Tag Archives: maturity

Feel The Burn

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When I began my weight loss journey last August, I began to practice the discipline of exercising. When I first began to use those muscles that hadn’t been used in a long time it felt like I was pushing lead through fire. My muscles burned and my fat began burning, but getting started from nothing was an incredibly difficult and painful process. As followers of Jesus, we are being refined and purified to better reflect Jesus to the world around us. As we experience that refining process we experience pain and resistance from within and without. In today’s scripture Peter reminds us that this experience of trials is normal and will continue as long as we are being refined by God.

12 Dear ones, don’t be surprised when you experience your trial by fire. It is not something strange and unusual, 13 but it is something you should rejoice in. In it you share the Anointed’s sufferings, and you will be that much more joyful when His glory is revealed. 14 If anyone condemns you for following Jesus as the Anointed One, consider yourself blessed. The glorious Spirit of God rests on you. 15 But none of you should ever merit suffering like those who have murdered or stolen, meddled in the affairs of others or done evil things. 16 But if you should suffer for being a Christian, don’t think of it as a disgrace, as it would be if you had done wrong. Praise God that you’re permitted to carry this name. 17 For the time for judgment has come, and it is beginning with the household of God. If it is starting with us, what will happen to those who have rejected God’s good news? 1 Peter 4:12-17

There are a number of translation choices that have been made on the trial by fire but to make things clear the word behind that choice implies testing by exposure to flame. In the ancient world, a heating process was used to test materials to see if something was worth refining or to determine the degree of purity in an already refined metal. This reference could also refer to the refining of precious metals like gold or silver which required repeated exposure to high temperatures to separate out impure elements. I am fairly sure that the text is actually referring to both the process of refining and the process of testing. To make absolutely pure Gold or silver requires multiple instances of melting, skimming off impurities, cooling, and melting again. There are numerous references in Hebrew and Christian writing about the ways God refines us that use the language of refining precious metals. When we look at the ore that is pulled from the ground to make gold or silver it looks nothing even remotely like the end product. No, it looks like an ugly, dense chunk of worthless rock that just needs to be tossed out of the way. God however is the greatest prospector who knows that after being smelted and refined this ugly, dense, chunk of worthless looking rock will mirror His glory.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I forget that I am not the one who controls the refining or testing processes. I want the process to be over quickly and confuse the burning glow of molten rock with the glory of God shining out and think that the process is over. There is a big problem when we think we get to determine when the refining process ends. We can feel betrayed by God because we think we have arrived, or worse, we can think that since we are further along in our refining we can dictate the process to others. We can invite others into the crucible with us, but we don’t get to choose which impurities get removed first. Since we are the ore as well we also don’t get to choose which chunks of ore get refined together. God, the master refiner, is the one to decide what needs to go together to make the most accurate reflection. He is the one that knows what the final product looks like, and it is in the suffering of being refined that we are conformed into more perfect reflections of Jesus.

When the fire is on us, the impurities rise to the surface and we have a choice. We can let God skim those impurities off and show his grace, mercy, and the truth of His forgiveness or we can allow those impurities to sink back down below the surface to mar us and impede our ability to shine. I chose to depend on food for comfort rather than God and ate my anger, ate my frustration, ate my fear for 30 years before the heat got turned up hot enough for me to turn to God for comfort and express my emotions in a healthier way. I resisted the change I needed to make me better reflect Christ’s image, and I am sure that an anonymous poll of this room would lead to everyone saying pretty much the same thing. We resist the pain of being refined, but God desires to fully reveal the beauty he has made within us and will not give up on refining us. It is when we suffer and can say with Jesus “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” that we reflect God’s glory most clearly to the world around us. When the early Christians faced public execution and audibly forgave those killing them it had an effect on everyone who witnessed and participated in those killings. When that depth of Christlikeness was shown, Christianity spread like wildfire.

Peter reminds us that we need to celebrate those times when the heat comes on and no impurities rise to the surface and accept the fire of refining to remove our impurities. Now when Peter lists the things we need to not be happy about suffering for the list starts out making perfect sense and as I read it the first time my internal monologue went “Murder – nope, stolen – no problem, meddled in the affairs of others – crud, really – crud.” The list is pretty easy until we get to that one, and boy can that one hit hard. One of the ways we try to take the heat off of us is by redirecting the heat onto someone else. We say things in our minds like “I know I have my flaws but wow that flaw in someone else really needs to be dealt with.” or even “Well, now that I have so much less impurities that other person really needs the flame more than I do.” The reality is of course the opposite. The closer you get to purity the hotter the flame needed to refine you further. In the refining process every step is hotter, and the testing process is similar. You start out at a lower temperature flame to get rid of the dross, if imperfections show at this lower testing it is the lowest quality and is sent back to be refined. But the purity is shown when the hottest flames bring out no impurities, so the closer you get to the process ending the harder the test of proof required and the hotter the flame to refine. There is some hope here for those who, like Peter’s audience, are experiencing the hottest flames of testing. It means that we are getting ever closer to clearly reflecting the image of Christ.

