Of Fire And Confusion

“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost Thy seven-fold gifts impart…”1
Did the writer of this ancient hymn really know what he or she was praying for?
Does ANYONE really know what they are praying for when they invite the Holy Spirit into
their lives? Think about it for just a minute. It’s as if we are playing with fire, in the most
literal sense of the phrase. Fire is something which requires a great deal of respect. Yes, it
can be life-giving. But one misstep, one puff of wind blowing the wrong way, and we’ve got
the potential for a major disaster on our hands. Fortunately, destruction was the last thing
on God’s mind when God sent the Holy Spirit blowing through Jerusalem with the rush of a
hot wind, and enflamed the hearts of Jesus’ followers. The end result was a lot like what’s
left after a forest fire. Once the smoke has cleared, it does not take long at all for the forest’s
ecosystem to start rebuilding itself. Often, that new life can be hard to see if we’re not
looking for it intentionally. A colleague who went hiking in a recently burnt area of
Montana describes it this way:
“… The charred remains of spruce, lodgepole pine, and fir were all that I could see.
Burned sentinels of formerly majestic trees rose ahead and above us, and those no
longer standing littered the forest floor as if some great force had arbitrarily tossed
1 “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985), 504.
them and let them lay where they fell… Amidst the desolation, I began to see that
life was everywhere, pushing upward in infinite detail, where, previously, my vision
had been limited only to what was most obvious to the eye. I caught a glimpse of a
mule deer, drawn to the open terrain by the lush, waist-high vegetation now
growing in the sunlight. Fireweed, a lovely plant with lavender and pink flowers that
grows in just such burned-over land, was everywhere around us. How had I missed
it?... I had not seen it in part because I had not paid attention to the moment and to
the larger, more complex picture it contained. Focusing only on the blackened trees
straight ahead and above me, I failed to see the profusion of life flourishing right
beneath my feet. Seeds of lodgepole pines needed only the intense heat of the fire to
release their inner Chi—the deepest, essential life breath and energy—but I had
both literally and metaphorically not seen the emerging new forest for the desolate,
burned trees. Indeed, flourishing was everywhere, in stark contrast to the all too
evident reminders of what had been, on the surface, a very challenging time for this
forest ecosystem.”2
We don’t know too much about wildfires here in coastal Rhode Island. However, we
do know a few things about hurricanes and flooding rainstorms. So many of you still talk
about the infamous 1938 hurricane which killed several of our parishioners. More recently,
there are still many people in Westerly who don’t have adequate housing almost four years
after Hurricane Sandy struck. Similarly, the aftermath of the biggest flood of ancient history
– you know the one, where Noah built an Ark and brought an entire zoo with him, without
2 Bill Harkins, “Transition, Resilience, and Fireweed.” http://www.atthispoint.net/articles/transitionresilience-
asking his wife’s opinion first – is what the people living in Shinar knew all too well about.
For some of them, that epic flood might well have been in living memory, or at least had
been their parents’ favorite story to tell them about the bogeyman living in their closets:
“Go to sleep, or God will flood this bedroom!”
Underneath that, however, is a real anxiety over how this community, which had
suffered so much physical damage and still needed to do some rebuilding, will make its
name for future generations to remember. It’s more than just their legacy that they’re
concerned about. They’re also nervous about what this walled city, with the baked-brick
and bitumen ziggurat at its center, communicates about the character of the people living
there.3 Instead of leaving something which tells their descendants that their greatness
extended all the way to heaven, what they’ve done is the exact opposite of guaranteeing the
security they crave. In building their walled city, they’ve separated themselves from the
rest of the world. And their reward is exactly as they feared: “So the LORD scattered them
abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.” (Genesis
11:8, NRSV)
They did exactly what my colleague had started to when he looked up at the
destroyed forest, and saw only the charred remains of the trees. By focusing only on their
own self-definition, they missed the important stuff, the signs of life they could only find by
looking down at one another. Instead, they looked up at heaven and thought the best way
to access it was by building a skyscraper. What they didn’t realize was that the skyscraper,
3 Dennis Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts: Genesis 11:1-9.”
as big as it may have been by their standards, was nothing at all by God’s standards. And
maybe, just maybe, God really intended for them to focus on something other than what
they could build with their own hands and wills. That something was, and still is, authentic
relationship with God and with one another. Living into those relationships requires
breaking down walls, not building them. Whether they are literal walls made of stone and
mortar, or figurative ones constructed from our own pride, anxiety, and/or need for
control, they have the same function of getting in the way. And that is the point of this
story: that the very things which drive us to define the world in our own way result in a
world where communication and authentic relationship are impossible.4
God’s sending Jesus, and then the Holy Spirit, are meant to fix that problem. Jesus
showed us how to love one another with no regard for our own welfare. And then, after he
left, he sent us another Advocate, to be with us forever. It’s this mysterious Spirit of Truth
Jesus was talking about, and it arrives on the scene in spectacular fashion. It blows into
town like the wind, and manifests itself among the disciples with tongues of flame. If that
isn’t enough, everyone who was present received the further shock of hearing the Gospel
message spoken in their own native languages. It was absolutely chaotic, to the point where
some in the crowd thought they were witnessing a giant frat party still in progress from the
night before. Nobody knew what it meant. It was not until Peter explained it to them that
they truly understood that God had some something astounding. Later in the chapter, we
are told the crowd was, “cut to the heart” and left to ask Peter just what they were
supposed to do about it (Acts 2:37, NRSV).
4 Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts.”
This is not a comfortable situation. Nor is it meant to be. As Peter and the rest of the
disciples already knew, the Holy Spirit has a particular knack for stirring up trouble. This,
its first appearance, is no exception. In addition to the people in the crowd who grumble
about the disciples’ already being drunk at 9 am, there are some 3000 others whose lives
are suddenly changed forever by this encounter. The heat of the Spirit’s fire and wind
cracked open their hearts. In doing so, it opened them to a whole new way of life – one
lived in the hope and light of the Resurrection, and devoted to, “the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, NRSV).
They were not promised it was going to be easy, or that their saying yes would
guarantee their safety. What they were promised, however, were two things: one, a way of
being God’s people which placed sacrificial love for one another ahead of strict adherence
to the Law; and two, perhaps most importantly, that they would never be left alone. That
promise is still very much in effect now, some 2000 years after it was made. As was the
case for our ancestors, the Spirit’s celestial fire will crack us open, too, if we lower our
defenses long enough to let it. Just like with those lodgepole pine cones in Montana, it’s key
to our long-term survival. That is, if we have any intentions at all of helping the Gospel to
take root and grow outside of these walls. By catching just a tiny bit of its heat and energy,
we receive the opportunity to be planted in the soil and thus to share the gift of the new life
with a world which still desperately needs it. And if, like my colleague, we can stop just long
enough to look more closely at our surroundings, we just might catch a glimpse of it,
growing in our midst.