Are you that rare person who married your first love and you are still just as much in love today as you were at first sight? If you are such a creature, I salute you, but there are not many like you. When I attended Betty Noe’s funeral here not long ago, it was said that she was Hulon’s first and only love. But I suspect that not many of us could say that.
Do you remember your first crush? Was there was somebody back in grade school that you longed to get close to, but he never even noticed that you were alive!? There was somebody in high school that you pined for, but she was a cheerleader and lived in a social stratosphere that you could never reach!
Am I on target? Can you identify with this? You were in love, or at least in heavy-duty like, but it could never work out. We call that an old flame. Puppy love, schoolboy/schoolgirl crush. And when you think of it now, how does it feel? Warm and cuddly? Or as hopeless as ever? What if he were here right now; would you flirt with the old flame? If she were in this room and your eyes met, would you go over and say, “Remember me?” What would it be like to flirt with the old flame? Would you be too nervous to do it?
There was a young lady who sang in the choir in my home church in Louisville. I too sang in that choir, or at least filled a seat in the choir loft – not sure it was really singing! I was interested in this young lady, but at a distance. I thought she was not in my league. The notion of talking with her one-on-one scared me out of my shoes. The idea that I would ever, ever, ever think it possible that she would go out on a date with me … well, I yearned for it and I dreamed about it, but the courage to ask was just not in me.
However, there was one thing I could do, thanks to our being in the choir. The choir loft had only two rows: women in the front and men in the rear. If there were just the right number of sopranos along the front and just the right number of baritones along the back, I could get in the right spot and sit immediately behind her. And if I could sit immediately behind her, not only could I look at her all I wanted, but also I could sort of lean forward while we sang, and accidentally on purpose just slightly touch her hair! Not pulling on anything, not grasping, you understand, just the slightest brush of a finger on a stray strand of hair! Enough to give me a small thrill. A tiny touch of tenderness.
Don’t ask me what we were singing; that I don’t remember. Don’t ask me what the pastor was preaching; that I cannot recall. But ask me about the look and the feel of a wisp of hair, and I can call that to memory right now! An old flame; excitement; a thrill. Yet I was too much a coward to go beyond that. It was something to look forward to on Sundays, but I just could not get beyond that furtive attempt at contact. I felt that that flame would burn me if I got too close, so I stayed away from anything real. Flirting with the old flame was all I could do.
For some of us, that describes our spiritual lifestyle. Some of us treat God that way. Some of us flirt with God as if He were an old flame, someone we yearned for back in the day, but we never had anything real going on. We never brought our fantasies into reality. We were always too scared to do anything more than just barely brush past. We were too cowardly to get involved, too frightened to take on a real relationship. Some of us treat God like flirting with an old flame.
And all we have going for us now is a serious case of nostalgia. Nostalgia – remembering what we used to feel, remembering the thrill of being close to being close. But nothing real, nothing lasting, nothing substantial, nothing now. Our spiritual lives are like flirting with an old flame – thrilling in the memory of it and yet disappointing because there was no fulfillment.
The apostle, writing to Timothy, has a very blunt word for this. There is no mistaking his judgment on this issue. His diagnosis is “cowardice”. We are afraid. Cowardice. We don’t have enough inner fortitude to approach the Lord and deal with a real relationship. True, he says, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” But we have cultivated it on our own. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” But we have produced it within ourselves. We are afraid of a real relationship with God.
But it’s not about God. It’s about us; it’s about our cowardice. There was no reason for me to be afraid of the young lady in the choir, she with the wandering strands of hair. She was not the problem; I was. It was about my self-image. It was about my anxiety. It was about my cowardice. And so it is about us, too, when we only brush past our God and never really engage Him. It is about us and our faithlessness when we reach hesitantly toward a relationship with God but draw back before anything real happens. The Bible calls it cowardice.
So hear the word of the Lord, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, and so, Timothy, “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” Rekindle the flame you once had. Relight the fire that was once in your belly. Find again the passion you had for the things of the spirit. Discover again what God wants to give. For God wants to give us Himself; but we are too cowardly to come closer than flirting with an old flame.
For example, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power …” God wants to give us power. God wants us to feel competent and equipped and capable, powerful. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power …”.
We shy away from power. We stay away from power. Maybe it’s because we live in this capital region, where we see too many people who are addicted to power. Or maybe it’s because we do not want to appear to be arrogant. But I see Christians who think they have no power; I see Christians who refuse to use the gift of power. Not political power, nor financial power, but spiritual power.