The testing Peter was addressing is that of persecution and really, we don’t face that here. Inconvenience, maybe, but not outright persecution. We don’t face complete alienation from our community or outright state sponsored murder as that Christian woman from Iran that has been in the news is facing. We have different testing to face:

  • The testing of moving from being the primary driver of cultural norms to being weird people on the cultural outskirts.
  • The testing of learning how to minister during the decline of Christendom and, I believe, the resurgence of Christianity.
  • The testing of loving people with whom we have complete, utter, and total disagreements on everything from doctrine to what is and isn’t missing the mark.

It is important to remember that the best thing for us is to take on Christ’s example of humility in the face of our testing, because God’s judgment starts right here with me. We are the ones who are being refined and we need to openly and honestly admit our flaws and failures so that we may be purified. If we don’t admit that we messed up on something how can we ever learn? If we try to redirect the refining fire onto others how will we ever reach purity? When I got on the exercise bike at the gym for the first time my muscles began to burn and I lasted 15 minutes because it felt like too much, but I went back. The next time I resolved to feel the burn and try to make it through. I lasted 20 minutes. I kept going back, knowing that I needed to get beyond feeling the burn to accepting the burn. When I learned to accept the burn I eventually made it to 45 minutes. But feeling the burn and accepting the burn only got me so far. There came a time when I began to see the results that I could welcome the burn and yesterday I biked out to Gresham City Park on the Springwater trail and back covering almost 15 miles with the family and was able to go for almost two hours and could have easily done more. I think Peter’s instruction to us in this text is to welcome and praise God for the burn that refines and tests us and not resist it or resent it.

Refiner’s Fire

By Brian Doerksen

Purify my heart

Let me be as gold

And precious silver

Purify my heart

Let me be as gold

Pure gold

Chorus

Refiner’s fire

My heart’s one desire

Is to be holy

Set apart for You Lord

I choose to be holy

Set apart for You my Master

Ready to do Your will

Verse

Purify my heart

Cleanse me from within

And make me holy

Purify my heart

Cleanse me from my sin

Deep within[i]

As we enter into open worship let us begin by placing ourselves into God’s hands and inviting God to send the refining fire of his Holy Spirit into us. And when that fire falls, let us resolve here and now to not resist it, to not resent it, to not try to redirect it onto others, but let us welcome that holy, purifying, and testing fire with praise on our lips. After 5 minutes of silence the person with the microphone will stand. Please allow some time for reflection after someone else speaks so that each of the words laid on our hearts can be well received and heard. Let us pray.

[i] CCLI Song # 426298

© 1990 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing (Admin. by Vineyard Music USA)

Vineyard Songs Canada (Admin. by Vineyard Music USA)

CCLI License # 378755

Pure Religion

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When I was growing up, something happened to my church. I was only 7 at the time, but the only thing I noticed was that suddenly we had a whole lot more people around. These people were from many different places and in the space of two years our 30 person church became a 250 plus person church. Our church went from being a predominantly white congregation to having our worship services in three languages. At the time I saw this as just a normal thing and was not paying attention to what might have caused this shift. The teaching didn’t seem to have changed, it was the same stuff about living as a Christian, doing what was right in God’s eyes and being good witnesses to what the gospel was really about. To keep the suspense down to a minimum, what changed was simple and profound, people actually started living out the gospel. The church had been something we did on Sundays to identify with a type of faith and had not penetrated beyond that. Then the church started to pray and listen for God’s call, and those prayer meetings were electric, people were listening with the desire to obey God, and change started to happen. One of the members of the church took in some refugees, who were fleeing Vietnam, then more people opened their homes, more refugees started coming and people were living their lives as if Jesus really meant all that stuff he taught in the gospels. Incredible changes started happening. It was an incredible time of growing and stretching, people were being saved, body, mind, and spirit. A few years later when we were chugging along and doing well, a serpent came in. This person tried to force themselves into a position of authority in the church, gossip, backbiting and slander crept in, eventually there was a split and the church that had been growing in every way when it had focused on God’s call, crashed and declined. We had lost sight of this week’s scripture from James to our detriment.

