By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
O.K., be honest. When you first saw the sermon title for today, did you think of: a) the flames of Pentecost, b) the heat of passion, c) the fire of ambition?
Our focus is on Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but, to be honest, what I have in mind this morning applies to all of the above. I’m thinking of the reality we experience from time to time of losing our enthusiasm, feeling burned out, getting to a place in life where the thrill is gone, and we just don’t care.
Say, you start a new job. You can’t wait to get to work in the morning. Everything is new and exciting. You meet new people, start new programs, set new goals. You’re on an emotional high, especially as you begin to see results and reap rewards. But, as the new wears off and you line out your calendar for, say, the fifteenth year in a row, you find yourself having to push harder and harder. The thrill of a new sale or new contact gives way to the routine of just making another call or filing away another case.
Did you happen to see the movie, Shall We Dance? starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez? Richard Gere plays the part of this savvy Chicago lawyer in the prime of life. He’s got it all – good looks, intelligence, a beautiful wife, a comfortable lifestyle. There’s only one problem – he’s miserable and bored to tears. One day on his commute home from work, he sees a dance studio and this pixie little dancing instructor in the window. His heart skips a beat. Long story, short, he learns to dance on the sly, and that leads to rekindling the romance in his marriage, and he lives happily ever after. I guess the moral of the story is if you’re going through a mid-life crisis, sign up for ballroom dancing.
No, seriously, it’s an all-too-common problem: You get married, go on your honeymoon, settle in to build a life together, raise a family, get the kids through school. Life whizzes by so fast you hardly have time to paste pictures in a scrapbook. You scrimp and save and invest and work around the clock; then, before you know it, you’re there – the kids are off on their own, you’ve paid off the mortgage, you’re got enough seniority to feel secure – all the while, life’s not as fun as it used to be. You find yourself getting restless and wondering, “Is this all there is to a fire?”
What do you do when the fire grows cold?
Sam Keen addresses this question in his book, Fire in the Belly. Gail Sheehan talks about the same thing in her book, Passages. Both are based on solid research and hundreds of case studies of individuals who’d lost their zest for living. It can happen to anyone:
– Setbacks, disappointments and failures on the job can cause you to lose heart and wonder, “What’s the point?”
– Individuals and organizations betray your confidence and let you down. I once had a church member who couldn’t say enough about Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She sent them a nice donation. In no time, they were hounding her for more. She said if they’d only use her money to fight drunk driving instead of trying to get her to give more money, they might do some good. She not only withdrew her support, she asked them to send back her check.
– Another reason we lose heart is all the clutter that surrounds us. We hear so many conflicting views we don’t know who to believe, so we sit on the sidelines.
– Of course, burnout is a problem we all recognize. It’s particularly prevalent in the helping professions, where individuals give so much of themselves for so long they don’t have anything left to give. Social workers and teachers consistently head the list.
– And, to be honest, sometimes we simply lose interest and don’t know why. Couples talk about falling out of love. Preachers talk about being called out of ministry. Folks who were once active in the life of the community drop out and let others take the lead.
For whatever reason, it’s not uncommon for the fire within us to grow cold. The question is, when it does, how do you get it going again?
As I said, this pertains to a lot of different aspects of life, but, for the purposes of the sermon this morning, I’d like to zero in on Pentecost and the matter of faith: When you lose your zeal for the Lord; when God seems distant and far away; when scripture no longer speaks to you as it once did; when you find it hard to pray … what can you do to get back on track?
Let’s start by refreshing our memory. What, exactly, happened on the day of Pentecost? According to Luke, “…they were all with one accord in one place.” (Acts 2:1)
Earlier, Luke told us the disciples had gone back “into the upper room, where they were staying.” (Acts 1:13), and he named the eleven remaining disciples. He also mentioned Jesus’ mother and other women, whom he doesn’t name. Then he went on to say that, in all, there were a hundred and twenty believers gathered there. So, it was a big room, and it was crowded. Then Luke says,
“Suddenly there came from the sky
a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind,
and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
Tongues like fire appeared and were distributed to them,
and one sat on each of them.
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit,
and began to speak with other languages,
as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak.” (Acts 2:2-4)
In his commentary on today’s text, Richard Donovan says,
“Christians retreated into hiding after the crucifixion
and waited quietly for God to act.
Now the time has come!
The heavens roar!
The Spirit of God fills!
