Fire is useful. Fire is dangerous. Fire is a powerful force. It has many uses: It gives heat and light which allows creation to live. It is good for cooking, cleaning, renewal. It is has a drawing power to it. We love its dancing light, the warmth it casts in a dark night. It has a mysterious magic to it. And it can also be very destructive. When out of control, fire destroys trees, homes, lives.
There is a Lenape legend about the coming of fire to earth. The Rainbow Crow was beautiful to hear and to see, back in the days when it never got cold, back in the Ancient Days, before Snow Spirit appeared in the World. When the Snow Spirit did appear, all the people and animals were freezing. So a messenger was selected to go up to “The Creator Who Creates By Thinking What Will Be.” The messenger was to ask The Creator to think of the World as being warm again so that they would not all freeze to death.
Rainbow Crow was chosen to go. He flew upward for three days. He eventually got the Creator’s attention by singing beautifully. He begged the Creator to make it warm again, but the Creator said He could not, because He had thought of Cold and He could not unthink it. Instead, Creator thought of Fire, a thing that could warm the creatures even when it was cold. And so He poked a stick into the Sun until it was burning, and gave it to Rainbow Crow to carry back to earth for the creatures. The Creator told Rainbow Crow to hurry before it burned all up.
Rainbow Crow dove down and flew as fast as he could go. The burning stick charred all of his beautiful feathers until they were black and since he was carrying the stick in his beak, he breathed the smoke and heat until his voice was hoarse. And so the Rainbow Crow was black and had an unpleasant cawing voice forever after, but all the creatures honored him, for he had brought fire for everyone to use.
There are many ancient stories about the coming of fire. Fire is certainly one of the most significant elements which has maintained life on earth. Learning to make and control fire was one of the first things to launch human civilization.
But there is something about fire which is always outside of our control. The Lenape legend does not skirt this problem. Rainbow Crow was forever changed by his encounter with fire. Even though it was a gift. Even though his bravery saved humans and animals. His countenance was charred and his voice completely changed. He was transformed by fire. And usually we look at this kind of transformation as evil. But there is a final lesson which concludes the story: The Crow is to this day, still honored by hunters and animals, who never kill it for food…and, if you look closely at the Crow’s black feathers you can still see many colors gleaming in the black.
This is characteristic of fire – that it transforms everything it touches, that it is beautiful and draws us in, while it is dangerous and causes pain.
This is the season of Pentecost, and we are talking about metaphors for life in the Spirit. We cannot leave this exploration without touching the flame, dangerous as it may be. When Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, it is described as tongues of fire which came to rest on each of them. This is often pictured as little flames hovering over the heads of each follower. But when I think about what happened, when I think about other instances where God show up as fire, well…, this seems a bit tame! Something happened in that room which transformed them! They were singed, maybe even charred. The old stuff of what they had always known and considered beautiful and holy was in a moment burned to chaff, blown away by the wind that brought the flame. They were transformed! Refined by fire, coming a bit closer to the flame than any human being might want to be. But it was not the end. Afterwards, they poured out into the street and proclaimed the joy of it!
God shows up as fire more in Exodus than perhaps anywhere else in the Bible. To me, that is no accident. The exodus from Egypt is the story of the crucible which created a people after God’s own heart. And it was a crucible, a journey in which this people was melted, subjected to extreme circumstances, purified. A crucible of fire.
God’s first appearance in Exodus is in fire. The fire of God’s presence in the bush got Moses’ attention. Fire does that for us as well. We are drawn to fire, to the light of candles, to the fire pit in the campground. There is something magical and mysterious about fire, which causes us to peer deeply into its dancing flames, to pause. Fire can turn even a child into a contemplative! I have seen the flames calm and capture the most squirrelly little boys! Does God speak to them in the flames? I wonder!
But the burning bush was no party trick to lure Moses into a trap. It was the holy presence of God. The voice warned him away from approaching. It isn’t safe. Keep your distance. Take off your shoes. Why? Because it is good to take off your shoes when entering a residence, the place where one eats and sleeps. It keeps the place of presence clean and healthy. It honors the health and well-being of the one who lives there. This is the significance of removing shoes in the Ancient ways. Remember that “holy” also means “pure,” or “set apart.” This place of fire, was the place of the presence of God, an earthly residence, which commanded Moses’ respect. That wilderness sand, near Mt. Sinai, was God’s residence.
