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The Fiery Face of God

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Exodus 3:2

Fire is an amazing phenomenon, almost like something outside of the rest of creation. Its sustenance requires three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Combining these three elements is not sufficient for a fire to actually manifest, however. There must also be an ignition source – a spark to initiate or invite the fire to begin. Fire, like electricity, is neither good nor bad; rather, fire can produce either good or bad results. Fire can heat a home, cook a meal, and provide soothing light; fire can also reduce a home to ashes or burn a person beyond recognition.

God manifests as fire in numerous places in the Bible. In Exodus, God appears to Moses as a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. God leads the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:22). Psalm 29:7 proclaims, “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.” The New Testament author of Hebrews writes, “…for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). You get the picture: one of the faces of God is fire.

The ancient science of Alchemy used fire to purify metals like gold and silver. The art of the practice was to apply the right amount of heat to a substance in order to burn away the impurities without consuming the precious metal. Considering alchemy in an allegorical sense, God is the divine alchemist applying fire to us in order to burn away that which is unhelpful in us. The difficult, challenging, and painful times of our lives can be seen as a divine torch, burning away our narcissism, humbling us, and sometimes driving us to our knees in a cry for mercy. While I do not believe God rains hard times down upon us – we do that to ourselves – I do believe God takes what remains and stands ready to remake us anew. In the sense that one of the faces of God is fire, that fire is a resurrecting fire. Unfortunately, some measure of destruction is necessary for resurrection to occur, so the initial phases of the rebirthing process often feel more like a punishing fire from hell.

A legendary bird, the Phoenix, was said to live until reaching a certain stage of decline when it would simply burst into flame, reducing itself to ashes, only to rise again as a new creation from those very ashes. It is a mythical example of the pervasive cycle of life: birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. A more down to earth example occurs annually in the Flint Hills of Kansas, which are burned to black stubble every spring, only to be reborn to an iridescent green a short time later. The centuries-old practice of prairie burning purges the old growth, replenishes the nutrients in the ground, and clears the way for the rebirth of the prairie.

The analogy of God manifesting as fire assures us that our God is not an emotionless bystander. Fire is symbolic of passion and action. God’s love for us is fierce and tenacious. We do not consciously experience the fiery love of God because we are seldom in a state of sufficient awareness to recognize it. Regardless, God’s love burns brightly for each of us. The creator in God recycles all the elements of the earth in a never-ending dance of recreation, molding new combinations and rebirthing the old. Nothing is wasted, ever – no experience, no element, no being. When necessary, God manifests as a consuming fire, forcing the old to release the elements of its construction in order to allow a new creation to enter.

One face of God is fire – feel the burn…

Note: this is the tenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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Been There, Done That

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  John 17:1b-3

Today is Holy Thursday, the day the church remembers the Last Supper and the betrayal by Judas. Jesus and his disciples gather in a room for the Passover meal. Jesus washes their feet and gives them a new commandment – to love one another. Finally, he establishes a new covenant, one indemnified by his body and blood. Christians know the rest of the gruesome story – the sham trials, beatings, flogging, crown of thorns, carrying his cross, and the crucifixion. There are many lessons of importance here, including these two: (1) Jesus came so we could know God through him; and (2) Jesus suffered so we would know that God understands our pain.

A common illustration of the generation gap occurs when a parent tells a suffering child, “I know what you are going through.” Children do not believe it. They believe the world has changed dramatically since their parents were kids, so parents cannot possibly understand contemporary challenges. Our children do not grasp that although time may put new clothes on life’s challenges, the essence of the experience does not change. Similarly, some may assume God cannot understand our pain because Jesus’ trials were 2000 years ago. Suffering is suffering, however, regardless of age, socio-economic status, geographic location, or any other variable. Pain is an equal opportunity experience. Jesus suffered horribly near the end, both physically and emotionally. No matter what we go through, we have assurance that God has experienced it, because God was there in Jesus. And God is with us today. In order to finish his “work” on earth, God-in-Jesus experienced the worst. Jesus went through death’s door and came back to show that death is not the end. Our suffering will end, but our existence continues. Hope springs eternal.

Jesus drew all people to himself – the outcasts, the poor, the sick, the foreigners, and the unpopular. He knew what we only pretend to know, that higher levels of life and truth must contain and embrace all lower levels. We cannot overcome evil by ostracizing it, nor can we overcome suffering by ignoring its existence. We overcome less-than-desirable parts of our lives by loving them, by living a better way, and by accepting all into our circle of awareness and blessing. Jesus invites us to bring our earthly trials and lay them at the foot of his cross, where he will bear them with us. We are not alone. He has been there and done that. At the Last Supper, Jesus told us to remember – remember he has been there; remember this life is not all there is; remember we are loved beyond imagination. There is light on the other side of the cross.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be there and do that.

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Christian Values: Love 

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34a-35 

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned. –Song of Solomon 8:6-7

The number one value mentioned in the Bible, according to research done by Ben MacConnell – no surprise to anyone – is love. The command to love one another is one of the few passages repeated by Jesus in all four of the Gospels. The word love has many meanings in the English language, most of which involve some degree of affection. The Biblical usage of love, however, usually implies caring for the needs of another, and does not commonly imply romance, desire, or even familiarity. For example, in Luke 10, Jesus is discussing the commandment to love our neighbors, and he illustrates that type of love with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, a traveler shows love by caring for a man in need that he does not know. In Luke 6:35, Jesus says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Clearly, Jesus’ concept of love is more inclusive than the exclusive types of love we read of in fairy tales and romance novels.