It must have been an awesome experience. It certainly got the attention of the neighborhood. A crowd gathered to see what was going on, and it led Peter, who’d never preached a sermon before in his life, to stand tall and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. In response, Luke says,
“There were added that day (to the disciples’ number)
about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41)
If you go on and read the rest of Acts and follow the development of the early church, you’ll find that this was only the beginning. The disciples’ enthusiasm was contagious. In time, the gospel spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus had predicted. (Acts 1:8)
Sounds easy, huh? If you’re on fire for the Lord, all you have to do is say the word.
But what if the fire has grown cold? What if the flames of Pentecost are now little more than smoldering embers? Can you rekindle the glow? If so, how? What follows is my own prescription for getting the fire going again. See if it works for you.
First, break the cycle. We’re all prone to getting into a rut. Routines are an essential part of life. You can drive to work without even thinking about where to turn. You just back out of the driveway and put it on autopilot. But when a routine turns into a rut, it can lead to a downward spiral.
Years ago, my Dad worked on a road construction project out from Pine Bluff. His job was to help keep the heavy machinery running. Among the workers was a welder, who had a particular knack for fabricating parts out of scrap iron. He had a creative mind and could come up with just about anything to get a bull dozer or road grader going again. One day he was busy at work in the welding shop. Dad happened to walk by and, out of curiosity, asked, “What are you making?” He looked up and said, “Three twenty-five an hour, why?”
Here’s the deal: God didn’t put us on earth to make money; God put us here to make a difference. God gave each of us gifts and abilities to use for the common good. When we use them as God intended, they’re a source of joy and self-fulfillment. But when they become a weight and a source of drudgery, it’s time to do something different, or, at least take a break.
And so, my first suggestion for rekindling the fire within is to break the cycle. Step out of the rut you’re in and get a new perspective on life. Get up at a different time, change your diet, turn off the T.V. and read a book instead. Take up a new hobby. Learn to speak a new language. Travel to a distant country. Get some exercise. Step out of your comfort zone. It’ll make you feel better.
That’s the first step. The second is to go back to the basics. A fire starts going out the minute you stop kindling it. In the commentary I mentioned earlier, there was a little note on preaching by Ernest T. Campbell, one of the great preachers of the 20th Century. He said,
“I suspect that when preachers consistently reach into the private chambers of family
to illustrate their message
they are inadvertently confessing that they have stopped reading …”
How true, not only of preaching, but of living: When we stop reading and studying and reaching out for new life experiences and, instead, become content on recycling the old stories of the past, the fire within us grows cold in a hurry.
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To keep this from happening, we need to go back to the basics and spend a little time each day reading the Bible, praying to God and doing good deeds for others. It’s amazing how stale life can become when you get away from these basic disciplines.
So, pick a book of the Bible you’ve never studied before – something obscure like Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Get yourself some study aids and dig deep. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find. And if you feel as though you’ve said all you know to say in prayer, try praying without words. Spend fifteen minutes alone with God in silence each day. I think you’ll find that God has a lot to say to you. And don’t let a day go by without doing something nice for others, especially those who can’t pay you back. Practice random acts of kindness and, when possible, do it anonymously.
Go back to the basics. That’s the second step. And the third is: Stay connected. It’s hard to be a recluse and maintain a healthy enthusiasm for living. Most people who withdraw from community become inwardly focused and chronically depressed.
There’s a certain stimulation about getting out and about. Meeting new people piques our interest. Seeing old friends gives us affirmation and support. And, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re a catalyst to others, as well. It all works together: What goes around, come around.
The story is told of a man who dropped out of church. He figured he could be just as faithful worshiping God on his own. A few weeks went by, and the minister came to visit. It was a cold and blustery day. They sat in the living room by the fireplace and made small talk. Then the minister took the fire tongs, picked up a glowing ember and placed it to one side of the hearth. The two men watched without saying a word. In no time, it began to cool. A few minutes later, he picked up the dead ember with his fingers and pitched it back into fire. Immediately, it sparked back to life. Without a word, the minister put on his coat and started to leave. The man looked at him and said, “That was one of your best sermons. I’ll see you in church this Sunday.”
My friend, Mike Lowry, likes to say, “Christianity is always personal, but never individual.” And it’s true: While each of us has his/her own destiny to fulfill, God calls us to live together, work together and worship together in community to the glory of His name. As we do, the spark of faith within us is rekindled and spread to warm and enlighten others.
Well, let’s wrap it up. Just as God poured out his Spirit on the disciples on the day of Pentecost, God comes to us in wind and flames. Yet, from time to time, the fire grows cold. When it does, we need to break the cycle and get out of the rut we’re in; go back to the basics of Bible study, prayer and service; and stay connected and work together. Let us pray:
“Breathe on me, breath of God;
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly Thine,
Till all this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.