen in the world to good people?

We could spend a year on this question and not satisfy everyone.  Books have been written – every year! – about this.

Here’s where my brain takes this question:  We want to have our cake and eat it, too.

When we ask the “question of evil” or “why bad things happen to good people?” most of us include ourselves, generally, in that category of “good people.”

But, when someone starts talking about holiness, or living as God called us to live, or accepting or seeking the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, most of us whip out, “but we’re all sinners!”

Well, which is it?

Are we good people who expect, or wish, God would protect us from all evil and malady, or are we miserable sinners, unable ever even to do one thing good?

Further, sometimes we say we want a God who would protect all us “good people” from harm and evil, yet we want free will.  Do you and I always make choices that protect us from harm and evil?  Don’t we sometimes make choices that put others in harms’ way?  Are you now or have you ever worn clothes produced in some sweatshop in south Asia?

We live in a world where evil exists. It exists on our actions as individuals and as societies – as nations, and as a whole.

These next two questions I’m going to tackle together:

How does creationism reconcile the laws of thermodynamics?  For example 6,000 years is not long enough to evaporate 26,000 ft. of water over the entire globe.

If humans were on earth before animals, how do we explain the science of pre-historic life?

Maybe I should have taken these last week, as my answer depends upon a crucial point about the Bible.  The Bible, as contained in the Old and New Testaments, contains the word of God as far as is necessary for our salvation.

The Bible is concerned about our salvation.  It is not so much concerned with current debates about science or history. No part of the bible was written to be a science or history textbook.

The Bible IS all about truth, but the truth that the Bible is about is not the kind of truth that science or history seek.

Now, it’s time for your questions:

Finally, I want to share this question with you: If there is sufficient grace for all, is there grace for Judas?

I cannot help but believe that, yes, there is sufficient grace for all, and that all means all.  Even Judas. Even Hitler.

At Annual Conference Juanita Rasmus told us this beautiful story of a vision she had of this all-sufficient love and grace of God.  In her vision, she imagined even seeing the likes of Hitler in the afterlife – she imagined God’s love and grace being that strong, that powerful, that sufficient.

Can you believe in a God whose grace is sufficient for anyone? Wouldn’t you like to know a God whose grace is sufficient for everyone?

Here’s the rub – it comes back to that pesky free will and eternity.

If God’s grace is sufficient for anyone and everyone; even Judas, even Hitler, even Paul ( “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9), the question remaining is “Will God’s grace overcome your free will?”  or “Will God allow you, or me, or anyone, to choose to remain outside of God’s grace?”

That’s a great theological question, and one that isn’t settled in the scriptures or in the nearly 2,000 years of debate, reflection, wrestling, and arguing since.

But you know what?  While I’ll still ask the question, and love to discuss the possibilities, I’m with Joshua on this one: “as for me and my house, we’ll serve the Lord.”

I will pursue this God whose grace is sufficient.  I will seek to follow the example and teachings of Jesus, and I will learn to trust that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.

Would you join me?

Got (Theological) Questions?

Got Questions? (Biblical)

Here’s my sermon from Sunday, July 26th. This opens the “Got Questions?” series. In the video, which will be available later in the week, we will include questions taken and answered during the sermon. This is only the part I prepared ahead of time.
Enjoy!GotQuesitonsLet’s start our “Got Questions” series with one of the few questions I’ve received.  I’ll offer something of an answer, then share some thoughts, then invite you to ask questions as well.

Ready? Here’s the first question for the series.  It starts at the very beginning; which, I’ve heard, is a very good place to start:

Did God make man on the sixth day (Genesis 1:27) or after the seventh day (Genesis 2:7)?

Well, now. That’s a question!  In case some of you had not noticed, Genesis seems to tell of God’s creating humans two different times. In Genesis 1, male and female are created together on the 6th day.  In Ch. 2, though, we get the longer version of the story: where first the man is created, and then woman is created out of Adam while he sleeps.

