Seeing God Differently: God as Flame

by Rev. Doug Gray

During a gathering of eleven major faith traditions, someone rushed in and shouted, “The building is on fire!” A number of things began to happen:

     The Methodists gathered in a corner and had a prayer meeting.
     The Baptists cried, “Where’s the water?”
     The Presbyterians elected a chairman to appoint a committee to look into the matter.
     The Christian Scientists agreed among themselves that there was no fire.
     Some Fundamentalists shouted, “This is the vengeance of God!”
     The Lutherans, after debating for a time, posted a notice declaring that fire is evil.
     The Quakers praised God for all the blessings that fire brings us.
     The Jews posted symbols over the doors so that the fire would pass over them harmlessly.
     The Catholics passed the collection plate one more time.
     The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out grandly.
     The Congregationalists shouted, “Every one for himself!”

We are taught from when we are very small that fire is dangerous and we should stay away from hot things. And yet, Paul clearly encourages Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God.” Fortunately, in our passage Paul helps us understand what God means.

First, the fire of faith in us looks like the fire we have known in others. I saw the fire in my father’s mother, who so desired to dance before the Lord, that she would not be stopped by legs affected by a childhood disease. Much to the consternation of the pastor—my sometimes stodgy grandfather—this small, limping woman started dance choirs for youth and adults in her fellowship, infecting all with her smile and her desire to make worship move beautifully. I remember seeing the fire as a small boy, unable to sleep, I crept down the hall and saw my mother’s parents, on their knees at their bedside, reading the Bible to each other and praying. I see that fire in my dad, who is so used to showing God’s steadfast love that it’s like breathing for him. I saw that fire in my mother for her wonder and curiosity before God’s creation, and her sense there was always more to do. I saw that fire in Cynthia’s mom who I know searched for God in the quiet, whose desire to know more about the world and God’s Word eggs me on. I see that fire in my wife as she is loving and kind, thoughtful and wise as we raise our children who were beyond my wildest dreams when I had the good sense to marry her. You have seen the fire of faith in people around you—perhaps in a mother, father, grandparent, friend, perhaps in a Sunday School teacher, a coach, a mentor—someone who modeled in their lives what it means to follow God. We see the fires of faith in others and are drawn to their warmth. Paul sees this at work in Timothy when he writes, “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” As the flame burns in us, people will see some of the same character in us that burned in those we have followed. Indeed, without the fire of these mentors, we would not be here.

Second, live boldly. As we get hungrier to know God, thirstier for the Living Water, hotter for the Truth that will set us free, we lose our fear in the wonder and love of God. Paul writes, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power and of love and of self-control.” You know, I used to be scared of the dark. I mean really scared of the dark and scary movies. Then one day in youth group, we spent time with this passage. As Paul suggests, fear is not from God, so when I am afraid, or nervous, I remind myself that the spirit God gives is one which leads and acts in power, that loves always and deeply, and that helps me stay in God’s way. Shrink from something God wants us to do? Are you kidding? With God on our side, we can live full-tilt, radically loving, on the edge of what we understand, where God can mold and shape us into the bold disciples He made each of us to be.

Finally, fan our gifts into flame. The image that Paul has in mind is one anyone who has had a campfire has seen. Only embers are left, glowing red in the dark. But when we blow on the coals, or fan them, the embers glow orange and, if we keep blowing or fanning, burst into flame. The interesting thing about the expression here is that it could apply to someone who already has a good fire going, in which case, fanning the fire will act like a bellows, making the fire white hot, perfect for refining and shaping metal. In our lives, God sends the Holy Spirit to “blow” on us a wind that makes our spines tingle and our hearts pound, fanning our flames so they become more intense and more what God wants us to be.

And that’s the funny thing about faith and fire and churches. As my opening illustration suggests, a lot of churches are not very comfortable with passionate, fired-up followers of Jesus. Many churches would just as soon have a nice, reasonable approach to faith—come on Sunday, say nice words, put a little bit in the offering plate—something safe. But that is exactly what we must not do! A balanced, reasonable faith tries to do everything in moderation when what Jesus really wants is our whole heart, our whole life. Jesus is looking for more than acquaintances, for those who have thrown all they are into becoming Christ-like. Is our faith warm enough that people can warm themselves in firelight of God’s love? Is our faith warm enough that someone would want to come in out of the cold? Every day we have choices we make in our lives—will we choose the things that fan the flames of our faith, that make us more passionate followers of Christ? This week, have you closed your eyes and given thanks in gratitude for something God did for you? Have you read the Bible and asked for God to speak through what you read? Have you sat with someone and prayed together?

You know, there is a fire in this building, and not just the candles. I can see it in your eyes, and I know it is God’s Power and Presence, the strength of God’s love for you and through you. “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” There is a fire in this building, but let our cry be, “Everyone for each other!” or perhaps even better, “All of us for God.”

Heavenly Father, we pray that you would light the fire in our souls, that the warmth of great love would melt all the icy barriers we have put up to giving all we are to you! Help us love you more and more each day and look to You for our guidance and strength. O Lover of our souls, by Your Holy Spirit, increase our desire to know You better, our hunger to become more like Jesus Christ, who poured himself out serving You. Help us to know that whatever portion of ourselves we can offer to You, You will accept with a welcoming and teach us, lead us, encourage and nourish us. Draw us in, O God, and warm us by Your fire so that others might warm themselves by Your fire in us. Amen.