As I stepped down from giving a testimony one Sunday, Pam and Ken grabbed my hand and with wide eyes and an urgency to their voices they told me ‘whatever happens Alex, never lose your fire!’.
With the nonchalance of a recently born believer I freed my hand and smiled before sloping off to sit down with my fire and my belief that nothing could diminish the flames of passion I had for Jesus, His church and those who were not yet saved, fully aflame.
Thirteen years, one divorce, two house moves, three teenagers, the loss of my 60 year old mum, one lifechanging illness and a raft of disappointment later, and I was almost down to the smouldering wick that could not be snuffed out. I knew that nothing would separate me from His love. Ever. And my faith was intact. But the fire was most definitely diminishing.
The realisation had been coming for a while, and now, here I was; an infiltrator at a conference not meant for me, and the speaker was talking about how in God’s grace He sometimes continues to bless people, even work good things through them, despite them no longer being fully connected to Him.
I sat there as a flashback that spanned the years went through my mind; the early heady days of fresh new faith, surrounded by great examples, a fervour to do his will and to find my way. A time when the preacher could have used the boiler manual as a script, and I’d have heard God speak. The daily acknowledgement with every red sunrise (and the grey ones too) that God is with me. The singing, the study, the prayers on our knees, the praising when they were answered (and when they were not), Christian Bible camps and conferences galore ….you get the picture, I even had the T-shirt.
Like an indulgent parent, God had continued to bless my socks off through all the years that followed; He had lavishly provided for my every need and even allowed me to channel his truths to others. But as I sat at the conference, I knew in my very soul that my faith was now running on the fumes and not the fire.
Yes I still prayed occasionally – especially when others were in need, no my faith never wavered, I loved the scriptures – but more often than not chose other things to read and ponder, my heart was still broken for the lost, and if you had a conversation with me, I probably unconsciously fooled you that my faith was fully aflame.
I had unwittingly learned to hide my fading condition, but the close observer would not have been fooled! They will have spotted the oxygen being sucked from the flames. I was losing something of my spirituality, I was losing my passion, I was ‘lukewarm’.
It wasn’t my circumstances alone that caused my flame’s demise, though undoubtedly, they played a part. If anything, though, with every sad or distressing thing that happened, I felt God’s presence more than ever. That says more about who He is than it does about me; ‘weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning’ – what a God!
But there was more to it than my circumstances; over the course of time, as my own fire dwindled, my mind had turned from ‘the gaze of the soul’ to the casual observation and criticism of other Christians, especially those who I looked to to reignite me. It was so much less harrowing to look at others than it was to look at myself. I didn’t tell them what I needed (I don’t really think I knew!), and I didn’t bother to get to know them well enough to try to understand my observations. One by one they tumbled from the pedestal of my expectations, one they had never asked to be on, and I grew a bit cynical. Nothing quite quenches the spiritual fire like cynicism!
It’s not pleasant for me to type these words, but I know that there are others struggling to keep their flames of passion for Jesus, His church, and those who don’t know Him yet, fully aflame. Like me, others are going through the motions…faithfully turning up, doing their thing, praying the prayers…all the while their passion slowly turning to ashes.
Three months on from that fateful conference and things are very different; there’s a nice little fire glowing where the smouldering wick had been. It’s not quite the bonfire in the picture, but I’m hopeful. No, the heady days have not returned just yet, and I’ll probably never wear the t-shirt again (that’s more a style choice than a flailing spirituality), but God has been doing a wonderful thing in me, breathing life onto dying embers and reigniting a deep love for Jesus.
Whenever I’ve made progress in an area of my life, be it overcoming something, losing weight, recovering from ME/CFS (still in progress), kicking my finances into touch etc, a few people want to know ‘so how does it work? What did you do?’, and some of you may be asking similar questions about this little fire of mine. So here goes, not a prescription for spiritual transformation, not a remedy for the feint hearted, and certainly nothing conclusive; but a few lessons learned on my personal journey:
Confess and repent
Let’s start with the most painful one, I promise all that follows is much more fun!
I heard a fab quote lately from Dallas Willard…it boiled down to this; if Jesus was living my life, how would it look? Ouch! When I first heard that, my mind immediately went to a handful of things that Jesus would certainly not be doing and thinking if he were living my life. Where did your mind go when you read the question? Read it again. Confession and repentance aren’t about making anyone feel bad for the sake of it. But God has a glorious plan for our lives, and that plan does not include sin. Be real about where you are right now, own up to a loving God and fall on your face in repentance. There’s no other way.
Did I use the word ‘fun’ back there?
Really though, you need to face the fact that the only person responsible for tending your spiritual fire is YOU. Stop hoping that your diminishing flames are someone else’s fault; it’s time to grow up. Tend to your fire and be the Christian you’re expecting others to be. You never know, God may even use your sparks to help reignite the dwindling flames of other peoples’ spirituality.
There’s no going back
When I realised how puny my fire had become, my first instinct was to look back to the early days of my faith and see if I could repeat the ‘formula’. If I went back to my first church, my first group of Christian friends, my first ways…maybe I would feel the passion I once had. There was an element of truth to this; I already knew a few things that would do me good and returning to them was a great idea! But time had moved on and along the way I’d seen things I could not now un-see, I’d come to know things I could not now un-know. And somehow this was part of God’s plan for me; to see all that he would show me, to grow stronger there and to serve Him with these experiences a part of me. So don’t mourn for the past, watch and see how God will do a new thing in you!
Get a mentor
It can sometimes feel a bit decadent for little old me to have a spiritual director, but nobody ever said that spiritual direction or mentoring is only for the Christian glitterati! Every follower of Jesus should be doing all they can to hear God’s voice in their lives and take their next step in His mission to the world. Find someone who amplifies the voice of God speaking into your life. Prepare to be challenged and accountable, and prepare to be wowed by what God does in those precious hours together, not to mention in the hours and days that follow.
Nothing declares God’s majesty like His creation. A seat, a walk or a bike ride in the great outdoors is like the sermon to beat all sermons. Put nothing in your ears and hear how nature proclaims His glory and how He himself whispers to you. Open your eyes wide and really see. Sit, walk or ride in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. When we really see all God is doing out there, awe and wonder see us worship like never before. *This isn’t an excuse for skipping church, rather, an added delight to your week and a way to truly worship when your heart doesn’t quite echo the words in the songs.
Study the Bible and Pray
8 years ago two friends and I formed a prayer triplet. The purpose had been to read scripture, reflect on it together, and pray. But with one drama after another between the three of us, our weekly lunchtime prayer gatherings soon moved to evenings with wine and mutual consolation. We were a great support to one another during these times, we still are, but on the other side of our seasons of drama, all three of us felt a spiritual discontent. Then one evening, over food and wine (!), I came clean about my fire and the journey I was on. I left the table for about three minutes and by the time I returned a decision had been made (I love those two!) that our lunchtime gatherings, hopefully along with our spiritual fervour, would be resurrected. And it’s been fantastic!
There is more I could say, including about how books, music and new ways of serving are helping to fan the flames for me, but this is meant to be a blog not a book. I hope that if you’re in a time when your faith is on autopilot, rather than on fire, that something here might help you find your way.
Spoiler Alert: It’s unlikely to be an overnight comeback, yes there are those times in our lives when it seems like someone has come and poured petrol on our flames – and whoosh – behold the bonfire! But a really good and lasting fire takes continual and careful tending with good, dry wood, being sure to throw aside any that is damp or rotten and leaving room for the wind of the Spirit to breathe life onto every flame that flickers.
‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out’