So, my answer to the question is: “yes.”  God created man and woman on the sixth day AND afterwards. Although, actually, the second story seems to indicate that the first human was created on the first day of creation.

If you read further into the second chapter of Genesis, you notice that only one human is created, and that human is created before the animals.

This might leave some of you wondering, “well, which one is right?”

Which is a great place to start this message, and, for that matter, a whole sermon series called “Got Questions?”

I am attempting to divide the questions over these three sermons in this way:  biblical, theological, and social.  There is lots of overlap; that’s ok.  This week, we look only at, or at least primarily at, biblical questions.  In a few minutes, I intend to give you the opportunity to ask some yourself.

Back to the “which one is right?” question.

Asking the question, “which one is right?” between two bible verses says a lot about the kind of people we are.

We are, or tend to be, people who want straightforward, clear-cut answers.  We want  no interpretation necessary.

The Bible does not offer straightforward, clear-cut answers.  In fact, I would go so far as to say the Bible REFUSES to offer straightforward, clear-cut answers.

It starts that way. Two different stories of creation in the first two chapters! The first is about God being the author of order, the second about God being our Creator

Before I pursue that any further, here’s what our church, the United Methodist Church, says about the Bible:

Article IV (EUB) We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.

This is NOT a “B I B L E stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” understanding of the Bible.

I don’t see how the Bible is an instruction book.  This takes us back to the way the world we live in works; the age we live in thinks: We want instructions. Even better than instructions, just google your “how to” question and watch any of 17 to 70,000 videos on Youtube for “how to” do whatever you want to learn how to do!

The Bible, in fact, is not a book at all. It is a collection – a library if you will – of 66 books written over the course of more than a millennium.

Or, if it is a book, it is a book that “reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice.”

If the Bible were an instruction book, I expect Jesus would have answered questions differently!  Matthew 13, for example, is full of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. To explain the Kingdom, instead of a set of marching orders to political dominance and enforcement of proper social behaviors, Jesus tells them
A farmer went out to scatter seed…
The Kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. while people were sleeping, an enemy came in and planted weeds among the wheat…
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field…
… is like merchant of fine pearls…
… is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish…

The vast majority of the Bible is narrative, or story. But, then, if the Bible reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice, it makes sense that it is story; we LIVE IN STORY.

Think, for a minute, about what Jesus’ bible was.  Do you know what Bible Jesus read? Not only did Jesus NOT have an iphone or a tablet computer to carry around to look up scriptures, but he didn’t even have a book – a bound version – to carry around.  It is, in fact, very likely that Jesus did not own a copy of the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament, but in a different order.

It is most likely that Jesus learned what he learned about the Bible in school and from listening to adults talk about it.

The Bible, and what it says and what it means belongs to the community of the people who claim the Bible as their book; as authoritative in their lives.  We read it, collectively and individually, because we believe it reveals the Word of God as far as is necessary for our salvation.

And we must remember that reading it together is as important as reading it apart.  Each of the 66 books of the Bible was written more than 1000 years before the printing press, so there was no expectation of personal daily reading.

Our modern expectation of personal daily reading has sometimes replaced reading and wrestling with the scriptures together as God’s people.

Jewish culture in Jesus’ day, as now, I’m told, was full of discussion and debate about the stories that make up the scriptures. Here is a parable that expresses this value:

Two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, “What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.”

So, Jesus learned from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.  The Jewish faith also has the mishnah, writings of oral traditions from Rabbis interpreting the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud, a written compendium of all of this.  The Talmud is 6200 pages long, and it is all about what the Bible means.

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. But we don’t always use it that way!

Here is something else I feel it is important to say, then I’ll answer two more questions, then we’ll take some questions from you. There is no plain meaning, obvious, interpretation-free way to read the text.  Some preachers will tell you there is. In fact, isn’t it convenient that the one person who gets to stand in front and hog the microphone claims there is one meaning to a scripture.

