Monday Morning November 3, 2008
If you’ve been through one of our California October fires, from up close and personal, you’ll have a little difficulty with the biblical imagery of fire.
“Set me on fire, Lord” will have a different connotation for you. Either you’ll wince at the thought or you will by necessity develop a new appreciation for metaphor. Children may have some difficulty separating the symbolic apart from the literal, but we adults learn to bounce back and forth between the two levels with relative ease.
In October of 2003, we experienced the literal. We lived in a town ravaged by out-of-control fires devouring all that dry tinder brush out there in the dry desert heat of the Santa Ana winds. We woke up early one Sunday morning to the smell of smoke and an orange glow on the horizon. By the end of the week, it became known around the world as the largest, most devastating and destructive fire in California history. You’ll remember the satellite photographs from space. Our church structure barely escaped the blaze, unlike several homes in the neighborhood that were burned to ash. Two terrible fatalities nearby sobered us all into a keen awareness of life’s gripping uncertainty. Grieving families stood in the ruins of burned-out structures and out of a stunned numbness, wondered. How can it be? How could a lifetime of accumulation be erased in one sweep of intense flames? Was it what it appeared to be – random? Or is this some sort of message? What’s next? Where do we go from here?
So when in worship we ask God to “send the fire,” we know there is something else at play in the mind of the songwriter. When the prophets talked about the sense of God’s presence and power “burning within” them; when Moses heard the voice of God in that desert place from a burning bush; on the day of Pentecost, when believers spoke with tongues of flame; when Paul told us not to douse (quench) the fire of the Spirit; when God is described as a “consuming fire,” well, we know there are many levels of meaning.
In 1991, Sam Keen, one of the editors of the popular monthly magazine, Psychology Today, wrote a book on masculinity in the age of feminism. He defined his view in his title, Fire in the Belly. For him, to be masculine was to be passionate – that’s what fire represents. Not the out-of-control voracious flames that bring death and destruction. Rather, the flames in the fireplace that bring warmth on a cold winter’s night; the flames of passion that ignite the power of romance; the candle that illuminates a dark room and brings a glow of hope and peace; the fire in the belly that fuels meaning and direction and energy to the tasks that fill our days; passion that carries us to the next level and ultimately makes our world a better place.
This week marks the end of a national campaign that most everyone will agree lasted too long. On the one hand, we are weary of a process that generates more heat than light. On the other we are grateful for the possibilities of new direction. We are fearful that something is lost. The foundations have been shaken. We wonder how new leadership will fare in the testing that surely will come in the months ahead. They tell us it will get worse before it gets better. How much worse?
So in our church, we are praying for the passion of the heart of God to grip us. We know we are in a vulnerable place. Much is hanging in the balance. At least one friend expressed the ancient cry Maranatha! (though she didn’t use the word). “These are, it seems to me,” she told us with a hint of expectation in her voice, “the last days.”
“Oh Lord, come!” has been a Christian theme ever since that Day of Pentecost when believers felt that first pang of loss as the post-Ascension era commenced. And there appears to be plenty of evidence that she may well be right.
“But,” she added, “I’m not really ready yet.” And after a thoughtful pause, “I want to watch my kids grow up.”
* * * * * * * *
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. We know history will be made this week. There are candidates to be elected and propositions to be affirmed or denied. The global economy is in a fragile, precarious place. Nations are snarling against nations; saber rattling and ominous threats.
And maybe what’s needed in us all is the kind of passion that renews our vision, kindles our confidence, and drives our pursuits. Maybe what we need is indeed fire in the belly. Not a stale creedalism that blandly affirms a set of doctrines, but a genuine ignition of confidence that in spite of the outcomes of popular elections, the God who started it all is not confused as we may be.
Conservative Peggy Noonan, writing for the Wall Street Journal’s opinion put it this way: “Let’s be frank. Something new is happening in America. It is the imminent arrival of a new liberal moment. History happens. It makes its turns. You hang on for dear life. Life moves. Eras end, and begin. God is in charge of history.”
Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp 2008