ImagePhotograph by Mark Thiessen
National Geograhic Staff

Focus: There are times when the dry kindling of our souls and society need to burn.

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said:

Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  He said:  Why not become fire?[i]

The words of Jesus in this week’s gospel passage, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already burning… I have come to bring division,” are second only to the crucifixion in their ability to stir our soul and utterly confound us.  It’s moments like these when there is no pretending that the Reign of God is some utopia or easy road.  It’s a force beyond our control that upsets our lives and messes with our relationships.  The force of God in our lives can be like fire, and we are best warned when we begin to think we might control it… especially when we are called to become it!

In 1910 the first director of the U.S. National Forest Service stated, “We understand that forest fires are wholly within the control of man.”  Today, as we’ve seen in dramatic media coverage, wildfires continue to threaten the West, burning bigger and badder than ever before.  I read a National Geographic Magazine article on this phenomenon of growing fires and dollars spend on fighting them.[ii]   It became an incredible metaphor for the way fire can work on our souls and in our society.  The more resources and energy we’ve put into controlling fires, the more we have created conditions – dense forest, dry leaves and branches, homes close to fire zones – to spark these mega fires that elude firefighters and reap awesome destruction.   “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already burning.”

A helicopter passes, its orange bucket sailing overhead like a comet, mist trailing behind. Justin Bone watches it go and shakes his head. “We’re spending millions on 1,500 acres,” he says. “How many city fire departments would that pay for? They might as well be pouring dollars on the fire.”

…Bone loves his job. And he shares with many others the belief that trying to fight all fires is a loser’s game. Bone favors an alternative strategy called “wildland fire use,” in which some wildfires are monitored but allowed to burn, gradually thinning the forests and clearing out fuel… Many plant species benefit from a periodic purging. Bone stabs a finger toward the forest, heavy with ponderosa pine. With their thick, tough bark, the trees can survive all but the most severe burns. Other pines require fire for reproduction; their seed cones are coated in a waxy resin that must be melted off by heat to free the seeds. As fire burns dead wood and live plants, it also releases nutrients into the soil. This is crucial in arid zones, where decomposition without fire would take decades….

“That’s the future, man,” Bone says. “We need to learn to let things burn.”[iii]

Moving from this environmental crisis to our own souls, does it not feel at times like life is a constant effort to put our brush fires, to manage every part of our life?  Some days it feels like we’re succeeding – we successfully avoided the talk about religion with Aunt Mary, we appeared busy enough to get by at work, we summoned barely enough energy to ask the kids how they’re doing today.  God forbid something start burning.  There’s always a ready solution at our disposal – shopping, drink, work, TV, distractions.  We are taught so well how to control the burning.  But then one day we wake up and learn a wayward spark has set aflame a part we didn’t even know we need to be concerned about!  We can live our entire lives subject to the winds, trying to constantly predict the unpredictable… or we can learn to let things burn…

Burning can be a scary prospect, but, like the forest, creates potential for new life.  Sometimes it’s clear in our lives when burning is necessary.  When I was pregnant with my son and my mom was sick in Chicago with pancreatic cancer, the pain in my body and soul was excruciating.  I did everything in my power to try to put it out – acupuncture, exercises, spiritual direction.  I was full with child and felt like a little one being ripped away from her mother.  When I finally went into labor the physical pain was so instructive.  It was a relief to feel the burning, the surrender to death that is so essential to giving birth.  The burning literally brought new life into the world, transformed me into a mother, and connected me to my own mother miles away.

A Japanese haiku by Masahial goes:

The barn has burned
to the ground.
Now I can see the moon.

Letting go of control, little by little, means we let fire touch and transform our lives.  In these burns, everything is subject to the power of flame – our homes, our possessions, our families, our privilege, our hubris in believing we had control.  Those things that were dry in us burn up.

As we become fire, there is danger that sparks from our own lives may leap to others.  Catherine of Sienna said, “Be who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire.”  This is the warning and promise of the gospel.  Not everyone is glad to be set on fire.  It hurts.  It burns.  One person on fire means other people have to change around them.  It messes with systems and forces change.

Our own patron is a witness to the way letting go of control can change everything… even the church.  Francis tried to satiate the burning with an exciting social life, valor in war, and then through service to the poor.  But eventually everything needed to burn.  Because Francis took bolts of cloth from his father’s business, selling them and giving away the money, his father brings a legal suit against Francis.

But the day’s surprises had just begun.

With remarkable composure, Francis rose from his place and approached the bishop. “My lord,” he said, raising his voice, “I will gladly give back to my father not only the money acquired from his things, but even all my clothes.” With that, Francis slipped through a side door of the cathedral, only to appear moments later stark naked, standing before the bishop and holding out all his clothes, with a cash purse placed on top of them. The astonished bishop took the garments and the money, handing them over to an acolyte.

Francis now turned to the crowd and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now, I have called Peter Bernardone my father. But because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, and I want only to say from now on, ‘Our Father, Who art in heaven,’ and not, ‘My father, Peter Bernardone.’”[iv]

Father against son, and yet the burning of this tragedy for Francis’ family freed him to become a wildfire that forever changed the church and inspires our mission to burn away all that is dead in religion and come back to life!

We are all in different places.  For some of us, it may be time to take a first look at all the brushfire popping up in our lives and wonder if they really need to be doused.  For some of us our lives have recently been ravaged by an uncontrolled fire, we are looking for the small green shoots of new life.  For others, we’ve prepared, we’ve known drought, we have no more energy to put out another fire – so perhaps, as Abba Joseph suggests… why not become fire?

Rev. Jessica Rowley
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 17, 2013
Focus text: Luke 12: 49-56

[i] The Desert Fathers found in Christine Valters Paintner, PhD Praying With the Elements: Reflections in Word and Image, (Abby of the Arts Press, 2007) 28.

[ii] Neil Shea, “Under Fire,” National Geographic Magazine online (July 2008)

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, quoted in “Soulwork toward Sunday: a self-guided retreat,”