That makes me wonder, if God can live there, why not right here? Maybe we should take off our shoes. What difference would that make? Try it and see. How is your experience of this space different with your shoes off? One of the suggestions for people who walk the labyrinth is to take off their shoes, to be directly connected to earth, to sense its holy presence. Though we are on a second floor here, I wonder if the same thing might be true, that we could be more directly sensitive to the Spirit’s presence, if we took off our shoes.
The second presence of fire in Exodus, is the pillar of fire which guided the Hebrew people through the wilderness. When I worked at Calvin Crest – a Presbyterian camp in the Sierra Nevada’s, we took each group of campers on a midnight hike to a particular mountain top, where they could experience the stars in a way that their city lives would never allow. We needed flashlights to make the journey. Every time, someone would forget their flashlight, or the batteries would fail. They had to depend on the light they shared to make the journey. It must have been like that as the Hebrews made their way through the desert at night. God’s presence was for them a cloud by day – cooling and protecting them from the sun, and a fire by night – lighting and warming their way, as it can be very cold in the dessert at night.
And then there is the terrible, consuming fire of God’s presence moving down onto the peak of Mt. Sinai. God told Moses to keep the people away, but that did not take much convincing. They were terrified! Smoke, lightning and thunder. Earth itself quaking in fear. This is the fire image we often go to, the one which inspires terror and judgment. Here we have the mighty power displayed in all its awe.
It has been this image of fire, which Dante picked up in writing his “Inferno” which has shaped our understanding of God as fire, perhaps more than others. We have a tendency to think of ourselves in the negative. A friend shared a video on Facebook of a talk by Kathryn Budig. She exposes the way we disparage our bodies, and think we are being funny. But it isn’t funny, she says. It is to disdain the temple of God, the very soul container where God dwells. Our bodies are exactly what they should be – the place where God has chosen to dwell. We are each a burning bush! A presence where others can take off their shoes in the presence of holy ground. That is what happened on Pentecost. Each disciple became a burning bush – dozens of burning bushes, calling others into the flame of the Spirit.
Will it be painful? Yes, maybe so. Fire is both painful and good. Good and pain mixed together. The skin horse could be honest about this with the Velveteen Rabbit.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes. But when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt…. By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don’t matter at all, because once you are real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Moving through this life with the Spirit of fire in our soul, can be a crazy journey. Painful sometimes, when the fire chars something which has been precious to us, something we have learned to depend on. Something which has been life-giving for us. But like those beautiful rainbow feathers of the crow, their time is done, no longer needed for the next part of the journey.
It is all the same fire. The fire on Mt. Sinai, was the same fire in the pillar which led and warmed them, the same as the presence in the bush which called to Moses, the same presence which touched the disciples on Pentecost. A transforming fire, both beautiful, useful and dangerous.
One of the places this fire is burning today is in the exposure of racism in our country. It is burning with a painful fire! In Charleston, South Carolina, a young man walked into a Bible study he had been attending and killed nine people with whom he had prayed. How is that possible? What in us allows, or even protects, this kind of behavior? Are we our brothers’ keepers? Yes, we are! These deaths, and many others are burning our souls right now. It hurts in a way words cannot describe. But perhaps in this pain, the flame of the Holy Spirit is alight among us, purifying, cleansing the hatred and assumed privilege from our hearts. May it be so. May this pain, this fire, not be for nothing. May it burn away the blinders from our eyes. May we see all creatures as temples of the holy one.
Fire is an archetype for transformation, purification, and rebirth. It is one of the core elements of many ancient holy practices. I invite us each to practice an ancient ritual of fire this week as we reflect on our own life journey. Take some time to prepare. Reflect on what particular thing in your life you need to release into God’s fire. It may be a bad habit, an old wound or a new one, a fear, the need to control, a sense of being better or different than other humans. Fire gives us a vehicle to let go of the old stories and to transform, renew and be reborn. After prayer and reflection, opening your life to the Spirit, prepare that part of you which needs to be released into God’s fire. Write it or somehow place it on some burnable substance – as simple as paper, or complex as charcoal. Prepare the fire – a fireplace, outdoor firepit, bonfire, or even a candle. Invite God’s Spirit to be in the flame and release your burden into the fire. Watch it be consumed. Watch as long as you are able. Feel the charred place it has left in you, feel the lightened space it leaves as well. Stay with it as long as your spirit will let you. Let it be burned up completely.
Life in the Spirit of fire is not safe. But it is good. Let this gift wash over you. An ancient legend was adopted as a symbol of Christianity – the legend of the Phoenix, a beautiful bird which lives forever – not because it never dies, but because at the end, it sets itself on fire, and is consumed by the flames and a new phoenix springs out of the pyre. Fire, even when it leads to death, is not the end, but a new beginning.