World on Fire

Fire devours in front of them,
   and behind them a flame burns.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
   but after them a desolate wilderness,
   and nothing escapes them. (Joel 2: 3)

The prophet Joel is speaking to the people of Israel after an invasion and destruction.  It is unclear, the scholars tell us, if this is the Babylonian, the Assyrian or the Persian invasion, in some ways, it doesn’t matter.  He seems to be speaking about all of the invasions of the past and perhaps the ones we face today too.  Joel first uses the metaphor of a locusts descending… what is going to happen is inevitable.

In chapter two, he switches to the metaphor of a fire. A fire that burns so quickly and with such heat that tires melt and palm trees go up in flame.  Carefully plotted neighborhoods and lovingly nurtured homes fall to a line of heat.  Whole cities fall before it.  All of Israel stands in fear of it.

Joel speaks of a fire of the sort our brothers and sisters and in CA know all too intimately right now.  Fire destroys the plans we make.   It destroys college funds, and retirement savings.  It destroys birthday presents and your grandmother’s mementos.  It doesn’t choose between the good and bad people, but comes for us all.  Fire has the power to destroy the stories we tell about ourselves, who are families are and what it means to live where we live.  Fire destroys our security and our safety and sometimes, it even brings death.   Not every person makes it through the fire—not in Joel’s time and not in our own.

When I was in seminary, I was given this advice,  “Run toward the fire.”  My professor wanted me to be a courageous leader capable of making hard decisions and being effective when others might shut down.  He was trying to teach me to overcome my fear because you can’t be effective if you are paralyzed with terror.  He wanted me to run toward the fire because that was the place where real work could be done.

In the fire, people don’t hide behind masks of self-possession or careful restraint.  In the fire, people are vulnerable and scared.  Sometimes that means they are their best self; most often it means they are not.  All of us, when we are in the fire, have to admit we are powerless and scared and in need of God’s help.

I hated this advice.  I hate fires.  I am scared of them.  I do not like literal fires and I’m not a big fan of metaphoric ones either.  I do not like conflict.  I don’t always like the way people show up when they are in crisis.  I don’t always like the way I show up either.

There is fire in the church– a panic in the system.  Decades of abuse, sexual and financial—a theological alignment with conservative politics that has driven people from the pews.  There is fire in society, a fearful destruction of our common life together—we are now enemies fighting against the fake news of our neighbors.  We have fire and it is not just happening in California.

And this seminary professor is telling me to run toward the fire. You might not always like what you see, but you will get to the root of the thing.  Fire wipes away the surface and in the fallow land that follows new life can be built.  To be clear, we cannot see or bring about the kingdom of God by leaving behind the unjust systems and structures of this world.  Sometimes we really do need to burn it down.

This is the fire that Joel is telling us about.  It is coming, jumping from mountain to mountain, unstoppable and dangerous.  This fire is the Day of the Lord.  It is the day when God will come back to God’s people.  When justice will be restored, when the nations who follow him will be led to a great victory, “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?”

My General Presbyter (kind of like my Bishop or my Presbyterian boss) said to me once, “We are the church of the resurrection and not the resuscitation.”  I’ve found this very helpful.  So much of our time is spent trying desperately to breathe new life into almost dead things.  Maybe it is time we recognize that Jesus died before he was resurrected.  Maybe it is time for us to run toward the fire even though we are scared of it.

Maybe it is time to trust that God is at work in this land even as we also lift up the burned out houses and cars and destroyed neighborhoods.  Even as we mourn the dead, we do it knowing that the story isn’t over.  That God still has something to say and it is a word of life.

I’m not trying to trivialize the fire.  I’m not trying to valorize fire through metaphor.  The day of the Lord is a devastation:  It is terrible indeed—who can endure it?  I’m just saying that we, like the people of Israel, are not lost in the fire.  We are not destroyed by it.  We practice resurrection in the burned out and broken places.  We run toward the fire because we know that the fire brings transformation and where the people of God are, transformation can mean new life.

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