When Roman legions occupied Britain two thousand years ago, ‘focus’ was their Latin noun for fireplace that later simply meant ‘fire’. That later Latin meaning may have mutated into current English as ‘concentrating one’s attention’ through that trick of using a piece of broken glass to focus the sun’s rays onto dry leaves and twigs to start a campfire.
Three keys to an effective household fire
From my many years’ experience of starting coal fires I learned three significant keys to a successful and effective fire. And there’s a discipline to all three of these activities.
- Remove the old ashes
Every winter’s morning I would push the handle of the fire grill in and out to coax the cold ashes from the previous day’s fire to drop down into the ash pan. Then, half asleep and with no idea of the weather conditions outside, I’d carry the full pan of ashes out to a metal dustbin, only to find, as in the King James’ Version about adverse fishing conditions on the Sea of Galilee, that ‘the wind was contrary’. I would get back indoors looking ashen grey from head to toe, and in need of an entire make-over.
- Replenish the fuel
However, if we let the fire burn low in late evening and then tried to add some pieces of coal, we’d find that we had left it too long and would need to take a couple of hot water bottles to bed with us.
- Regulate the draught
Kindling a fresh fire before the children got up, I’d hold a few pages of a broadsheet newspaper across the fireplace to draw a draught under the grate to coax the flames to head up the chimney, hoping I didn’t accidentally get bits of old news now ‘hot of the press’ in the process!
How to nurture your spiritual fire
- First, we must consistently remove old ashes
What are some of the ashes that are likely to be left behind by any spent spiritual fire? For example, we need to rake out any:
- spiritual failures that are still unresolved (John 21:1-17, The Passion Translation)
When the risen Jesus conducted a literal fireside chat with Peter, he made him face up to his threefold denial that he had ever had any first-hand association with the Master. Five other disciples witnessed Peter’s pledge of allegiance and his commission as an apostle. We too can learn from the Lord’s meticulous way of counselling the backslider. Jesus had told his disciples on their walk to the Mount of Olives. ‘“Before the night is over, you will all desert me. …. But after I am risen, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and will meet you there”’ (Matthew 26:30-32, TPT). That’s why seven of them were ‘by Lake Galilee [when] Jesus appeared [to them] once again’. The bottom had dropped out of their world when their Master died and, of course, that mechanism for coping with depression kicked in – they returned to old familiar habits. The Lord had expected them to do just that and knew that his Father would cause their venture to fail and so set the scene for him to re-enact the drama of Peter’s original call to the ministry of ‘catching men for salvation’ (Luke 5:1-11). On that earlier occasion he had ‘said to Peter, “Now row out to deep water to cast your nets and you will have a catch”, to which ‘Peter [had] replied, “Master, we’ve just come back from fishing all night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you insist, we’ll go out again and let down our nets because of your word.”’ And ‘they were shocked to see a huge catch of fish. …When Simon Peter saw this astonishing miracle, he knelt at Jesus’ feet and begged him, “Go away from me, Master, for I am a sinful man.”’
But on this later occasion (John 21:1-19) they did not have Jesus in the boat, when someone on the beach called at dawn, ‘”Hey guys! Did you catch any fish?”’ When they confessed that their efforts had been fruitless, ‘Jesus shouted . . . “Throw your net over the starboard side, and you’ll catch some!”’ Recognising “It’s the Lord”, Peter was the first to swim to him, before helping to haul the strained but intact net to shore.
Aha! ‘they notice a charcoal fire’ with breakfast prepared. Not until ‘after they had breakfast’ did Jesus engage in his meticulous therapy with Peter to restore him to unclouded fellowship with his Master and with his fellow-disciples, and commission him to an enhanced ministry. And, since he had denied the Lord three times before dawn on ‘Bad Friday’ beside a charcoal fire, Jesus arranged a corresponding three-stage recovery.
- sentimental nostalgia, so that we live in ‘the now’ (Luke 9:28-36)
As soon as Peter had spoken at a private prayer retreat that Jesus was not ‘Elijah. . . brought back from the dead’ but ‘You are the Messiah’, the Lord gave his first of three clear statement that ‘The Son of Man is destined to experience great suffering [and] will be killed . . .’ (Luke 9:18-22, TPT). Now, a week or so later, he ‘took Peter, James and John and climbed a high mountain to pray’ at an even more exclusive retreat. There Peter heard Jesus converse with Moses and Elijah ‘about his soon departure [Greek exodos] from this world, and the things he was destined to accomplish in Jerusalem.’ But seeing ‘the glory and splendor of Jesus . . . and the two men with him,’ Peter ‘impetuously blurted out, “Master, this is amazing to see the three of you together! Why don’t we stay and set up three shelters?”’ (Luke 9:28-36, TPT). Can you believe this? Peter, the activist by nature, is suggesting they all stay in this bubble of bliss? For that matter, am I still hankering for some such unending mountain top existence? Although, rightfully, Peter would cherish the memory of this experience forever (2 Peter 1:17-18), they all had to descend the mountain so that Jesus could minister deliverance to a demonised boy.
