When the church plays with fire…

Every Wednesday and some Tuesdays I help with our Day School Chapel. One of my favorite times is when I help one of the children light the candles. Miss Stephanie takes the acolyte “candle-lighter” (this thing should have a fancy church name, but it doesn’t seem to) and I help steady the lighter as the children lift it up to light the candles. the kids love doing this and I think part of the reason is that they get to do what they never get to do any other time – play with fire.

Maybe you’ve had that kind of experience, but maybe not. Maybe you were like me. When you were a kid, did you ever do what everyone said you shouldn’t do? Like play with matches just to watch the power of the fire? Yeah, me neither (“cough, cough”).

Fire is a fascinating thing. It seems to have a life of its own in the way it moves and changes. And, it has the ability to change things with which it comes into contact. A fire can consume the very fabric and substance of our lives – like when a home burns. A fire can warm us on a cold night. A fire can change raw meat and vegetables into an amazing stew. It is powerful, life-changing, dangerous, and at times, unpredictable.

And that’s what makes it such a suitable image for the power of God at work in the church. It is the image that God used on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came and filled the followers of Jesus who were hiding away in fear of the authorities – and whose outlook and attitude changed once they “caught fire”. It is the image we have as United Methodist in our “cross and flame” symbol – the flame being the life of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the followers of Jesus. The Spirit is the “fire” of God within us and around us.

And with that in mind, we should remember that the advice of our childhood still applies in the life of our church – “don’t play with fire.” Don’t play. Being a follower of Jesus is not something to toy with. The Spirit of God is powerful, transformative, and often unpredictable. So, when we engage with God and ask God to fill us and mold us and move in us, we must be ready for what can happen. We can’t take it lightly. We can’t play at this thing called being the church.

I say this not to scare us, but to prepare us. Just as fire can change paper to ashes, meat and veggies to stew, and remove the impurities from a pot of gold, so the Holy Spirit can begin to change us.

I see it in the church I serve right now – Asbury UMC. I see people catching the fire of the Spirit and burning with a deep desire to help bring to reality in our world the greater Kingdom of God. I see people who can feel the power of God, but are uncertain what that fire is doing to them and in them. It is fascinating and at the same time a bit unnerving.

There are two challenges we face as we “catch fire”. One is the temptation to “play” with it. We feel the power of God, but we try to control what it does and how it changes us. It’s like being a kid and starting a fire in your backyard believing you can keep it under control and have fun with it, but soon it escapes your grasp and half the yard is up in flames. When we begin to let God move in us but then try to keep our life under our own control, then we run the danger of finding things even more out of control.

The other challenge is the one where we fear the power so much that we just snuff it out. There are times when we feel the power of God moving and it does feel uncertain and unpredictable – and we don’t like that feeling. So, we do what we can to snuff it out and keep such unpredictability as far away as possible.

So, what’s the answer? Well, the answer is to trust the master of the fire. It is God’s Holy Spirit that is at work, the Spirit that is the “fire” strangely warming our hearts. So, God is the one who is the master of the flame. The key to seeing the fire work in good and helpful ways (not to be equated with safe and predictable ways), is to trust God to let it work how it needs to work. And then, let it work.

I think about those who fight fires, in particular, those who fight the large forest fires. One of the ways they fight the fire is with fire. They will do a “controlled burn” in places so that they can make a fire break in the landscape and contain the fire. This is not fool-proof when fire is involved. However, the reason they can do this is that there are people who have studied and who seek to gain a greater understanding of fire and they can use it in ways that are helpful by giving it purpose and direction. And that is, loosely speaking, what God does in us. God is the master of the fire who can give it purpose and direction in our lives so that it changes us in good ways and gives us power to do great things.

The Church, the people who follow Jesus Christ, are being called to burn with Holy Fire – to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. It won’t feel safe. It won’t be predictable. But, the result will be an amazing work guided by the Master of the Flame.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

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