26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)

These are some pretty important words for us to revisit on a regular basis. When we are un-cautious with our words, there are consequences that range from broken relationships to lost opportunities, to people losing their faith. I have a family member who went through that split and because of the degree of nastiness that was employed, gave up on the idea that God was doing anything to redeem people. Last week we talked about our actions and the way we interact having consequences, and James is reminding us that an unbridled tongue wreaks havoc on a faith community. I will not lay any kind of claim to having complete control of my tongue yet. I do not always think before I speak, and the reality is that none of us maintains perfect control at all times. What James is saying here is that there are consequences to our lack of control. I don’t know about you, but most of my regrets in life are tied to words that escaped my lips. Words that came out of my mouth followed by the thought “I can’t believe I just said that.”  And eventually the words “I am so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” Regrets are not God’s best for us, and when we don’t reign in our words we are stepping away from God’s desires for us and are operating without the support of the God who loves us. These lapses have even greater consequences in the faith community. When our tongues flap around without connection to the Holy Spirit, without us weighing the words and their possible impact, we take our religious focus off of Christ and set it on ourselves. We speak in self-serving ways that do not consider other parts of our body and we begin to fool ourselves into thinking that we are the center of creation rather than God. Our religion becomes worthless to others and us because it has lost its Christ-centered focus and is instead focused on the self. What we focus on becomes our destination, and when what we focus on is ourselves, we stop growing and changing into the image of Christ.

Thankfully James doesn’t leave it there, but tells us what pure and undefiled religion looks like in God’s eyes. The first thing we notice is that the focus of this religion is outside of ourselves. When our religion is focused on the needs of others, we are much closer to God’s best intentions for our lives. These aren’t just any others, however, these are widows and orphans, literally the fatherless. In our society it is possible for women to survive without a husband or male figure in their lives, but in the times that James writes women had no voice, no right of self-determination, and no power in society. For a woman to lose her husband was to become almost instantly destitute, for a child to not have a father was to have no advocate for them in society. James is reminding us that God sees the value in every human being, and that keeping our religion pure would be demonstrated by the assistance we give those who our society has no use for. To care for the orphan and widow was a bold proclamation of the inherent value of human beings regardless of social status. Or to quote Jesus:

12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

 

This message has equal application today as it did then. Our society teaches us to work hard at connecting with those who are wealthier or socially equal in order to advance ourselves, but when our focus moves outside of ourselves and onto Jesus, we begin to look for how we can give others the advantages and opportunities that circumstances deny them. To think beyond ourselves in ways that benefit others brings us into a connection with God defined by Jesus as righteous.

What this external focus with priorities that serves others also does is insulate us from the temptations of the world around us. The world has priorities to sell us more stuff, to get us to seek self-fulfillment, and to covet what we see others have. I have to keep asking myself all the time the question of what ways my priorities are being determined by cultural expectation rather than submission to God’s values. If I am not keeping vigilant then, just as when my vigilance over my tongue brings self-serving behaviors, my priorities become influenced by the covetous nature of keeping up with the “Joneses”, but really a little ahead of them if I can swing it. Keeping ourselves unstained by the world is our goal, but it is one we struggle to reach for. We cannot bridle our tongue, serve those at the margins of our society, or live according to the priorities of God without two crucial relationships. The first relationship we need to cultivate is our relationship with God. Without God none of these objectives is achievable. We must cultivate a constant sense of the presence of God, knowing that Jesus is right here with us ready to direct us in the path of righteousness. The second necessary relationship is our relationship with this faith community. God has called us together to challenge each other when we are blinded by the world, to encourage each other to reach for God’s hands and to support each other against the onslaught of covetous advertising trying to distract us from God. Only when we cultivate both of those relationships will we be able to come close to the goals James has given us here to control our tongue, to care for those who are marginalized, and to not allow our priorities to be dictated by cultural expectations. As we enter into open worship consider your relationship with God and our faith community and ask God to show you how you are living well in those relationships, and to help you make the changes needed to grow in those relationships. When we humble ourselves in the silence ready to obey the words that flow from communion with the Holy Spirit our community will begin to order itself according to God’s priorities and the world around will notice that there is indeed something different here, something that calls each of us beyond ourselves, something that makes it possible for people of multiple classes and races and other worldly divisions to come together in mutual service. Let us enter the purifying presence of God together with hearts ready to obey.