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Stoking the Fire



Here in Texas, we love our barbecue. We’ll get into arguments with folks from the Deep South about the glories of brisket over pulled pig with vinegar sauce. It’s fightin’ words around here if you tell us that slow-smoked beef isn’t true barbecue. According to this website, “the Lone Star State has the sixth highest percentage of barbecue restaurants (in the U.S.), and it’s home to some of the most iconic barbecue joints in the whole country. Styles vary across the state, but beef is king and brisket is the h3706464386_6ca98d0051_ooly grail of Texas barbecue.”


Leviticus 6 describes a barbecue of sorts. It was called the burnt offering, a twice-daily sacrifice made by the Hebrew priests, consisting of a pair of year-old lambs without any imperfections. Three times in this chapter, God instructs the priests to keep the fire burning. Day in and day out, rain or shine, the altar fire was to be stoked with a sacrificial lamb on the grate. It was a visual reminder that the fire of God’s people should never go out.

Much ink has been spilled on the waning fires of mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church, which ordained me. When I was a kid attending Village Methodist Church in Oklahoma City in the 1960s, our denomination was in its heyday with over 12 million members representing 6% of America’s population.  Most recent stats put us just under 8 million members in the USA, representing only 2.5% of our total population (by contrast, United Methodism is exploding in Africa and the Philippines).  Folks smarter than me have analyzed the problem up and down, from bishops to laity. I won’t solve the problem in one blog. But I thought it would be helpful to go back to the source of Methodism, and consult the one who sparked these fires in England during the 18th century, a fire that leapt across the Atlantic to the colonies and spread across the Western frontier in the 1800s.

wesleyI’m talking, of course, about John Wesley. Wesley was an Anglican priest who never intended to start a new sect. But when his church reforms and practices swept like wildfire across the land, he had no choice but to endorse “Methodism” as an alternative to the Church of England.

In 1742, Wesley published an 8-page tract entitled “The Character of a Methodist” that eventually went through 19 reprints. (You could say it went viral). Wesley began by explaining that Methodism was not defined by personal opinions. You could get a hundred Methodists in one room and ask them their views on one topic, and you are likely to get a hundred different opinions — as our recent General Conference proved that with its protracted arguments over parliamentary rules and the “hot potato” issue of human sexuality. There is only one thing we unanimously agree on, and that is “whenever two or more are gathered, there must be potluck.”

“What then is the mark?” Wesley writes. “Who is a Methodist, according to your own account? I answer: Methodists are people who have the love of God in their hearts…God is the joy of Methodists’ hearts; the desire of their souls.”

Several years ago, my denomination came out with a $47 million ad campaign called “Igniting Ministry.” One General Conference delegate who voted for the campaign gushed, “Igniting Ministry could be the catalyst by which we could reverse the decline that we continue to experience.”

I have no problems with church ads, as long as we don’t except them to do evangelism for us. Spending tons of money won’t start a fire. Flames won’t be fanned with another church convocation. Programs don’t have what it takes to spark a spiritual inferno. The fire must come from within.  


This fire is the love of God-with-us, not a cold, intellectual acknowledgment of a vague Supreme Being. Years ago at one of my churches, a woman dragged in her husband for marital counseling. At one point, I asked him about his relationship with God. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Relationship with God? I don’t even know what that means. I’m not sure there’s even a personal divine force behind creation. What we call ‘God’ is probably some glorified physics formula.”

The Bible doesn’t say that a physics formula so loved the word — it was God who gave us His one and only Son. In their 2010 book, Jesus Manifesto, Authors Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola wrote, “What is Christianity? It is Christ! Nothing more. Nothing less. It is not an ideology or a philosophy, a new type of morality, social ethic, or worldview. Christianity is the ‘good news’ that beauty, truth, and goodness are found in a Person.”

John Wesley would agree. He said that Methodists believe that Christ is the eternal, supreme God, through whose shed blood we have forgiveness of sins and adoption as children of the Father. This is Good News in a Person! Jesus is the match that sets our fire ablaze. 

What does this love look like? Our spouses know we love them when we give them a thoughtful anniversary gift. Our kids know we love them when we tuck them in at night and read a bedtime story. How do we show God that we love Him? We know He loves us, how do we return that love? Wesley gives us instruction.


First, Wesley describes Methodists as people of gratitude. When we daily thank God for all the good gifts He gives us, we toss a log on the spiritual fire. “Whether in ease or pain, sickness or health, life or death,” Wesley wrote, “the Methodist gives thanks from the ground of the heart to Him who orders all for the good.” Besides contributing to spiritual fitness, research is proving that gratitude is good for physical fitness, too. Thankful people have stronger immune systems and overall better health than ungrateful people. 


Secondly, Wesley says that Methodists are people of prayer. Recall that on the day of Pentecost, when the disciples were praying in an upper room (Acts 2:1-4), the Holy Spirit fell in “tongues of fire.” Wesley took great pains to explain that prayer isn’t beating God’s ears with many words or kneeling in contemplation for hours on end. Prayer is the language of the heart before God. It wraps up praise, thanksgiving, confession and requests, sometimes in fervent words, other times in awed silence. Prayer is essential if we are to keep the spiritual fires burning.


Thirdly, Wesley described Methodists as people of purity. Have you noticed that impure living is like cold water on burning coals? Sin douses the fire of God. Wesley wrote that “God has cleansed the Methodist’s heart, washing away all urge for revenge, all envy, all wrath, every lust and evil desire, as well.” Of course, this can’t be done Lone Ranger style, all by ourselves. Wesley was smart. He helped Methodists stay on fire for God by organizing the class meeting. This was the 18th century version of a small group, where a dozen Methodists met weekly under the supervision of a class leader. The group sang, prayed and watched over one another in love. There was accountability and encouragement to stay close to the fire of the Holy Spirit.


Lastly, Wesley said that Methodists show their love of God by doing good—not only to friend and neighbor, but to foe and stranger. The Rule of Wesley states, Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”  The early Methodists ministered to people in prison; opposed slavery; founded schools; promoted temperance and the rights of women, workers and children; published Christian literature; and opened orphanages and medical clinics.  But these weren’t just good works; they were “God-works” to cast light on the goodness of Christ. Wesley proclaimed that “Methodists labor to awaken those who have never known God and help them to realize that the atoning blood of Jesus has power to cleanse away their sins.”

6290102861_aa23c1e1cc_o“The fire must be kept burning.”   

Was this an ancient command from God for the Jews only? An old, quaint regulation that has no relevance for us today? No. God’s earnest desire for believers — from Methodists to Moravians; Pentecostals to Presbyterians; high-church liberals to charismatic conservatives–is to keep the Christ-Fire stoked. But unlike the old days with a butchered lamb on the grill, we are now the burnt offering as Paul wrote in Romans 12:1: “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.”

Put yourself on the altar. Catch on fire for God. Watch people come to see you burn!

Brisket picture courtesy of bigjohnstexasbbq via Flickr

Fire picture courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr

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