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!

Pentecost: When God’s Kingdom comes to you!

Here is the manuscript of my sermon for this past Sunday. It was Pentecost. The scripture readings were Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 

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For seven weeks now we have been focusing on the presence of God’s Kingdom.

Many have been sold a bill of goods that eternal life is only about what happens after you die.

Just because someone is selling a bill of goods doesn’t mean you have to buy it.

Jesus never offered eternal life as something you pick up or receive after you die. He said that he came that we might live life to the fullest (John 10:10)  Jesus himself defined eternal life this way, in his prayer for his followers in John 17:  This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. (verse 3)

And this “living life to the fullest” and this “knowing the obly true God and Jesus Christ whom God sent” become real – reachable, attainable, graspable – for us in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Jesus being raised from the dead means that God’s victory over death starts now!

Or, more accurately, Jesus being raised from the dead means that God’s victory over death started almost 2,000 years ago.

And, just in case this isn’t clear, God’s victory over death isn’t just for God: it is for us!

It is for God because God created humans for fellowship – for partnership in caring for the beautiful world God has given us to live in! But it is also for us because God loves us and wants us to learn to live in the freedom and joy that comes from living as we were created to live in the first place!

This is why we are invited daily – maybe even more often than that – to come, enter the Kingdom! Because this is what God wants for us.

And we have all seen the Kingdom of God.  Many of us, if not all of us have spent some time there.  Many of us have had the great pleasure of opening the presence of God’s Kingdom to others and then received the indescribable joy of watching them, listening to them know the love of their Creator!

You’ve been there!

  • You volunteer in so many ways at South Euless Elementary.
  • You collect change to support the United Community Centers in Fort Worth.
  • You teach Sunday School
  • You help feed people at Arlington Life Shelter.
  • You travel up to 14 hours to spend a week sleeping on floors and taking cold showers to serve people you’ve never met.
  • You sing in the choir.
  • You work harder than your doctor probably wants you to to stock our Food Pantry and to serve food to those who, for WHATEVER reason humble themselves to come here looking for food.
  • You visit people in prison.
  • You smoke hams in December.
  • You serve in dozens of different ways in your church and community because you feel like following Jesus calls us beyond ourselves.

You’ve SEEN God’s Kingdom from here.  You’ve BEEN God’s Kingdom from here.

Ah, but today, today, we raise the bar.

Today we celebrate that God lives IN us.  With us ALWAYS and FOREVER.

Today, we welcome the Holy Spirit – our Companion, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth!

Today we celebrate Pentecost, derived from the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which was held 7 weeks following Passover.

You probably know this story: it was read for us this morning from Acts 2.  It’s known sometimes as “the birthday of the Church.”

Church starts when the Holy Spirit shows up. We traditionally remember this every Sunday with the presence of the open flame – on candles – on the table.

When, the Holy Spirit showed up “ They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.” Then they heard them all speak in other languages.

There’s a lot to be made of speaking in tongues. There’s a lot of debate about speaking in tongues.  While I enjoy discussion over differences, and sometimes even debate, today isn’t about debate.  Today is about the Holy Spirit coming and empowering us to live in the Kingdom of God now.

So whatever you think of speaking in tongues, look what happened thereby: people gathered from the known world ALL heard the good news!

May you and I, by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, speak the Good News so that everyone may understand it!

May those who feel trampled on by all us religious folk be able to hear the good news through us!

May those who feel trampled by the world: economic, political, whatever, be able to hear the good news through us!

May those who do not have family or friends close enough to consider family be able to hear the good news through us!

May those estranged from their parents, or estranged from their children, be able to hear the good news through us!

May those dogged by addiction be able to hear the good news through us!

May those bearing the weight of depression be able to hear the good news through us!

May the hypocrite in each of us be able to hear the good news through us!

May the ones among us who feel they’ve been part of the church too long to actually open themselves to the kind of change and healing God and God alone can bring be able to hear the good news through us!

The Holy Spirit is here, among us! God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. (John 3:8)

The Spirit took Peter to the book of Joel (from the Old Testament):

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Two more points, then I’ll let you out of this thing.  First, let’s go back to the reason all these folks were in Jerusalem to begin with.  The Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. referenced in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy (Exodus 23 & 34, Leviticus 23, and Deuteronomy 16) came to mark both the celebration of thanksgiving for the grain harvest and  of Moses’ returning from Mt. Sinai with the law.

Here’s how Deuteronomy explains it:

Count out seven weeks, starting the count from the beginning of the grain harvest. At that point, perform the Festival of Weeks for the Lord your God. Offer a spontaneous gift in precise measure with the blessing the Lord your God gives you. Then celebrate in the presence of the Lord your God—you, your sons, your daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites who live in your cities, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows who are among you—in the location the Lord your God selects for his name to reside. Remember how each of you was a slave in Egypt, so follow these regulations most carefully. (Deuteronomy 16:9-12)

Offer a spontaneous gift in precise measure with the blessing the Lord your God gives you. Then celebrate in the presence of the Lord your God….