It is not surprising that love encompasses many other important Christian values. Great acts of love are often also great acts of service. For example, when a soldier dives on a live grenade to prevent the shrapnel from injuring his or her comrades, the soldier has performed a selfless act of both service and love. Other noteworthy acts of love are done for the cause of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr., comes to mind as a person whose tremendous love manifested in his passion for achieving a more just society.

Love is the life-blood of our existence. Just as the blood flowing through our veins carries the nutrients required to sustain life, so love nourishes and animates our being. When blood stops flowing, death is imminent. Without the passion and energy provided by love, our lives become mind-numbingly dull. Love is a raging flame that floods cannot drown, according to the passage from the Song of Solomon. Love makes a house a home; love turns business associates into a family; love makes strangers feel welcomed and valued; and love inspires a couple to bind their lives together into one life. Love brings happiness and purpose into our lives, and then spills over to bless others. Some say God is love. I agree. Without love infusing our words and actions, our lives will lack purpose, joy, and meaning. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Love may not be all we need, as the old Beatles song implies, but everything we do and say requires love to attain its highest potential for good.

Come home to church this Sunday. Make your discipleship known by showing your love.

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Committed Love

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:12-13

There is a popular fable about a chicken and a pig. It goes like this:  A chicken wants to open a restaurant with a pig. The pig asks what they would serve, and the chicken says, “Ham and eggs, of course.” The pig replies, “No thanks. You might be involved, but I would be committed.” The story is a light-hearted illustration of the difference between involvement and commitment. The chicken’s involvement requires giving up the eggs it lays. The pig’s commitment requires giving its life to provide the ham.

Some employers classify their employees as those who are compliant and those who are committed. Compliant people are those who do what is expected or asked of them, but little more. They seldom take work home, nor will they willingly work extra hours or stray outside of their job descriptions. They are dependable, but not particularly loyal to or passionate about their work. Committed employees, on the other hand, are on fire for their profession and organization. They constantly think of new ways to excel at what they do in order to further the mission of the company. They work extra hours, often without being asked, and readily fill in wherever needed. They are loyal and zealous.

The difference between involvement and commitment is of sacrificial proportion. Both are important and require a measure of sacrifice, but differ in the degree of sacrifice offered. The first sentence in passage from John reminds me of the chicken. To love another requires a sacrifice – giving up something of value to us to serve someone else. A loving sacrifice could be donating one’s time to serve at a soup kitchen. The second sentence from John makes me think of the pig – giving up one’s life in service to another. Of course, giving up one’s life could mean dying for a cause, as a soldier might do for his or her country. It can also mean dedicating one’s life to a cause, as in the case of Mother Teresa. Either way, committed persons give up significant rights to the course of their own lives in order to serve a higher purpose. It is easy for me to list a number of areas where I am involved. It is much more difficult, however, to show where I am truly committed. In the fable of the Chicken and the Pig, both animals provide necessary resources for ham and eggs. What the chicken provides, however, is available in an ongoing way that does not require the chicken’s life. The pig, on the other hand, can only provide its contribution to breakfast one time. John’s passage tells us there is need for both involved and committed Christians in the service of Christ.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be involved, or be committed – but be there.

Greg Hildenbrand

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Life Notes—April 4, 2013 

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’  You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”  Revelation 3:15-17

I find this passage from the Revelation of John fascinating, in a troubling way.  I would describe a lukewarm person as a sort of middle-of-the-road, let’s not rock the boat, and let’s not take a strong stand type of person.  And I worry I may be lukewarm.  I like to keep my options open.  I try not to cause unnecessary offense, and I want to be liked by people.  I seldom raise my voice, either in anger or in joy.  Does that sound lukewarm?  In my Christian beliefs I tend to be skeptical. When I see someone doing something I believe to be sinful my first response is seldom condemnation.  I do not believe many bible writings are as clear-cut as they initially seem, or as others might believe.  I believe the Bible was inspired by God through humans, not dictated to scribes to be written down verbatim.  As such, scripture is to be wrestled with, contemplated and revisited time after time.  And in that wrestling a relationship develops.  I believe God is mysterious and defies our efforts to limit who and what God is, and how and why and when God acts.  I am not comfortable with those who feel, speak or act as if they have God figured out.  And so I am reluctant to pretend I do.  Does that make me a lukewarm Christian?

Personally, I do not consider myself a lukewarm anything.  I consider myself passionate and even zealous at times, although I am not often outwardly demonstrative.  Sometimes people confuse passion with raw emotion or impulsivity.  Is a person lukewarm because they do not fly off the handle at every perceived slight?  That is certainly not the picture scripture paints of Christ.  He was intentionally direct in his criticism of those who led others astray, like the scribes and Pharisees. He attended to those in need, providing healing and teaching in his humble, unassuming way.  When he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple (John 2:14-16) Christ showed what may have been raw anger.  But for the most part, the Bible portrays Jesus as a man under control, at least outwardly—patiently and compassionately showing others a better way.  Even during his agonizing crucifixion he sought the forgiveness of his persecutors.  He personified great passion.  We are called to be passionate Christians, expressing that passion in the ways we are gifted to express, showing others the better way we have found.

Tom preaches downtown where Life worship is at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary.  Reverend Sharon Howell will be installed as Pastor Emeritus at the downtown services.  Mitch is preaching at the west campus where worship is at 9:00 and 11:00. Communion will be served at all services.

Come home to church this Sunday.  Come hot or come cold, but come…

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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