That one true, plain, obvious meaning is, of course, mine. The one I’m telling you.

Except the Bible doesn’t work that way!

For example: Some still (amazingly to me!) throw out Paul’s “Let your women keep silent in the church” verse which seems, right(?), to have a pretty obvious meaning.  Except that Paul also writes that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

Which is it? Well, I suppose that depends on what you intend the scripture to do.  If you intend to weaponize the bible, to use it “at” someone else to put them in their place or prove yourself right and them wrong, then you have to decide which it is.

If you are reading the Bible as revealing the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation,” then I suppose you’ll get a different answer to that question.

Do you ever read the Bible ‘at’ other people? Have you ever had the Bible read ‘at’ you?

The other question is this: “Is homosexuality immoral from a biblical standpoint?

Scripture interprets scripture.” Here is my answer: It seems that way to most people. However, even this, I am convinced, brings up more challenges than we want it to.  First off, as I’ve pointed out before, the bible NOWHERE mentions homosexuality as an orientation.  It does, in as many as 6 different places, refer to some forms of homosexual behavior.

Which leads me to this: Who is asking if “homosexuality is immoral from a biblical standpoint?”  Now, I know who asked the question, but that’s not what I mean.

Typically, it seems, confirmed, even adamantly heterosexual individuals ask if homosexuality is immoral. Sometimes they are curious, sometimes they intend to weaponize the scriptures.

Maybe more heterosexual folk ought to spend more time wondering if gossip is immoral than if homosexuality is immoral.

Most of us are probably following Jesus better if we question our own behaviors and motivations and attitudes than those of others.

The final question, before I take yours, is Christ said “my body GIVEN for you”, but in your serving of Communion you say “Jesus’ body BROKEN for you”.  Why do you do this?

Great question!  The first time I was asked this, I admit, I got a bit defensive.  I mean, I absolutely understood the question.  Isaiah and John both make it a point to say that the Savior’s atoning death would occur without the breaking of a bone.  Why, then, did I say, “Christ’s body, which is broken for you.”?

When I was first asked, I didn’t know why I do this.  It didn’t take me long, though, to find out.

I do this because the translation of 1 Corinthians 11:24 that I grew up with said “And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.” I say it this way because

  1. it’s in the Bible that way; and
  2. that’s the way I learned it when I was younger.

On this second point, I have a confession: I used to get really irritated when people would say, at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, WHO art in heaven….”  Because the King James CLEARLY says “Our Father, WHICH art in heaven….”

Each of us read the Bible the way we have learned to read the Bible, and not exactly the same way as others read the Bible. But we are invited to wrestle, struggle together WITH the Bible because it reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation.

taking questions

Conclusion:

Josiah became King of Judah when he was 8 years old.  At 26, he determined the Temple would be renovated. Part of the clean up of the Temple for this project was the discovery of the “Covenant Scroll” – the torah.  When Josiah, the king heard it read, it broke his heart and he ripped his clothes – a cultural way of expressing deep sorrow, guilt, and grief.

The Word of God can have this effect on us.  When we use it only, or even mostly, against others, though, we build walls around our own selves. When we weaponize God’s word against others, we dull ourselves to experience the power God’s word can have in us.

Contrast this with Jesus calling out the Pharisees with the way they use the Bible.  They read some of it literally to the minutest detail, and then ignore other parts.  More accurately, they use some of God’s word to rationalize why they don’t have to obey other parts of God’s word.

So, what are we to do?  We all, like the pharisees, run the risk of using some parts of the Bible to trump others.  In fact, John Wesley taught his followers to interpret the more difficult to understand parts of the Bible in light of the more straightforward.  Or, perhaps, the more specific in terms of the broader.

For instance, how can Paul tell women to keep silent and also say that in Christ there is no male or female?

Because, clearly, one is more general, a broader, more universal reading, while the other is for some specific case.

We all interpret some parts of the Bible in terms of other parts.

