Will you pray with me?
God of our ancestors, God of today, may these words bring comfort and hope to your people, and may our contemplations bring us closer to you. Amen.
We are talking about the element of fire these few weeks, as we seek and explore the Divine in Nature in our worship together this summer. It doesn’t seem we can cover fire without addressing its very destructive capacity. In the Pacific Northwest in the summertime, the fearsome aspect of fire is very much present. These last few years particularly, as climate change is beginning to take hold…the summer seems to begins in June, and August gets claimed by wildfire smoke. The relentless heat of the sun, and the terror of fire, seems to dominate summers in a way that I don’t remember it being before. It’s really scary.
And this week, the world itself feels on fire. Watching the tragedy and grief of Afghanistan and its people. Sitting with the images of the planes and the airport and the bombing, and the anxiety of what is to come. Another terrible earthquake in Haiti, where people cannot be reached, where gangs control the roads. The devasting news that more and more children are showing up in pediatric ICUs from Covid; our hospitals at capacity and turning non-critical patients away…
Sometimes it feels like when we look around the world is ablaze in the way we saw in that first photo that began our worship, where flames are all you can see.
It is a painful feeling. It is a scary feeling. It is a feeling of grief and loss and terror all mixed up, watching the things we love and care about burn.
We cannot talk about fire without talking about this aspect of it, this aspect of fury and destruction.
The people of the Bible talked about it too, trying to make sense of the times when fire swept through their communities, trying to grapple with the sudden and destructive loss that the flames brought upon them.
We have some really painful, scary parts in the Bible that tell a story of a God who intentionally harms God’s own people with fire. Who uses fire as a punishment for not being the people God wants them to be.
Those stories, as difficult as they are, are a part of our sacred texts. It’s tempting to ignore them, but especially talking about fire, it seems we need to reckon with them. How do we reconcile these stories of a God of fiery, angry destruction with a God of love that we talk about today?
I wonder if the people of then were trying to make sense of the terror and destruction of fire…trying to make it make sense as we do today….to get a handle on their fear and grief at something traumatic and scary that was happening in their lives. I wonder if they were trying to answer the same question we ask today when fires sweep through our lives, decimating everything in its path: Why? Why did this have to happen?
Though I have a hard time understanding it, perhaps they found solace in having an answer to that question, an answer that gave them something more concrete than …because sometimes terrible things just happen. An answer that gave them a way forward, marching orders to prevent it from happening again: follow God, in this way, and bad things, destructive things won’t happen to you. There is a line of Christianity that still relates to God in this way.
I don’t believe God makes God’s people suffer by punishing them with fire – then or today. It doesn’t align with the God I know, the God that the rest of the Bible tells me about, the God of Mercy, and Grace, and Compassion, and Love. Sometimes bad things just happen.
And while I don’t like making God out to be the villain of tragedy, I do get the impulse of wanting to making sense of it. To make a reason from bad things. To live a life where you feel like you know how to prevent it. But I think there’s another way to think about it.
We have spent enormous effort in our lifetimes trying to control fires’ destruction. We’ve spent decades suppressing fire in our forests, because it’s what we thought was the right thing to do. We thought that all fire was bad, that the way to take care of things we loved was to not let them burn to ashes and dust.
But it turns out we were wrong. It turns out that sometimes letting things burn is in fact the key to the next stage of growth and renewal. There were groups of people, of course, who knew this already. Native peoples in the Midwest would light the prairies on fire sometimes when there hadn’t been one for a while. In West Africa, farmers regularly would burn their farming area to enhance its fertility. Slowly, today’s ecologists and foresters have discovered that fires are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem. Without its cleansing force, some plants essential to the ecosystem cannot even begin their life cycle. The forest floor becomes choked with the understory, preventing new growth, new life from flourishing.
It turns out that fire, while it destroys, can also be a source for renewal. New shoots emerge out of charred landscapes.
Now, we can know that intellectually, but when you are in the midst of what feels like the world burning, all you can feel is the heat of the inferno. All you can see is things you love being consumed by flames.
Make space for that grief. Sit with that loss. Do not run from that dread. Real and terrible things are happening. Being human, being God’s people, means being present to pain in our lives and the lives of others. So watch the firestorm for as long as you need, to mourn the loss of what was. Sift through the ashes of what is left.
But know that God is beyond what we can understand, and that God works in ways we cannot conceive. Remember the tender shoots that need fire to emerge. When you are ready, begin to allow yourself to wonder what new growth might be possible from the wreckage…what new plants needed the acidity of the ashes to set its seeds, to produce flowers we have never seen in our lifetimes.
Trust in the ever-present God, who works even through the destruction of fire to bring new life.