Fan the Flame

By Chuck Griffin

One of my favorite movies is “Jeremiah Johnson,” the story of a man in the mid-19th century who sets out to be a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. His first winter is bitterly cold, with knee-deep snow his constant environment.

Early on, he attempts to start a fire in a driving snowstorm, his only shelter some bent pine boughs. With nearly frozen hands, he gets the fire going using flint, steel and tinder. Then he fans the flames with his hat, creating enough of a blaze that he can begin to add larger pieces of wood.

   It is of course at this moment that a chunk of snow breaks loose from the trees above, smothering the flame.

   The scene reminds me a lot of the Christian life. The flame inside us rises. It even burns brightly!

   And then out of nowhere, something in the world turns it all into a steaming, hissing mess. Despite the old saying about a snowball’s chance, there must be giant snowballs in hell, because the devil seems to throw a lot of them.

   I thought of the scene as I read some words the Apostle Paul wrote to a young pastor named Timothy.

   “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline,” Paul writes in the first chapter of his second letter to Timothy.

   Scholars debate this, but I think it’s pretty clear that Timothy received his letter because Paul got word that the young church leader was not standing up for the truth about Christ as strongly as he should. The letter states plainly that there were troublemakers in the midst of Timothy’s church, people who got others upset with their “profane chatter” about their improper notions regarding the resurrection.

   Paul simply was reminding his protege that while God gives us the fire within—our salvation and the ensuing gifts from the Holy Spirit that empower us—we are responsible for fanning the flames so they burn fiercely. We fan those flames by staying close to God and using whatever gifts we are given to fulfill the roles God assigns us.

   Paul’s message tells us to have a little grit, some gumption, when facing people and a spiritual realm opposed to God. What do you do day-by-day in your own special way to challenge that snowball-tossing Satan and his minions?

   By the way, Jeremiah Johnson, while frustrated, brushes away the snow and begins the fire-making process again. He knows he has the spark and tinder in hand; he also has the fortitude to keep using it, fanning the flames.

   That’s why he survives, and later even thrives.

Dear Lord, source of all real strength, may your Spirit lift us up and empower us when faced with adversity. Amen.

Ongoing Concern

By Chuck Griffin

Philippians 2:12-18 (NRSV)

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Few pastors in our Western culture have been chained in prison like Paul, but I suspect most of us who have left a beloved church understand the poignancy of his message to the Christians at Philippi.

Even as we move on to new ministry settings, we want so much for those we led before. We pray their spiritual lives were on an upward trajectory as we left, and we pray they have continued in such a direction.

Paul was still able to advise the Philippians, if only in a letter dictated from his cell. In this part of the letter, Paul encouraged them to maintain that constant tension all Christians need to feel. Yes, it is God who does the work of salvation, and it is God who is at work in us to bring us toward holiness. But simultaneously, we also have work to do, reaching out toward God and each other to accept the grace so freely poured out through Jesus Christ.

As John Wesley wrote, “First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works; therefore you must work.”

Because of the value of the gift, eternal life, we are to take our very mild share of the responsibility quite seriously, enough so that we trigger both an emotional and a physical response.

Much of our work is rooted in the avoidance of evil and the pursuit of good. Paul described the dangerous people in the world as “crooked and perverse,” at this point feeling no need to define the specifics of crookedness and perversity.

With the Holy Spirit working through the gracious revelation of Scripture and within us, it should not be difficult for a committed Christian to spot what is crooked and what is perverse. That remains true today, even as the world tries to make up new definitions to suit itching ears.

Heavenly Father, as we move into the weekend and toward Palm Sunday, help us to work on our salvation to the point where we do experience fear and trembling. We know your Holy Spirit will comfort us quickly enough, giving us loving assurance we are your children. Amen.

The Work

We preach Christ crucified.

2 Timothy 4:1-5 (NRSV)

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Lately, when I hear this passage quoted, the focus seems to be on the people who will not put up with sound doctrine, the ones who seek out teachers who simply confirm what is comfortable.

Certainly, that’s a problem today. But it’s also pretty easy to argue that itching ears and wandering hearts have been around since the earliest days of the church. We cannot bring people to Jesus Christ simply by pointing out what stands against the Christian message.

Instead, let’s focus on what Paul told the young pastor Timothy to do. Be persistent in following God’s call, which is placed upon all Christians.

This passage reminds me of an encounter with a church member I had several years ago, when President Barack Obama was running for a second term. The parishioner revealed his political stance when he grabbed my sleeve and asked me, “Pastor Chuck! What are we going to do if Obama is re-elected?”

“Well,” I responded, “I guess we should do exactly what we should do if he loses. We will preach Jesus.”