It shows in the way we live.  When we use the Bible against others, we find others assuming a defensive posture when we dare bring up the Bible or religion.

When we use the Bible to help us and others connect with the God who has this incredible long tradition of faithful love and commitment to people created in his own image, I suspect we find people more willing to listen.

What about you would make someone want to read the Bible the way you do?

Closing Story:

I keep an old shoebox on the shelf in my closet.  I take it down every once in a while and look through it.  Usually, no more than once a year.  But when I do, I cherish it!

This shoebox is where I keep letters and cards from Rachel from when we were dating.  She lived in Fort Worth and I lived in McGregor.  We talked most every day, but in this kind of relationship, there was always more to be said.  So we wrote to each other. Rachel being more artistic than I also drew and painted on cards that she would send.

So, every so often I pull the box down and I read through them. It warms my heart and refreshes our relationship.

I feel like this is a pretty good image for what the Bible is or can be for us.  Think of it as love letters to God’s people.

May you find the life and hope and forgiveness and faithful love in the Bible that the Bible is meant to offer.  May you find it so clearly that you glow at the thought of it and that others see, and hear, and want to know more!

Got Questions? (Biblical)

Come on Jesus, light my fire!

This is the second sermon in our summer series: “Pop Culture.” The audio will soon be available on our website, at which time I’ll share the link here.


Popculture2015summerbannerI want to start with a celebrity impression. Can you tell me who this is?

“You’re fired!”

I’m no Donald Trump, but I know fire when I see it.

But what does fire have to do with ending someone’s employment.  Legend has it that this term – “firing” someone started with John Henry Patterson, founder and owner of National Cash Register (or NCR).  Patterson, you’ll want to know, made Time magazine’s list of 10 worst bosses. Here’s an example: when Thomas Watson, Sr., NCR’s top Salesman, suggested to Patterson that mechanical cash reigsters would one day be replaced by electric ones, Patterson sent Watson on a sales call.  While Watson was out, Patterson had his desk hauled out into the street and set on fire. Hence, “fired.”

Don’t feel too bad for Watson, though.  He got on as General Manager with NCR’s competitor CTR – Computing -Tabulating – Recording Company.  CTR, under Watson’s leadership, later changed it’s name to IBM. You’ve heard of IBM.

Using the word “fire” in this way doesn’t have much to do with the Bible.  Other than Donald Trump, it doesn’t have much to do with Pop Culture, either.

But maybe that’s a good place to start today.

Why do so many people like to watch Donald Trump say “You’re Fired!” Let’s face it – Trump says “you’re fired” a lot more than he says “you’re hired.”

Today we look at and talk about fire – in Pop Culture and in our faith.

But first, a summary from last week’s intro to this series.

  • Culture is “what humans make of the world.” Pop Culture is what we make of the world-specifically all things “popular” -related to, about, from, entertainment and connecting people.
  • Culture, and Pop culture, are about truth or at least human attempts to find, express, experience, grasp truth.
  • All truth is God’s truth – wherever we find it, whomever it comes from.  God Himself is the author of truth – Jesus said, I am the truth – and God is such a good, loving God that God has not entirely depended upon us, his people, to spread truth.  Truth precedes us

So, now, on to Fire.

It was on fire when I lay down on it and there is smoke on the water. U2 sang of The Unforgettable Fire and Johnny Cash described love as “A Ring of Fire.”

Bruce Springsteen sang “I’m on fire” and Katness Everdeen was the “Girl on Fire.” Billy Joel promises that “we didn’t start the fire – that it was always burnin’’ since the world’s been turnin’”

What is that fire that was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’?  Could that be the fire that was burning a bush in the wilderness at Mt. Horeb, with which God got the attention of a fugitive murderer named Moses?

Could this be the same fire that John said Jesus would baptize with? Here’s Luke’s account:

The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ.  John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  (Luke 3:15-16)

Perhaps this fire is the refiner’s fire Malachi referred to in this morning’s OT reading.  A refiner’s fire heats metals from a solid to a liquid state. This makes the impurities float to the top, where they can be removed.