Do we realize that God is giving us the spirit of power? Spiritual cowardice means we are afraid to use spiritual power.
I find myself in a hospital room visiting a sick friend, and what do I say? I say, “Well, I wish there was something I could do for you, but all I can do is pray.” All I can do is pray? As if that were practically nothing? As if prayer were not powerful? Brothers and sisters, prayer is not a nothing! Prayer is tapping into the very power of God. But if we are cowards about it, if we do not believe that our prayers will heal, then indeed not much will happen. We have given in to the spirit of cowardice and have not accepted the spirit of power. But this word says, “Rekindle …”. Rekindle the spirit of power.
A friend of mine who had earned a doctorate in theology was introduced to a stranger as “Dr. Whoever.” The person to whom he was introduced said, “Doctor? Oh, what is your speciality?” He thought he was meeting a medical doctor. But my friend laughed it off and said, “No, I’m not the kind of doctor that can do you any good!” Great God, is that what we think of ourselves? That no matter how much we know, it has no power, it can’t do anybody any good? No, no, no. We need to rekindle the spirit of power. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power.”
I find myself listening to someone with serious conflicts and agony of heart. He has done something very wrong, and he knows it. She has violated her own soul, and she realizes it. So when I find myself listening to someone in deep trouble, what do I want to do? The truth is that I want to run! I want to move on! Deep down I don’t think I have any answers, I don’t believe that I have any solutions. I am afraid of the spiritual power that God wants to use through me! I am afraid to fail, and, most of all, I am afraid that this guy out here telling me all this about himself will lay a claim on me and I will not know what to do! I still have a few folks like that left over from my pastoring days; they call and they want help and I feel powerless. I wish they’d go away.
Now what is that really all about? It’s about cowardice. It’s about not believing that the spirit of God is powerful and that the gift of His power is mine. I would rather flirt with the old flame than come into contact with the fire of the Spirit! But again, this word says to me, “Rekindle …” Rekindle the gift of God that is in you. Rekindle the gift of power. For “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power …”. And until I believe that and use that power for someone’s healing, God will remain only a distant presence and I will be doing nothing more than flirting with an old flame.
But it gets deeper. Flirting with an old flame instead of getting into a real relationship gets more intense. The issue is not only that God wants to give us a spirit of power, power we are afraid to use. The issue is also that God wants to give us a spirit of love, and we are fearful of where that may lead. We are afraid of how much that will cost. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love …”.
The trouble is that we want to love on the cheap. We want to get by with hackneyed words and not the kind of loving presence that costs us something. God wants to give us the spirit of love, but we are afraid of it. We settle for flirting with an old flame, dancing around the edges, when we could be rekindling the spirit of God’s love.
Back when I graduated from seminary, I had in my head all these wonderful ideas about the Christian faith. I could tell you about the three B’s – no, DeWayne, not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; I could tell you about Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann. I could recite in my sleep the seven distinctives of the Baptist denomination; I had been the grading fellow for the church history professor and so had read that list a couple of hundred times. And, Carol, to paraphrase what was said of Shakespeare, I had a little Hebrew and less Greek. Nonetheless, I was full of ideas and ready to go teach my notions about the Christian faith. I wanted to make little carbon copies of Joe. And when my first call was to a campus ministry at Berea College in eastern Kentucky, I thought I was ready to teach the world to think what I thought and to know what I knew.
The only trouble was that that was not what the students needed. These bright young people, fresh out of little rural high schools and away from home for the first time, needed not ideas but love. They needed not theories about the Fatherhood of God, but rather a father figure to love them. They needed not so much to have ideas crammed down their throats as to have a place where their lonely voices could be heard. So here I was, ready to give them all kinds of theories, and the very first week I was on campus I found myself listening to one student tell me about his broken heart because the object of his affections had turned against him, and listening to another student report that she and her boyfriend had taken their relationship to intimacy and she was ashamed. What was I supposed to do with that?
To my everlasting shame and sorrow, I have to tell you that I was afraid of that sort of conversation. I did all I could to give a quick answer and usher that kind of conversation out of my office. I did not know how to love! Nor did I think I had the strength to love. I could see that it was going to take more time, more energy, and more guts than I thought I had to love young people through their crisis moments. I wanted to teach them the Bible, thank you very much! I wanted to teach them how to theologize and philosophize and do all sorts of theoretical things. But guess what? The Lord was calling me to enflesh the Bible, to love them, and that I thought I could not do. I brushed them off. You know, just a quick touch with one finger on the strand of hair! Brushoff.