Times may be favorable or unfavorable, and people may have a lot of trouble agreeing on our current status. But for Christians, our work remains simple.

First, we unhesitatingly declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, using the Holy Bible to expand upon that core truth. We present that beautiful message of love and grace to nonbelievers as attractively as we can without compromising the call to holiness that goes with it.

And within the church, the body of believers, we live in mutual accountability, ensuring we are growing in our faith and love.

Paul described a simple mandate, one that should be easy to remember.

Lord, help us today to consider when we last went to work for you, what fruits we bore, and what opportunities might lie before us. Amen.

On Task

Acts 15:36-41 (NLT)

After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.

There’s no real way to determine who was right in the argument Paul and Barnabas had about taking John Mark along on a second journey. In searching for an answer, I could spend all day discussing topics like immaturity, loyalty, grace, forgiveness and unity, and I would never get to the important point.

The mission of the church comes first.

The disagreement these two apostles had was so sharp that their basic tasks of growing the church and encouraging continuing discipleship were imperiled. Remember, there were vast territories needing to hear about Christ and infant churches full of questions, but very few apostles to do the work.

Rather than letting the disagreement slow them further, they went their separate ways, Barnabas taking his cousin John Mark, and Paul choosing Silas to travel with him.

I have no doubt both men felt great pain as they separated. They had, after all, been through much together.

But again, the mission of the church comes first.

Why the Holy Spirit did not intervene in some way in a dream, a vision or a miracle, I cannot say. In some ways it is comforting to know that in the earliest days of the church, God sometimes left people to experience their emotions, think matters through and come up with difficult answers on their own. In terms of kingdom building, something about this process must be valuable.

It’s not hard to see how this passage relates to the current situation of the United Methodist Church and its internal argument over scriptural authority and application. We are at an impasse, sometimes a sharp one. And the mission of the church still has to come first.

Be encouraged, however. What we’ve heard from Acts today is not the end of the story. Christ somehow managed to bring Paul and John Mark together later in life.

Writing from prison in Rome nearly two decades later, Paul asked Timothy, “Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11.) This brief request is clear evidence something changed as John Mark grew up and Paul grew old.

As painful as conflict can be, people genuinely dedicated to the mission of the church will find themselves restored in their relationships, in this life or the next. I feel certain this is true.

Lord, may we always remain dedicated to the Great Commission, the need to lead people to a belief in Jesus Christ and grow them as disciples. We give thanks for all who make this their first priority. Amen.

Four Parts of Worship: Word

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

From an ancient church perspective, the sermon and all the Scripture-based events surrounding it come surprisingly late in American worship. In a fourfold worship structure, “Word” follows “Gathering.” I’m not suggesting we change the order of worship, but let’s be certain Scripture is fully present!

Hearing God’s word is the best way to encounter God routinely in a group setting. When a direct encounter with God occurs early in worship, the rest of worship happens in a highly focused manner.

Use of God’s written word to reveal God’s truth goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church, when the words we translate as “scripture” or “word of God” were references to the Jewish Bible, the writings we now group under the Old Testament.

Consider these references from letters that later became part of the New Testament:

2 Timothy 3:14-17: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Hebrews 4:12-13: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

James 1:21-22: “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

In these verses, we see God’s word as living and powerful, something that flows through the pages of a Bible and into a reader. Open the Bible, use what is there, and you’ll find yourself equipped in new ways. God’s word will dissect you, exposing what is of God and not of God. It will even implant itself in your soul, bringing you face to face with salvation through Jesus Christ.

Root worship in Scripture, and we encounter the Holy Spirit as a group, an experience that should always strengthen us.

Fail to root worship in Scripture, and I think it is safe to say we have not worshiped at all.

Lord, as we find ourselves denied worship in the ways we most enjoy, help us to remain deep in your word, committing ourselves to it now and for the worship days to come. Amen.

Seven Churches: False Teachings

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Revelation 2:12-29

As we continue our exploration of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation, let’s deal with the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira together.

In appearance, they were significantly different cities. Pergamum officially was the provincial capital of the Roman Empire, described in other sources as a wealthy and beautiful city. Thyatira lay about 45 miles to the east, and while not considered a great city, it was very commercial, undergirded by a network of trade guilds.

The churches within these cities had the same basic problem. False teaching had made its way inside.

Paganism surrounding the churches exacerbated their situations. Pergamum was a city known for pagan temples set aside for the worship of the Roman emperor and other supposed deities. Several of these temples offered sex with temple priestesses as part of their rituals. No wonder John the Revelator referred to Pergamum as the “city where Satan has his throne.”

