Ashes to Fire

Eyes Wide Open, Hearts On Fire Reflection

Fire changes things!  Fire has the power to destroy, cleanse, create warmth, produce light, and inspire.  You will find people gathered around fire pits on a summer evening, and the warmth of a fireplace on a cold dreary day.  Just as the flame of a physical fire has the power to change the atmosphere, so also the fire kindled by the presence of Jesus Christ has the power to transform.

This past Sunday morning we considered Luke 24 which describes two disciples of Jesus taking the long journey back to Emmaus following the disappointment of His crucifixion, burial, and discovery of the empty tomb.  They could have remained in Jerusalem trusting that the empty tomb was not an empty hope, but instead they had given up on that possibility and began to take their own pathway to a different destination.  Although unrecognized at the time, Jesus joins them on the journey.  As they share their disappointment Jesus tells them how all of these things had to take place by explaining to them about himself in all the scriptures. The scriptures Jesus explained to them were what we call the Old Testament.  At their invitation, Jesus joins the two for dinner.  As he blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them their eyes are opened, and they recognize him.  He vanishes immediately, and they say to one another:  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” His words to them were like fresh oxygen that fueled the flames!   Hearts aflame they quickly return to Jerusalem to share the news with the other disciples.  Discouragement was now replaced by enthusiastic deployment.   Fire changes things!

How often do we fail to recognize the living presence of Jesus when we are faced with the dreary cold realities that seek to rob us of real life?  We have a great advantage over the two disciples who didn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus because we stand upon over 2,000 years of resurrection reality.  We have not only the Old Testament, but also the New Testament as well that testifies to the resurrection of Jesus.  So why at times do we struggle with a diminishing life reflected by a flickering flame?  Could it be that we are too busy carving our own pathways that we miss a larger life and greater path?  Like the two disciples Jesus will meet us on our self-made pathways, but He doesn’t want to leave us there.  Jesus is calling us to come follow Him while far too often we are asking Him to come follow us.  A prayer found in Psalm 25:4-5 is helpful at this point:   Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.  Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”  Our flame flickers when we place hope in things other than Jesus.  Our flame flickers when we pin our hopes on what is not hope, and therefore take paths that are not His path.   So, take a deep breath and examine your present path.  What does your path say about your hope?  Maybe it’s time to do a reset so that you can focus on Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Ask Him to lead you in His loving and faithful ways so He can rekindle your heart with the oxygen of His living presence.  May your flickering flame become a roaring fire fueled by a hope that changes your pathway.  Fire changes things!

Is the flame of your heart flickering?  Please consider joining us this week as we seek to allow God to kindle our hearts as we consider His great hope and good paths!

∼Pastor Ron

A prayer of John Wesley (found in the Ashes to Fire devotional):  “O God, fill my soul with so entire a love for you, that I may love nothing but you.  Give me grace to study your knowledge daily, that the more I know you, the more I may love you, through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.”

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Ashes to Fire – Holy Week Reflections

Holy week is upon us…but have you noticed?

It may be Holy Week, but baskets need to be filled, eggs need to be stuffed, meals need to be prepped, tables and chairs need to be dragged out of the basement.

And I’m finding myself right smack-dab in the middle of it all. Seriously! I think it was Monday night, and I stopped by the store on the way home to pick up some groceries, and when I got to the eggs, I was surprised that there were only 3 dozen white, large, Grade A eggs left in the entire store, and I needed 2 dozen of them! I was shocked! Why didn’t they restock?! This is a travesty! And so I put them in my cart as fast as possible and went to the next aisle, so that I wasn’t “that guy.” It wasn’t until I was home that my wife reminded me that white, large, Grade A eggs are perfect for coloring and dying…

Holy Week is upon us…but have you noticed?

This week is so much more than coming to church an extra day (or two…or three), celebrating the fact that your time of fasting is soon over (bring on those unhealthy habits and foods once more!), or making sure your best clothes are clean and pressed.

No, it’s about much more.

In a couple days we’ll gather together and reflect upon Christ’s sacrifice. His blood shed for our freedom.

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed
Isaiah 53:5

And then two days later, we’ll gather to celebrate the empty tomb, the defeat of sin and death, the resurrected Christ.

Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!
Luke 24:5-6

And I guess what I’m trying to say to both you and me, is that in the busyness of this season, let us not forget the significance of it. Let us not get lost in the tiny details over clothing options, in making sure our homes are spotless for our guests, or ensuring that all the traditional food groups are represented for Easter dinner.

And I guess my prayer is that as we gather with friends and family this week and weekend, we would not forget the importance of this week, of Christ’s death and resurrection. May we be reminded that Jesus didn’t just go to Calvary to save us for a future date, but he died and rose again that we might experience resurrection living now…today! NT Wright writes that: Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. May this be the description of our lives…colonizing earth with the life of heaven. May we not only know Jesus, but also be Jesus every moment of every day.

This Holy Week, may we notice, and may we remember.

May we remember that Christ died for each and every one of us.
May we remember that we have good news to share…hope to give…life to offer.
May we remember that more than eggs to find, hams to cook, or church services to attend, that we’ve been made new by the blood of Christ shed for us and his victory over sin and death.

Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen…

Have you noticed?

following His leading,
~ Pastor Joe

Ashes to Fire – Midweek Reflections

If you’ve ever been in a position of preaching, teaching Sunday School, or leading a small group within the church, you find that you inevitably come across passages when it feels like God is speaking directly to you, and those you’ll be leading/preaching to will be the recipients of that exchange between you and God. For me, this appears to be one of those weeks.

If you call Fenton Church of the Nazarene your home church, and you’ve been following along in our Ashes to Fire devotional, you might have noticed that this coming Sunday, we’ll be in John 11, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and Jesus’ proclamation that HE is the resurrection and the life.

It’s certainly an interesting time to be diving into this passage as we’re still a few weeks out from Easter…Resurrection Sunday (we’ll get into that a bit on Sunday). But, it’s also an interesting time to dive into this passage because of events that have happened in the peripheral spheres of my life.

Some of you know, but before I came to FCN, I was a solo pastor at a small town in Northern Michigan. We loved our church, and we loved our town. It was one of those communities where everyone seems to know everyone, and the people unite to support their own. And this past week, hardship and tragedy hit that community. And even though it wasn’t our home for long, and even though we’re displaced now, my heart is still heavy.

This past week, a family within that community had to say goodbye to their 7 year old son, whose body could no longer fight the cancer that was ravaging it. He fought it bravely, valiantly, courageously, and he inspired many (myself included) who didn’t have a direct relationship with him. And even though we moved midway through his fight, and even though our church had no direct contact with his family, we still feel the impact. One moment that stands out to me is how my cross-country kids decided that they wanted to dedicate their season to this boy, and for the last half of the season, we gave a moment of silence and prayer before each race, and then we ran hard, knowing he was fighting even harder. And to watch from Facebook updates the bravery and courage of this young man, and to see how he united so many people, has been incredible to watch.

And so, as I’m sitting down to prepare for this Sunday, one question above all others plagues my mind: how?

  • If I were preaching this passage this coming week in our old community, how would I preach it?
  • If I knew that a young couple would be attending this Sunday, and they’ve just come out of mourning a miscarriage as they try to start a family, and they’ve had to say goodbye to their son or daughter at the same time they’re saying hello, how would I preach this?
  • If I knew someone would be sitting in our church Sunday morning, and they’ve recently lost a beloved friend or family member, how would I preach this?

And so, as I continue to prepare for Sunday, I want to encourage you to prepare as well.

  • What does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?
  • What does it mean for our lives now?
  • What does it mean for our lives later?