What is left is pure – or at least purer than before the heat was applied.

We’ve all known this kind of fire in our lives.  Sometimes the world swirls around us – and through us faster and with more confusion or damage or hurt than we think we can stand.

How long has it been since you’ve been at that place in life that you weren’t sure you would survive?  Are you there right now?

If you aren’t there right now, but you can remember having been there, you have likely been through the refiner’s fire.

This could be the fire John the Baptist was talking about.  One of the things Jesus does, that follow Jesus does, is help is see the impurities and separate them, lay them aside.

Fire refines, and purifies, but it also destroys.  There’s the lake of fire in Revelation. There’s Dante’s “Inferno” (which predates both the Towering Inferno and the Disco Inferno).

Dante’s Inferno, along with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, is where we get most of our modern imagery and expectation of hell or eternal damnation. Yes: current ideas and imagery of hell – pop culture AND the Church – come more from Dante and Milton than from the scriptures.

Which doesn’t change the fact that the bible recognizes the destructive power of fire.  Fire destroys.

But the destructive power is, I think, best seen – in pop culture and in our faith, as a reminder of the power of fire.  When harnessed, fire provides light and heat. When the power of fire is not harnessed, it destroys.

Which might tell us more truth about power than about fire; because power in any of its forms, when not harnessed, destroys.

How do you witness power around you?  How do you exercise power? When are you most challenged in trying to harness the power you have?

Which brings us back to Johnny Cash. Here’s how “The Ring of Fire” starts:

Love is a burning thing

And it makes a fiery ring.

Bound by wild desire

I fell into a ring of fire.

Like Fire, love has power.  We will spend more time on love next week – that’s the topic of next week’s message – but for now let’s connect fire and love, starting with Johnny Cash.

Love and fire connect in literature and music, culture and pop culture, because fire is a great metaphor for passion, which is one of the ways we talk about love or one of the aspects of love.

Passion heats us up.  Passion catches us on fire.  Springsteen and Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger games trilogy make so clear to us.

They remind us that we are passionate people.

Or are we?  Judging from the culture I was raised in, One might wonder if we are passionate or not. Passion was for all those other people, because passion, somehow, meant weakness.

Thankfully, not all of us are from that culture.  Take the way we worship. Many of us were raised in a culture where applause WAS NOT TO happen in worship. The concern was that the performers – or whoever received applause, would let it go to their head, feed their pride.

Some of us were raised, though, in a culture that set us free to respond, to interact.  In these cultures, applause, or shouting, or standing up and dancing, or whatever, were expressions affirming the presence and power of God.

Like so much about culture, no one of these expressions – or lack of expressions – is “right.” A seminary friend of mine was at a conference of her church – the Pentecostal Holiness church.  She tells how she and a friend were seated behind “Big Eddy.” Now, Big Eddy was often one of the first at such conferences to feel the Spirit.  This time, Big Eddy got help.  My friend and the person sitting with her stuck Big Eddy in the seat with a pin.

Big Eddy got the Spirit. Or so it seemed.

Now, before you think I am making fun of christian cultures that are livelier and more excitable than my own, I am not.

After all, I’m more of the christian culture that this story describes.  In a Sunday morning worship service, one of the congregation passed out cold. Unable to wake him up, 911 was called.  When the EMTs got there, they had removed half the congregation before actually getting to the one who had actually passed out!

Some respond to the moving of the Holy Spirit with energy and motion and noise, some with stillness and quiet.

The point is to respond to the Holy Spirit.  The point is not to suppress the Spirit or fake the Spirit.

How do you respond to the Holy Spirit?  Are you aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence here and now?  Are you paying attention to the Spirit?

Passion is about our response to the Spirit, as well as to other things. Passion calls us to DO something. This is why one way of describing what passion does within us is to say “we are moved.”  Passion doesn’t leave us where we are, or the way we are.