So, these people had come from all over the known world: Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs. They were here to offer a spontaneous gift “in precise measure with the blessing” God had given them.

What blessings has God given you?  What would offering a “spontaneous gift in precise measure” look like?

All these people had come to do their duty, their religious duty. Shavuot was one of three annual festivals jewish men were expected to come to Jerusalem to celebrate. They came as they had likely come many times before.

They came to give to God “in precise measure” according to how God had blessed them.

They came to give, and in return they received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

They couldn’t outgive God.  We cannot outgive God.

Today is Pentecost. We celebrate and remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, our Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.

The law expected God’s people to give back in precise measure as they had been blessed by God.

And then, God blesses them beyond their imagination with the Holy Spirit. The indwelling of the very presence of God.

They all heard and they all understood in their own language, in a way that they each could accept and receive.

Ok.  I think that’s a lot to grasp.  Let’s take a moment before concluding.

Take a moment just to breathe.

In. Out. Slow breathe, deep breathe.  Repeat.

Did you know that the average human takes 26,000 breaths a day? While we ought to breath deeply and take 4-6 breaths per minute, most of us breath shallow quick breaths at a rate of 15 per minute.

No matter how fast or slow, how deep or shallow you breathe, if you stop breathing you stop living.

Here’s a funny thing about that – about breathing – that I want you to know today.  Breath and Spirit are closer than you think.

In fact, in both Hebrew and Greek, the words from which we get “breath” and “spirit” are related.

So much so, in fact, that in Psalm 51:11, which says, “Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me,” the word translated “spirit” is the same word as “breath.”

Here it is in context:

Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.

Could the Holy Spirit be God breathing into you?

Remember in Genesis 2, where God creates the first humans?  What does God do after they were formed out of the dust?  Breathed the breath of life into them.

No breath, no life.

And breath and spirit come from the same word.  Breath and spirit come from the same place.

Every time you breathe in, you welcome the gift of life that God has given you. Every time you breathe in, you can also welcome the Holy Spirit.

Please notice that life is more than just breathing in all the time.  If you breathe in, you must also breathe out.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come into us, like breath, to be held, but to be let out, to be shared.

Take a moment just to breathe.

In. Out. Slow breathe, deep breathe.  Repeat.

Let us pray

Pentecost: When God’s Kingdom comes to you!

Leadership Meadership

I had a sadly disturbing conversationleadership recently.

I did much more listening than talking in this particular conversation, but that’s not what made it sad or disturbing.

I was visiting with someone considerably older than I and someone who is close to death. This person is aware that death is near, and is, for the most part, at peace with this knowledge.

So I listened to quite a few stories.  Like most of us, this person tells stories about success and accomplishment. This person has quite a history of leadership.

This person also has quite a history of brokenness.  Raised by parents, various counties, and extended family, this person fought through this adversity to, as the stories tell it, successfully raise 4 kids.

I really wanted to find a story of healthy relationship or hope, so I asked, “You’re obviously quite a leader.  Where did you learn your leadership abilities?”

It didn’t take 2 seconds before a rather sharp, strong, “Myself!” was blurted out as an answer.

Which really saddens me.

I don’t know exactly where I rank on any leadership scale, but I know the value of leadership. I’m pretty sure I’ve learned and grown a great deal in my leadership abilities since my first ministry job in 1984.

A lot of that learning and growth has been pushing and stretching and trying and failing.  Myself.

But almost everything I’ve tried and failed (or succeeded) and most everything that has pushed, pulled, or stretched me has some source outside myself.

I believe recognizing this makes me a better leader.

Whatever leadership I have gained, it has all come in knowing that I am, at the same time, following someone else.

So, while there is an “I” in leadership, there is no “me.”

I hope I find the grace to offer this the next time I have a conversation with this person.

Leadership Meadership

What we can (must?) learn from the Bloods and Crips.

On this day, April 28, in 1992, the Bloods and the Crips, rival gangs in Los Angeles, declared a truce.

This was the day before the riots started in response to the not guilty verdict in the trial of police accused of beating Rodney King.

This is not written about what is happening now in Baltimore, or these days around the country. This post is not about police violence or the violence in communities that leads to police violence.

This post is about peace. Or at least truce.  The Bloods and the Crips can lay down their arms, their hatred, their distrust, their contradictory narratives of who is a fault or who is right and who is wrong.

They could stop fighting each other. They could, and did, stop killing each other.

It makes me wonder. Ooh, it makes me wonder.

Can Tea Partiers and Progressives stop fighting each other?

Can Republicans and Democrats stop fighting each other?

Can Sunni and Shia stop fighting each other?

Can evangelical Christians and progressive Christians stop fighting each other?

Can opposing factions in The United Methodist Church stop fighting each other?

Let’s see if we can learn this simple lesson from history: that on April 28, 1992, the Bloods and the Crips stopped fighting.

What we can (must?) learn from the Bloods and Crips.