Side note: it’s not just the pastors who should be preparing their hearts for Sunday mornings! 🙂

And if you’re free this Sunday, and maybe you’ve been going through a rough spot, or maybe you’re mourning the recent death of a loved one, I hope that you’d consider joining us. And I hope that this week might be an encouragement to you, as we look not only to burning away another blind spot within us, but as we also look forward to the cross, and to Resurrection Sunday.

following His leading,
~ Pastor Joe

Ashes to Fire – Taking the Direct Route

“Jesus left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria.” – John 4:3-4

Yesterday, we looked at Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan Woman from John 4. As it’s still fresh on our minds, I wanted to bring us back to the very first verse we read yesterday morning, and the implications it has for the way we go through life as followers of Jesus.

In John 4:4, we read that Jesus had to pass through Samaria. Though it might not mean a whole lot to us, this simple word, had, is packed full of meaning! And to grasp it, we have to step back in time for a little bit, because until we better understand the relationship between Jews and Samaritans, I’m not sure we’ll best appreciate this passage, and the intentionality of Christ in taking the direct route north to Galilee. (Think of this also when you read the parable of the Good Samaritan!)

The relationship between Jews and Samaritans was contentious at best. Josephus, a first century AD historian, recounts in his work, Jewish War, that at one point the fighting between the two groups was so intense that the Roman Emperor, Claudius, had to call in Roman soldiers to maintain order. The best modern analogy I can think of to describe their relationship comes from the Harry Potter series, and it is the relationship between the wizarding class and the mud-blood class. Good, God-fearing Jews would not go through Samaria…ever!

Why the contention? The Samaritans were the ones left behind during the exilic period. When Assyria and Babylon conquered Israel and Judah, they took exiles, but they only wanted the best and brightest, those who could contribute best as slaves in their empires. Everyone else was left in the destruction to fend for themselves with little shelter or food. And so, to survive, the people intermarried with the surrounding (pagan) cultures, and continued to worship at Mt. Gerizim, near where Abraham and Jacob had built altars, and where different OT peoples received blessing from God (see Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:12).

The map below provides a good visual to the extent at which they would avoid interaction with the unclean, less-than Gentile, Samaritans.

Jerusalem to Galilee.jpg

The blue route, called the Central Ridge Route, is the one Jesus took. As you can see, it is clearly the most direct route, following the central mountain ridge from Jerusalem northward.

The red route, called the Eastern Route or the Trans-Jordan Route, was the most common route choice for the Jews to take as they’d travel N/S from Jerusalem to Galilee. It might not look like much, but it’s about a 20 mile hike down the mountains to cross the Jordan River from Jerusalem. And on top of that, there’s no vegetation at all until you cross the river and start heading north!

And still, others would travel all the way out to the coast before heading north or south!

And so, when John’s first readers would have read that Jesus intentionally takes the direct route through Samaria, they would have been shocked! This was scandalous…and the Messiah did that?!?! (This may have even been more socially upsetting than the fact that Jesus met with a woman.)

But, if we stop to think about it, doesn’t this reflect Jesus’ ministry? Isn’t Jesus always about taking the direct route to bring mercy, compassion, and justice?

Zacchaeus…you, chief tax collector…you, chief thug and bully and scam artist…come down from that tree, for I need to come to your house for a meal today…

Levi…you, tax collector…come and follow me and be my disciple…

Often I feel like we, the Church, are really good at standing afar, or walking the indirect path, and pointing out the need for others to repent and turn their lives around. But, when we look at the example of Christ, he took the direct route into people’s lives, spending time with them, eating and drinking with them, and still challenging them with the call of repentance and righteousness.

In our Life Group last night, as we read over the day’s devotional, one line stood out to me. The author writes: “The Gospel of John gives us a wonderful snapshot…of who God is and how God treats those whose lives have been wrecked by failure and sin. This story (John 4) is about how God comes to people who do not think they belong.”

Let that sink in for a moment…

God comes to people who do not think they belong

What do our personal lives look like?
What does the life of our church look like?
What does the life of the greater Church look like?