Another way of describing what passion does within us is to use the language of fire.

We see this, even about God, in Exodus 4:24 –  “the Lord your God is an all-consuming fire. He is a passionate God.”

Fire is powerful. Passion is powerful!  Which brings to mind that the power of love is a curious thing; it makes one man weak, and makes another man sing,” but that’s next week.

Sometimes you can see passion, feel passion, as truth.  Words and music can come from sheets of paper, or they can come from the soul – even if they’re read off sheets of paper.

Tell me which of these has passion

Pat Boone singing Tutti Frutti or Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti?

Jesus’ last week among us is often referred to simple as The Passion, or The Passion of Jesus – oh! which is close to the title of a movie, now, isn’t it?

I believe that Pop Culture engages passion, and I believe that as followers of Jesus, we are called to be passionate people – to harness the passion that God created us to have.

When we harness the passion God puts within us, people take notice. When we harness the passion God puts within us, we are more believable, more credible, more interesting.

When we harness the passion God puts within us, we are less hypocritical, less judgmental.

When we harness the passion God puts within us, we put ourselves in a place to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday.

Speaking of harnessing passion, Let me take you back to Johnny Cash.  Trent Reznor is the lead singer for Nine Inch Nails. That’s a band, if you aren’t following yet.  Reznor wrote a song, “Hurt,” for the 1994 album “The Downward Spiral.”  He was in his late 20s.

In 2002, Johnny Cash covered “Hurt.”  (“Covered” means he put out his own recording of someone else’s song.”

Hurt is about pain – in case that wasn’t obvious. It captured the mood, the languish, the passion, of pain and suffering.  If you know anything about Johnny Cash, you know he had seen a little pain and suffering in his life.

Cash’s cover of “hurt” was so good, so moving, so full of passion, that when Reznor heard it, He said this: “that’s not my song anymore.  That’s song belongs to Johnny Cash.”

There’s a kind of life that God authored that God wants you to have.  It’s called eternal life; “life lived to the fullest.” Life lived in the presence of the God who made us and who breathed life into us.

May the baptism of the Holy Spirit burn within us. May it stir the passion with each of us that, when we harness the passion that God puts within us, We may claim the life as our own that God has for us!

Come on Jesus, light my fire!

I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!

ac15-bannerThis is no surprise to any who know me, but I sometimes slip into cynicism.  Though I have worked hard on this over the last decade, and I think I’ve improved (by that I mean I display less cynicism), but I still have work to do.

One of the things that brings out my cynicism the most is Annual Conference (AC). Because this year’s AC begins this Sunday evening, I have been giving thought to both the set of meetings and to my devolution into cynicism.

As I have already shared, I believe I am less cynical, and cynical less often, than I used to be.  I spend less time and waste less energy on cynicism than I used to.  This may be partly due to learning that as I age, I have less total energy so I want to waste less of it on being cynical.

But I’ve recently considered another possibility.

I think that, at least in my case, cynicism and lack of trust are related.  In fact, I am pretty sure they are positively correlated.

In other words, the less I trust a person or institution, the more cynical I am about it.

(I bet I am not the only one.)

If you haven’t worked it through this way, I trust the institution of the Annual Conference, in all it hierarchical and bureaucratic glory, more than I used to.

I don’t yet know if this is because the system has earned my trust, if I have become more trusting, or some combination of the two.

It may even simply be that I have more invested in the system now. I don’t think about retirement often, but even that could be in part due to my expectation that this system wil provide a fitting retirement for me following all my years of service.

My lower levels of cynicism and greater willingness to trust (I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!) may in fact be due to something else.

I currently serve as pastor of Euless First United Methodist Church. This is the largest church I’ve ever served as pastor. There are many people – many different people. All but one of whom are not me.

As pastor, anything I want to do here, any direction I want to lead, any change I feel led to call for, all relies on my ability to build trust with the congregation.

Maybe I am less cynical because I want people not to be cynical about me.

I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!