He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matthew 3:11c)
Snuggled down here in Florida, Deb and I, and the kids, have been watching anxiously as fires out in California have consumed not only precious timberland, but precious home and lives. A couple of weeks ago, an unusual weather pattern over the northern part of the state produced freak lightning storms that kindled what one firefighter called “almost 70 years of undergrowth.”
When I lived in the L.A. basin as a child, our neighborhood was just two blocks away from the San Gabriel mountains. Every few years, there was a fire somewhere that consumed the dead brush on the mountainside. We would watch it from our patio, the smoke in the daytime, the orange glow at night, the planes dropping retardant, the firefighters extending the firebreaks. It was unsettling, of course, but nothing compared to the fear and horror I feel as the news shows towering walls of flames covering acres, jumping across highways, and causing mass evacuations.
Of course, it’s a personal thing, too, because our extended family lives out there. Deb’s mom and sister’s family had to evacuate their home. Others are dealing with the noxious air pollution caused by the smoke. As I write, the fires continue to rage, and are only minimally contained.
Although these large fires are unquestionably destructive, the beneficial aspects have been well documented. Fires remove dead brush, clean the forest floor of debris, open the forest to sunlight, nourish the soil, and even protect the trees from disease. It allows for new grasses, herbs, and shrubs, and provides new food and habitat for wildlife species. Doubtless, insurance companies aren’t very keen on hearing about the beneficial aspects of fire, but a healthy habitat is not all about what humans want to build wherever they wish. To us, it is a lovely cabin in the woods. To the bears, it is encroachment. It’s all in one’s perspective.
As everyone knows, fire is a prominent biblical metaphor. Unfortunately, “hellfire and brimstone” is what most folks hear about, and justifiably dislike, since it is linked with fear and manipulation. But fire is also part of the church’s story at Pentecost, as tongues of fire settled over the heads of Jesus’ followers. Is it possible that such holy fire was meant to clear out the dead brush from the minds of the disciples, clearing the way for new sunlight, new life, and the new adventure they would be facing?
When events roar through our lives that feel overwhelming and seem destructive, pushing us out of our safe places, causing us to grab on to the things that really matter, it can become an opportunity to see what God is doing with us. Like the slow regrowth time of the forest, it may have to unfold over months and years. But in the end, it is beautiful and life-giving.
Rev. Dr. David Kaiser-Cross
God, we pause to remember and lift to you those men and women who today are risking their lives to help manage and direct the pathways of many fires in the western part of our country. Amen.