Are we taking the direct route?

following His leading,
~ Pastor Joe

Ashes to Fire Reflection – Cracked Cisterns, Blind Spots, and Why the Prophet Jeremiah Might Have Been a Country Singer

“Looking for love in all the wrong places” is a well-known country song lyric that singer Johnny Lee made popular.  If you know this lyric you may be a child of the 70’s or 80’s since it was released on the Urban Cowboy album in 1980.   While reading our Ashes to Fire scripture passage from Jeremiah 2:1-13 today it struck me that Jeremiah could have composed that line.  Who knows, maybe the prophet Jeremiah was a Country Singer.

In today’s reading Jeremiah composes some lines that really helps us identify a huge blind spot that is very common.  In fact, we might say that this blind spot is the mother of all blind spots. Jeremiah is called of God to proclaim not what the people want to hear, but rather what they really need to hear.  God’s word for the people is straight to the point.  The word is that the people of God had started their journey with great devotion and love for God, but that somewhere along the line they had strayed from their devotion and dependence upon God replacing him with worthless idols.  The exact line is: “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves”.  And then this penetrating line: “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water”.   Cisterns were reservoirs that held life-giving water in the arid land of the Middle East.

Jeremiah reveals that even Israel’s priests, prophets, and those who knew the law of God best were blind to the leakage of life that took place due to dependence upon their self-made idols.  Idol making and worshipping was prevalent in the culture of their day.   Many worshipped these gods in addition to giving lip service to the Lord because they held out the promise of fertility, success with their crops, and good fortune in life.  The word of God through Jeremiah is that His people are looking for fruitful, successful, love filled lives in all the wrong places, and their very life is leaking out leaving them diminished and devastated.

Although we may not carve self-made idols of wood and stone to worship in our present day we are still tempted to place something, or someone in the place of the living God.   How often do we look for love, fulfillment, success, true happiness, or our self-worth in all the wrong places?   The one thing we know for sure is that the temptation to drink from cracked and leaky cisterns is as common today as it was when Jeremiah proclaimed God’s Word for God’s people.  Whenever we begin to believe, or trust in, the things that our culture tell us will bring love, satisfaction, or result in success – money, fame, power, sex, and the list goes on – a blindness covers our souls.  We become blind to the fact that anything we put in the place of God becomes nothing more than a leaky, cracked reservoir that will always run dry.

As we walk through this Lenten season many of us are fasting in order to strip away something that we commonly lean upon to fill our lives (food, Facebook, other sorts of media, etc.) so we can clearly seek after the One true source of living water, Jesus Christ!  If we are honest, we are all tempted to look to other things (cracked cisterns) instead of the life-giving water of God’s grace that never runs dry.  The Great News is that Jesus came to meet us in our mess.  He came to remove the blind spots which are the illusions  our idols create.  Ask God to reveal any idols you may be depending upon instead of devoting yourself completely to Jesus and His love.  Allow him to burn away the blind spots so he can lead you to the water that never runs dry.  He loves you too much to allow you to drink from cracked cisterns that allow your very life to leak out!  Also, you will not want to miss this coming Sunday’s message as we look at a woman who wrestled with blind spots that were keeping her from receiving living water. It’s a rather sordid story told by John recorded in John 4.  It has all the makings of a great Country Song.  Who knows, maybe John was a Country Singer as well.

Grace and Peace,

∼ Pastor Ron

Ashes to Fire – Midweek Reflections

“People don’t resist change, they resist loss. And most change produces loss.”
– Quote from Nazarene Youth Leadership Conference 2017

I heard this quote during our final session yesterday, and while it certainly struck me during our session, I found myself revisiting the quote after reading the Gospel reading from Wednesday’s devotion – John 2:22-3:15.

If you haven’t read the passage yet, a quick summarization is that a religious leader by the name of Nicodemus comes to Jesus to inquire about his true identity. Jesus stumps him with the statement that unless an individual is born again, he or she cannot see the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus, though a smart and educated man, is a bit dumbfounded by Jesus’ response, and they go back and forth before Nicodemus seemingly gives up his quest to understand.

