I’ve been thinking recently about the Christian tradition of Pentecost that will be celebrated on June 12th. In Christianity, fire is often associated with Pentecost, symbolizing the coming of the Holy Spirit. Fire is an appropriate symbol for this time of year.
At Pentecost, after a long time of hiding in the Upper Room, the disciples finally get out of their funk. The disciples have been afraid that they will be victims as Jesus had; afraid that they will suffer a similar fate as Jesus did. At the time of Pentecost, the disciples receive a spirit of audacity, determination, and courage, to move into the world in spite of the persecution they knew would be theirs.
Their actions prove that such courage is not without risk, for some disciples and apostles were killed for their outspoken witness of the good news. And surely the disciples remembered Jesus’ words to them,
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5: 10-11)
The early disciples were so filled with passion, courage, and enthusiasm, we might say today that they “had a fire in their belly.” Saints and mystics in every age, and in every religion, have been filled with a similar fire for God, and for the good news of a life lived in partnership with God. Saint Catherine of Siena said that, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.”
My friend and colleague Alex Kern, in his collected anthology of poems and spiritual writings from rising generations, relates the source of the title of his book, “Becoming Fire.” Says Kern:
“This book takes its title from an ancient story of two men who fled to the desert to seek the face of God. The story is but one of many enigmatic teachings from the desert fathers (abbas) and mothers (ammas), those fourth-century ascetics who left the cities of the Roman empire to pray in the deserts of Egypt- only to find God waiting in the wilderness of the heart. As the tradition recounts, one day Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” In response the old man stood and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he replied, ‘Why not become fire?’ “ (from Becoming Fire, edited by Alexander Levering Kern)
What would it mean for Christians to ‘become fire’ today? To be so filled with the Holy Spirit that we have a passion for spreading love, compassion, and service? To feel so experientially that we are one with the Spirit that our lives begin to embody that spirit in our every thought, word, and deed, as Jesus’ life did?
I think we’ve lost some of the power of fire in Christianity today. As opposed to the passion of fire, many see Christianity today as a very lukewarm religion. I say this is not as a judgment, but as an observation of my own experience (which is limited, and certainly not universal.) Though in some places the fire is alive and well, many people do not find passion in the churches they visit. They may see passion in the Jesus they hear and read about, in the stories of saints and sages in years past, and in the lives of the early disciples, but they don’t find such passion today.
I know part of the Christian hesitancy to not be passionate has a firm grounding as well. In today’s world, passionate Christianity is associated with a Christianity that is judgmental, condemning, proselytizing (people of other faiths), and converting (anyone who doesn’t fit into the same beliefs as theirs). People see such Christian passion, and quite rightly say, “I don’t want anything to do with that passion.”
And yet, in throwing out passion for fear that our passion will contain hints of judgment, superiority, or the like, we have lost the wisdom of fire. For if our faith is not rooted in the passion and enthusiasm of the spirit, then what are we doing?
When Jesus told us to love God, he didn’t just leave it there. He said, “love God with all of your mind, all of your soul, all of your heart, and all of your strength.” This is love with our whole selves. It is the same love that Jesus had. It is the love that Jesus’ disciples saw in him, that was so contagious that they could not help leaving everything and following him. That love was so infectious that prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors gave up their lesser passions to live out a new passion- a passion for God, and a passion for helping and serving others.
If people saw that same passion in our churches today, then we would see less people leaving the church, and more people excited to be part of a church community. If people saw fire in the followers of Jesus today, then many churches would be called “thriving” rather than dying.
Even where two or three are gathered, if the spirit is present- that spirit of fire, and power, and passion, and love- then amazing things will happen. Unexpected things.
Why not become fire today? Why not be what you should be? You will set the world on fire.
In the blessings of the spirit in this upcoming Pentecost season.
Rev. Matt Carriker
Author of the upcoming book “Giving Christianity Back to Jesus”: http://www.backtojesusnow.com
P.S. If you are interested in purchasing Alex’s “Becoming Fire” book, proceeds go to scholarships for low-income participants for the IFYI (Interfaith Youth Initiative) program Alex and I coordinate together. Contact email@example.com to purchase the anthology, or visit http://www.coopmet.org/IFYI.html to learn more about IFYI (or to nominate a young person to participate in our July 10-17, 2011 program in Mass.)