- religious ‘hectivity’ (= hectic activity; Luke 10:38-42, TPT)
When Jesus was a guest in their family home, Mary of Bethany ‘sat down attentively [that surely spells ‘focus’] before the Master, absorbing every revelation he shared’ (Luke 10:39-48, TPT). By the way, nearly every English version misses a very significant Greek word about Mary. In point of fact, ‘Mary . . . also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word’ (Luke 10:39, King James Version) – having done her share of adequate food preparation for the special occasion. Now she was free to be fed spiritually by the Master’s nourishing teaching. So it adds to the tenderness of Jesus’ rebuke of her sister: ‘Martha, my beloved Martha. Why are you upset and troubled [note how Jesus asked a question – which is an aspect of cognitive therapy!], pulled away by all the many distractions? Are they really that important? Mary has discovered the one most important thing by choosing to sit at my feet. She is undistracted, and I won’t take this privilege from her.’
- Next, we need regularly to replenish the fuel (Luke 24:13-35, TPT)
The fuel that is essential to a healthy spiritual fire is the intake of the word of God.
Luke was the only Gospel author to record the narrative of Jesus’ journey alongside a (married?) couple on their weary way back home from an emotional roller coaster stay in Jerusalem during Passover week. In late Sunday afternoon, about twelve hours after he rose from the dead, two of Jesus’ disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus’ discussing ‘all the events of the last few days when Jesus walked up and accompanied them in their journey. They were unaware that it was Jesus walking alongside them’ as he engaged them in some “talking therapy” (as such counselling is currently called). He skilfully asked them leading questions: ‘What are you talking about, so sad and gloomy?’ When they answered that their topic was ‘the things that have happened over the past few days’ in Jerusalem, he asked a second question to draw them out in giving him details about their painful quandary: ‘What things?’ Declaring their faith in Jesus as their Redeemer and Saviour they spoke of his crucifixion three days earlier and of the absence of his dead body from his shroud and tomb at dawn on this very Sunday. Responding, Jesus called them ‘thick-headed’ for failing to see in ‘the writings of Moses and all the prophets’ that ‘it was necessary for . . . the Messiah to experience all these sufferings and then afterward to enter into his glory.’
‘As they approached the village . . . they urged him . . . “Stay with us. It will be dark soon.”’ During supper, they finally realised that their guest ‘was Jesus’, but he ‘suddenly… vanished from before their eyes.’ The next verses disclose so much. ‘Stunned, they looked at each other and said, “Why didn’t we recognise it was him?”’ Notice their reason for thinking they should have recognised him: ‘Didn’t out hearts burn with the flames of holy passion while we walked beside him? He unveiled for us such profound revelation from the Scriptures.”’
- And constantly to regulate the draught (Ephesians 5:18-20, TPT margin)
‘Be filled with the Spirit’s fullness. And your hearts will overflow with a joyful song to the Lord.. … Keep speaking to each other with words of Scripture, singing the Psalms with praises and spontaneous songs given by the Spirit.’
A few days later, on his return to the right hand of the Father he fulfilled the promised of John the Baptist in Matthew 3: 12 (TPT margin): ‘He will baptise you in the raging fire of the Holy Spirit.’ This surely inspired Charles Wesley’s prayer expressed in his majestic hymn:
- O Thou who camest from above
The pure, celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart
- There let it for Thy glory burn,
With inextinguishable blaze;
And trembling to its source return
In humble love and fervent praise.
- Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and speak and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me;
- Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thine endless mercies seal,
And make the sacrifice complete.
I learned this precious hymn at a conference in 1964 when I was a Brethren evangelist in my twenties, conducting tent mission throughout the summer months and in Gospel Halls the rest of the year. I felt empty and disappointed that most of the converts fell away before we had a winter reunion with a slide show of memories of the summer venture. I was desperate for God to fill me with the Holy Spirit, and would kneel in our lounge night after night after my wife had retired early awaiting the birth of our second child. But I didn’t know what to expect.
At that conference my interior reservoir burst as I praised God in a gush of unknown tongues and I fell in love with Jesus in an altogether fresh way. I found that I wanted to give lifts to hitchhikers so that I could witness to them about the Lord. One young man told me that he realised when he first stuck his head in the window to tell me where he needed to get to that he sensed a different atmosphere. But it took me another two years to sort out the Bible’s teaching about what had happened to me. It was the first time in my Brethren life that I had put experience before theological precision.
It was a simple Bible verb that finally settled the matter for me – the word ‘receive’. In the book of Acts, some were filled with the Holy Spirit as soon as they converted to Christ; for others it happened slightly later.
Think of it this way. You are out of the house when a parcel is delivered containing a valuable watch. Have you received it yet? No, but is it yours? Yes, it was yours from the moment it was sent to you. But you’ve still not received it. Then you find the package, run into the lounge to tell the family, ‘I’ve got a Rolex watch!’ Yet you still have not received it until you unpack it, wind it up and put it on your wrist.
Paul asked a group of believers in Ephesus: ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ But only ‘when Paul laid hands on them [then] the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied’ (Acts 19:2, 6, New Living Translation).