This is quite the conversation! We have a Pharisee, one of the religious groups that opposed Jesus’ Messianic claims, who is curious and seemingly interested in discovering who Jesus is. But there’s a catch. In v. 2, two small words stand out above the rest: “at night.”

You might be asking, “Why is this important? Do those two words really make a difference here?”

You see, Nicodemus was afraid of the potential loss associated with this conversation. He couldn’t possibly be seen having an authentic conversation with Jesus…he’d face ridicule, and maybe even face damaging political and social repercussions because of this. And so he comes in the thick of night.

In other words, Nicodemus resists loss. This is further evidenced by the fact that when Jesus dives deeper into who he is as the Messiah and what it means to be a follower of him, Nicodemus fades from the story and we don’t encounter him again…until John 7, and also John 19. And in those places, it seems like he is still wrestling with the losses that a change of allegiances could produce.

Lent is a season of surrender. A season of loss. It’s a time for us to pause and reflect upon the Jesus’ journey to the cross, as well as his invitation to us to join him in laying down our lives and picking up our crosses.

And so if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to ask God what that might be this Lenten season.

What might God be calling you to lose?
What might God be calling you to surrender?
Could you…would you…give it up?

Eternal and merciful Father, help us to be okay with losing that we may gain. Help us to loosen our grip over our possessions and our desires for our lives, and to hold fast to your great and precious promises. Empty us, that we may be filled with you.

~ Pastor Joe

Ashes to Fire:  Burning Away the Blind Spots!

As we begin our series “Ashes to Fire:  Burning Away the Blind Spots” I would like to share a story found in the “Ashes to Fire” devotional for today, the first Sunday of Lent.

A workman went to his big boss one day and said.  “I’m tired.  I think I’ll take my retirement benefits and hang it up.  It’s been great working for you.”

The big boss looked disappointed and said, “I really hate to see you go.  I was hoping you could do at least one more big job for me.  Will you, just one more?”  Reluctantly the builder agreed to build a house for some important client of the big boss.

It was a big house, a big job, a lot of work.  It was on a golf course, with a lot of detail.  But the man’s heart wasn’t in it.  He threw the house together in record time and cut corners on material and labor wherever he could.  He saved the boss a lot of money, but it wasn’t really his best work and he knew it.

Imagine how he felt when he turned the keys over to the big boss and the boss gave them right back and fished around in his briefcase and gave him the title and deed to the property on the golf course.

This is my gift for you!  he said.  “Thanks for all your good work over the years!” 

Then the builder wished he hadn’t been in such a hurry.  He wished he hadn’t cut corners and taken shortcuts just to get the job done. ~Ashes to Fire Year A, Page 24.

From our perspective it is not hard to observe that the builder was shortsighted.  Isn’t that always the way it is with temptation?  Temptation seeks to blind us to the ugly consequences of taking shortcuts.   When Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness the first temptation he faced was to take the short cut of self-gratification.  When hungry and famished He was tempted to self-satisfy instead of waiting in dependence upon His heavenly Father.  How often are we tempted to satisfy legitimate desires in illegitimate ways instead of waiting on our heavenly Father’s provision?  When tempted Jesus quoted a well-known text from the book of Deuteronomy:  “Man does live on bread alone,  but every word that comes out of the mouth of the Lord.”  When we seek to fulfill our needs by taking shortcuts instead of following the leading of God it builds a shoddy house.  However, when we are willing to follow the Lord’s leading and wait upon Him a beautiful house is built that attracts and makes room for others to see the grace, truth, and love of Jesus!  

As you enter into this season of Lent we encourage you to start a new discipline of scripture reading through utilizing the “Ashes to Fire” devotional.  The devotional provides readings for morning and evening along with simple prayers.    Also, read Matthew 4:1-11, and consider fasting in some way.  Make your fast about coming to a greater awareness of your need to wait upon God to fulfill your deepest hungers.  Fast in order to develop a greater dependence upon God so that he can build a beautiful house out of your life where there is plenty of room for others to experience Jesus

∼ Pastor Ron