However, one night the Lord called my bluff. One night, or really very early in the morning, my phone rang; it was one of my students, “Rev. Smith, I think I’ve just had an affair.” Draw your own conclusions; that is exactly what he said. “I think I’ve just had an affair.” And I said, “Well, OK, Lewis, what do you need from me?” And he said it again, “I think I’ve just had an affair.” I was beginning to develop a mental picture, but what do you think was going off in my head at about two in the morning? “I don’t want to know about this. I want to go back to bed. I want to find a quick fix, like a Bible verse, that will get him off the line.” I did not want, at that moment, to engage in anything more at all. I even said, “Lewis, I need to go back to bed now.” But he wouldn’t let go. He wouldn’t disengage. He kept saying it, “I think I’ve just had an affair.” And it finally got through to me that this young man was profoundly scared. He felt guilty, he thought he’d thrown away his college education, he supposed he’d even thrown away his future, because he had felt called to the ministry. And so against all my own inclinations, I stayed on the line, talked him through it, arranged for a whole series of counselling sessions. And that night I learned that God does give us the power to love. God does give us the strength to be a caring presence and not just a brushoff. I learned that God can and will rekindle in us the spirit of love.
“For God did not give us the spirit of cowardice, but rather the spirit of power and of love …”. Rekindle in us, O God, the spirit of love and not merely flirtation with an old flame.
But we are not yet finished. Our nostalgia is not yet cured. Our flirting with an old flame is still going on. For even if we rekindle the spirit of power, so that we know we can do something significant; and even if we rekindle the spirit of love, so that we can stay with somebody through his hour of need … even if we do those things, there lingers in us still a bit of the old cowardice. There remains something else that keeps us from fully engaging the living God and making our relationship with Him real.
That something else is the lack of self-discipline. It is our loss of motivation, our loss of direction. A sense of what our lives are about. Self-discipline. If you want a dynamic relationship with the living God, it’s going to take self-discipline. It’s going to involve being able to set a course with your life and stay that course.
I confess to you that for me this is the most difficult thing of all. I get it about rekindling the spirit of power, because I have seen the power of prayer to resolve so–called hopeless situations. I get it about rekindling the spirit of power. And I get it too about rekindling the spirit of love. I have seen people committed to self-giving love bring others out of hell itself. I get it about rekindling the spirit of love.
But the Scripture is not finished. The Bible has yet another word for us. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Self-discipline. What I most need to rekindle if I am to know God in His fullness. What I must have if I am to move beyond merely flirting with an old flame.
For if I rekindle self-discipline I will be obedient to what He wants me to do in His world. If I rekindle self-discipline, my thrills and my joy will come not from brushing past God but from rubbing shoulders with those God wants me to serve. And if it’s excitement I want, I will not expect the preacher to preach me into a frenzy nor the musicians to sing me into a lather. I will discipline myself to a lifestyle of ministry and mission, outreach and witness.
Here, brothers and sisters, is the core of the matter: our relationship with God is like flirting with an old flame, nothing more than remembering the thrill of getting a little bit close, if we have not disciplined ourselves to do ministry and mission, if we have not poured our energies deliberately into outreach and witness. Our relationship with God is just a little brushoff if we expect others to bring us excitement, for all along the source of excitement is beyond these walls, in a world that needs what we have to give. We have the power, we have the love; all we need is to become proactive Christians, intentional Christians, believers who go into the world each day determined to share the good news with someone, somewhere. Self-disciplined. Not waiting for somebody else to lead us into a fresh encounter with God, but disciplined to see what God has already placed in our midst and to respond to it vigorously and forcefully.
Yes, I do know that that is tough business. Yes, I do know that we are in a neighborhood that may not take kindly to a Christian witness. Yes, I do realize that we are in a time when engaging people in churches is not easy. Yes, I do understand that there are risks involved in being on mission for Christ. But hear once more this timely word: “God did not give us the spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” When you just get up on your hind legs and do what is out there to do for Christ, you will find that fear leaves, cowardice shrinks, and most of all, the presence of the Lord becomes real, full, and free. It’s a matter of believing in the power you have, of living out your love, and of self-discipline. Find a hurt and heal it, find a pain and soothe it, find an itch and scratch it. Rekindle the gift of God given you … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
Oh, by the way. That young lady, my old flame? The one whose hair I arranged to touch ever so slightly? The one I could not get up the courage to connect with? This coming Wednesday she and I will celebrate forty-eight years of marriage! For God did not give me, nor does He give you, a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not flirt with the old flame; reach out and take hold of the Presence. There is no greater thrill, no deeper excitement. And it’s real!