In Thyatira, the trade guilds each had a particular patron deity, and their festivals also emphasized sexual revelry. In both cities, there also would have been the consumption of food sacrificed to idols, which implied participation in unholy worship.

These were tough places for Christians to try to live out their basic commitments to marriage as described by Jesus and the apostles. Most people around them would have questioned the Christians’ unwillingness to participate in premarital and extramarital sex.

I have no doubt that at some point, more than one person said to the Christians, “Hey, everybody is doing it!” In our sex-saturated culture, we should certainly understand the struggle, assuming we take our own commitments to Christ seriously.

It’s also not hard to see how dynamic, alluring liars could begin to deceive these churches, convincing their members it was okay to hang out at the temples, fully enjoy the festivities and still be in good standing with Christ. As in any era, it was a message some church members were itching to hear.

In Pergamum, the lies seem to have been carried into the church by organized heretical sects, while in Thyatira, Christ’s condemnation fell upon one false prophet in particular, a woman referred to as “Jezebel” in an Old Testament allusion.

Regardless of who led these Christians toward sin, the solution was simple, these letters said. Repent—stop doing what Jesus and his apostles taught is wrong. And then cling to doing what is right, knowing you will receive your eternal reward!

As old-fashioned as the formula may sound, it remains the best advice for today.

Lord, thank you for the well-established Scripture we now have to clearly instruct us about your will in all things. Where we have been wrong as individuals and churches, may we repent, and may we follow your teachings closely as we proceed. Amen.

Means of Grace, Day 1

By Chuck Griffin
Editor, LifeTalk

Acts 1:8 (NLT): “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”

In my Sunday sermon at Holston View United Methodist Church, I mentioned what are sometimes called the “means of grace.” That’s a very Methodist phrase for spiritual practices that create an encounter with God.

An encounter with God should bring about very positive change, of course. I would compare the offer God is making us to a rich man saying, “Any time you come to the corner of Church and Clonce streets, I will give you a bag of cash.” We likely would go to that obscure intersection quite often.

God is offering us much more, saying, “Meet me in these spiritual practices, and I will mold you for eternal life, letting you experience its joy now.” All the cash on the planet cannot match the value of eternal life! If we can better grasp what is being offered, we will regularly engage in these spiritual practices.

John Wesley talked about many different ways we can encounter God, but I’m going to focus the rest of the week on what he called “works of piety.” We will begin with the tremendous impact Scripture can have on our lives.

Paul told a young pastor in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” And Paul was referencing just the Old Testament—remember, as he wrote this letter, he was creating an early piece of what would become the New Testament.

Bibles used to be hard to come by, but that’s no longer true in our digital culture. We can carry multiple translations on our phones, and if you have a little trouble reading—for example, I have friends with dyslexia—there are audio versions.

We also need to be sure we are working from a plain-English translation we can understand. Again, there are many options. I’m particularly fond of the New Living Translation, and Bible Gateway will let you explore a huge list of translations.

With all the resources we have available, encountering God in Scripture mostly is about taking time out of our too-busy lives.

The Bible is a library, meaning you cannot read it the way you would read a novel, but if you’ve never read it from start to finish, I would encourage you to do so. It helps to start with the big picture, understanding the library and its broad themes. Read just three chapters a day, and you’ll finish in a little more than a year. Don’t get bogged down on the lists, like the census data in the Book of Numbers. Where necessary, skim!

You will walk away with a deeper understanding of some basic truths. God is our creator. Creation rebelled by sinning, rejecting God’s will. God loves his creation so much, however, that he began to work to restore us, despite our sins. Through a particular people, the Israelites, a savior eventually came into the world, God among us in flesh. He died to free us from sin, and then rose from the dead to prove his victory. The Spirit of God sustains us now, until such time as God completes his work and we are restored to him in full.

Once you have those concepts in mind, you can dive into the individual books and letters, developing a deeper understanding of these life-changing truths. We are talking about a lifetime of study—you just keep going deeper and deeper.

It does take a little work to learn to process Scripture. The chapter numbers and verse numbers, which are not in the original manuscripts, make the Bible look like a book full of rules to be cited, but don’t be misled. There are powerful stories and mysteries to meditate upon. God wants to use all of Scripture to reach deep within our souls, helping us understand there’s so much more to life than what we simply have experienced.

It also is good to come alongside more experienced Christians. Find a small group of people committed to continuing the great traditions of the church as they delve into the gift God has given us all.

The other means of grace we will consider this week are prayer, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and participation in the life of the church. Stay with me this week. I pray we will see how all of this comes together to give us a much fuller experience of God.

Lord, may your word work in us in new ways, making us better equipped to be citizens of your eternal kingdom. Amen.