(What follows is one of my favorite stories, one that has been “preached” several times over the years at a number of churches and most prominently, at my father’s memorial service in 2007. I offer it up today in continued loving memory of Keith S. Lowry, as well as a tribute to all those people who have served to kindle the fire of faith in each of our lives.)
Among the fondest memories I have of my father and of growing up are of spending time together at his “hunting camp,” this incredible little cabin that he’d built years before back in the woods of Northern Maine. Looking back, I spent a great many days and nights out there with my Dad in those years: bird and deer hunting in the fall, snowmobiling in the winter, often just going “up to camp” on a Friday night to make a pot of oyster stew on the woodstove (which, back in the day, was the Lowry family meal!) and bunk in for the night. So many great memories; but I have to tell you that one the things I’ll remember the most fondly is just how quickly and incredibly cold it used to get in that camp on a frigid winter night in Maine!
Now, mind you, it wasn’t so much the cold itself that I remember (although I did learn the value of long johns and wool socks early on in my life!) but rather the way that my father would handle the cold. What I remember as a kid was waking up in the wee hours of the morning and looking down from my bunk to see my father quietly stoking the fire burning in the old Clarion woodstove that stood in the corner. Even now I can see him there: lifting the iron covers off the top of the stove, poking around the ashes, stirring up the coals to see if there was any life left to them. Almost always there’d be a few embers, so he’d throw some cedar kindling in the stove, maybe a piece of hardwood or two, and then he’d put the cover back on, opening up the draft just a bit to get the fire roaring.
But the best part was that then, instead of going right back to bed, Dad would almost always just sit for a while in the dim light of the kerosene lanterns – he might put a kettle on for a cup of coffee and he’d probably smoke his pipe, but mostly he’d just sit – pondering life and enjoying the quiet rumble, snaps and cracks of the woodstove coming to life. It was just a small thing, I know; just something he did, but I’ve got to tell you that as I would lie up in the top bunk and drift back to sleep, I always took incredible comfort in it; like everything was alright in the world and I could sleep and not worry about a thing.
Of course, I’ve come to realize over the years that what my father was doing was that which his father had taught him, what he’d learned in the days on the farm two generations ago when my grandparents readied their children for a new day. Understand, in those days, tending fires was no small skill: there’s a story in our family about how one of Dad’s sisters was born on the farm during the middle of the winter; and it was so cold that day that they wrapped the newborn baby up in blankets, put the baby in a box, and set the box next the woodstove to keep the baby warm. So, you see, it became vitally important to keep the fire burning steady and strong throughout the cold night!
That was something my father learned, and in ways both subtle and direct, my father was teaching me. You see, this business of getting a fire going in the middle of the night is ultimately more than a skill, more than the preservation of heritage or the keeping of a tradition; in the end, it’s a kind of caretaking. It’s guarding something that while sometimes a bit intangible, is also very valuable; something for the next generation to receive as something quite precious, so that they might take it as their own. It’s loving someone in such a way that they, too, will learn to love and to care. I can’t really explain it to you; all I know is that even now, that’s the kind of husband and father I want to be; that’s the kind of pastor and Christian man I aspire to be in my daily life; and to tell you the truth, that is the way I have always perceived God to be. I want to be someone who tends the fire on cold winter nights, because in just about every way you can name, that’s what’s always been done for me.
Remember, Paul said to Timothy, the gift of God that is within you: “a faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5) Remember, he said, to keep rekindling that gift of faith inside of you, “fanning [it] into flame,” as the NIV puts it, so that it will keep burning warm and bright. Remember to speak it, act it and live it so that your faith might be seen by all those around you, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”(1:7)
One of the things we talk so much about in the church is this notion of “a life in Christ.” But what does that really mean? Certainly, there are many aspects to a person’s life lived in Christ Jesus; the tenets, if you will, of the Christian experience; things like compassion and forgiveness, spirituality and prayerfulness; the fruit of the Spirit, which “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness” (Galatians 5:22) and more besides. But I would suggest that in end it comes down to something even more basic than this; to use the words of Eric Frost, a life in Christ is simply “the Christian’s awareness of the grace of God at work in his or her life.” In other words, as life unfolds in its wondrous and mysterious way, what’s at the forefront of one’s heart and mind is not merely an appreciation of luck nor some sense of accomplishment, but rather an awareness “of God’s own purpose and grace,” (2 Tim. 1:9) proof that God regularly enters our lives with all the resources of his love and his power.
For so many of us that awareness of God’s purpose and grace is something that was taught, shown and continually reinforced by others who lived that “life in Christ:” family members and friends, Sunday School teachers and ministers, not to mention the countless lay people whose faith intersected with their commitment to the community. Indeed, where faith is concerned we are “legacies” in the truest sense of the word, recipients of rich Christian nurture and faithful example; something we should constantly remember with thankfulness. But even more than this, and this is a key point, it is also something that should remind us of the legacies we want to leave for those who will come after!
In Paul’s Epistle, we find out that Timothy’s faith was something passed on from generation to generation, grandmother to mother to son. Likewise, our faith should be passed on to the “next generations” – our children and grandchildren, certainly; but also our neighbors and friends, the seekers and new believers who cross our paths, people filled up with this incredible feeling of God’s presence and want to know what it all means for them! In each one of these, there’s a tiny flame just beginning to spark and catch fire within the heart; and you and I have the joyous opportunity to “fan into flame the gift of God,” the same gift that is in each one of us, sharing it not reluctantly nor fearfully, but boldly and with the love that is ours in Christ.
Of course, in order for faith to be sparked in them, we need to be mindful of how it’s burning within each of us.
Sadly, in the course of daily life and its challenges, to say nothing of living in a world and a culture that actively seeks to pull us away from our faith, our own fire can all too easily become a dying ember. That’s why it’s of vital importance that we guard that flame, this precious “gift of God;” (1:6) taking the necessary time and effort to regularly stir the coals and ash that still burn within our hearts. It is only when we are “rekindling the flames” of faith, nurturing our own spirits with prayer, and worship and time regularly spent in meditation and devotion (truly the cedar sticks of spirituality – accept no substitute!) that we’re then able to fan the flames for others; only in guarding “the good treasure entrusted to [us]” (1:14) can we be confident of leaving a legacy of a life in Christ for those around us and those who will follow.
It is true, after all, what we sing in that song: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing; that’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it: you spread God’s love to everyone, you want to pass it on.” (“Pass It On,” words and music by Kurt Kaiser)
Thanks be to God who gives us the flame!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry