By Brian Cole
Did you know there is such a thing as a fire historian?
I knew historians could specialize. Civil War historians, historians of the Reformation, art historians—such ones as these I had heard about.
But fire? I have only recently discovered that you can grow up to be a fire historian. So, while those other boys and girls are out playing firefighter or police officer or nurse or judge, make sure to tell the children it is somebody’s job to tell the story of fire.
Granted, we all have a history with fire. And it is a complicated history.
My first memories of fire involve the burning of leaves on a fall afternoon. I now know that burning leaves isn’t good for the planet and that composting is the best choice for the earth and for your lungs. But, I have to admit I couldn’t wait until the moment when my father let me light the match to torch the tall pile of leaves in our backyard. We didn’t know anyone with an actual fireplace, though the Barkovitz family’s den had gas logs. So, the weekly fall ritual of burning leaves had to suffice for our fireside chats. As the fire died down, we would kick the burning embers into the center.
Fire can gather us.
And all the really cool dads in my hometown were also volunteer firefighters. My father was an English teacher. At a moment’s notice, their farm trucks were transformed into high-speed, firefighting machines with the red rotating light now displayed on their dusty dashboards. And the biggest community gathering was the annual BBQ fundraiser for the Fire Department. One year, my mother won the main prize at the raffle: $1,000.
Fire is cool.
That is, until the Hayti Auto and Tractor Parts burned down on a Wednesday night in my junior year. It was an electrical fire and all the farm trucks and all the water hoses and their best efforts couldn’t save the place. We all turned out to watch the blaze. The fire burned everything in sight.
Several years ago, I traveled to Egypt, to the Sinai Desert, and hiked and camped with a group of Americans and Bedouins and slept under the stars and sat near the campfire in order to keep warm from the desert cold after the sun set. From the fire, we cooked our meals and made our coffee and stayed close.
Fire can sustain us and keep us alive.
Fire does all those things. And it keeps doing them. A fire burned down the Episcopal monastery I visited once in Santa Barbara and kept us warm during a winter storm several winters ago in North Carolina. Fire illuminated your grandfather’s face each time he lit his pipe and burned your cousin’s arm when she tried to rescue the horse from the barn already ablaze. Like the Johnny Cash song says, fire “burns, burns, burns”. We fear it, we need it—we run from it and towards it. It keeps us alive and can destroy so much that we love. Fire is complicated.
You probably do not need a fire historian to tell you that. But since such a vocation does exist, I will tell you that Stephen Pyne, fire historian, is quoted as having said. “Fire is more than ecological process or an environmental problem. It is a relationship.”
In two sentences, the fire historian sums up my history with fire and possibly yours, too. We all have a relationship with fire. Like most relationships, it is complex, with memories both good and bad, with moments, both blessed and traumatic.
Jesus in St. Luke’s Gospel speaks of bringing fire to the earth. As he speaks, the fire is not yet kindled, though he wishes it were. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke of the fire being shut up in his bones if he did not speak of God’s vision, Jesus carries a fire inside.
Jesus tells us he did not come to bring peace but division. He came to bring fire. And this fire will divide things. And then Jesus gives examples of how things will be divided.
He speaks of families. Divided families, with three against two and two against three and fathers and sons and mothers and daughters all being divided. And he continues, by saying mother-in-law and daughter-in-law will be divided.
Doesn’t sound very family-friendly, does it? What happened to the Prince of Peace? “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine?” This little light of mine has exploded into a full-blown conflagration and burned the whole house down. What sort of Jesus is this?
It is a Jesus of fire. It is a Jesus ablaze. It is a complex Jesus, a grown-up Jesus, desiring to be in relationship with real people, who burn and burn and burn.
In the presence of the Christ, all our false selves are burned away. We are divided from all the facades, the masks and illusions we build and create over a lifetime. What is left is a landscape that has been touched by a holy fire.
That land is able to grow something new, real, a community emerging out of the embers of falsehood and fear. In that community, we are not simply kin by blood or family relation. We are also kin by Spirit, related to each other in the light of Christ which has touched us all. Burned, but not consumed.
The fire which Jesus brings illumines all things. After the fire has been kindled in you, your vision of family will never be complete if all it includes is you and your household or you and your tribe. The holy fire that Jesus yearns to see will sweep across those boundaries and borders and make us able to be one people, a community baptized in water and flame.
Jesus is speaking of a wake-up moment in this lesson. The New Testament is a continual call to wake up from a life where we are already half-dead, ruled by the Romans or made numb by the TV screen. What did you expect, staring into your TV set? Jesus says to his community and to us now — “Wake up, look at me! I’m on fire. The Word is burning and dividing and healing and awakening.”
Now, no history of fire would be complete without acknowledging that most of us can probably speak of a time when we were burned by a community, let down by those to whom we had been vulnerable, we had trusted. Sometimes, those communities are churches, houses of worship. Instead of serving each other, concerned with how we build towards the greater good, we compete, convinced that I am right and you are wrong. Jesus might still love you, but I’m his best friend.
We forget, as theologian Sam Wells has said, forgiveness is the justice of God. God is always willing to make a community with us. The cross, the place where Jesus was baptized into death is the greatest example of how far God will go to make community. God is willing to go to hell and back to be in community with us. Too often, people have experienced church communities that are unwilling even to reach across an aisle to forgive or seek forgiveness.
If we are a people following Jesus, we need to remember that he is a flame, still burning and walking ahead of us, like the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel long ago. We are following not only a fire but a cloud of witnesses, who have suffered humiliation and martyrdom, who have been mocked and left for dead. No matter how many times the enemy has sought to divide them, however, the fire kept them together, as one people, following one light, one man set ablaze.
Our call now is not to die, but to live as a people on fire, to be martyrs to immaturity and pettiness, to die to selfishness, to no longer be marked simply by tribe but by the one baptism we find in Jesus, who is water and fire.
A story from the ancient desert fathers: Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?
Jesus is yearning for the fire to come. Why not join him in the yearning?
The Rt. Rev. Brian Cole is Bishop of East Tennessee.