Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, 2 wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, 3 you set the beams of yourchambers on the waters, you make the clouds yourchariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, 4 you make the winds yourmessengers, fire and flame your ministers.
Human mastery of fire is a key moment in our evolution. From the moment our ancestors figured out how to make, contain, and extinguish fire, we literally moved from darkness into light. With the ability to control fire, we could stay warm, ward off predators, and maybe most importantly for this Texan, we could make barbecue! No wonder the psalmist thinks of God as being clothed in fire! What could be more appropriate!
Archaeologists have recently discovered that our mastery of fire may go back as far as 1.5 million years. Specifically, researchers were able to determine that burned bones collected in the Swartkrans region of South Africa were definitely cooked in a hearth at a higher temperature than what is possible in a brush fire. Beyond cooking, human use of fire led to great improvements in tool-making by allowing them to work metals. A copper pendant discovered in Iraq shows that our ancestors were mining and working copper as early at 8,700 b.c.e. We still classify human evolution primarily by metalworking: bronze age, iron age, and so on. It is hard to overstate the importance of fire in the development of our humanity.
Fire is wonderful, awful, dangerous, difficult, and must be treated with respect and care. In the Bible, images of fire are a sign of call: such as the burning coals that purify the lips of the prophet Isaiah. The presence of God – remember the burning bush? And the presence of fire is a source of purification: (sing with me) “For he is like a refiner’s fire”. Fire also pulls us together and creates community. We STILL sit around campfires to tell stories, cook food together, and teach our children about the do’s and don’ts of fire.
The Holy Spirit is depicted as flames of fire and Psalm 104 is traditionally read on the Day of Pentecost as an accompaniment to the story in Acts 2 of the Spirit descending upon the gathered apostles and followers of Jesus. In this psalm, the ministers of God are depicted as “fire and flame”.
Now, I’m a pretty passionate person and have on occasion been accused of being “on fire” about this or that, but I think there is a big difference between being a beacon of light and being a flamethrower. When we imagine ourselves as filled with the “fire” of the holy spirit, do we bring more light into the world? More illumination? or is someone gonna get burned by our heat?
Learning to be on fire without being fiery takes real spiritual discipline. It is especially difficult when confronted with the presence of someone or something that really stokes the fire of our anger and self-righteousness. And this of course is the nub of the problem in most theological (and political) disagreements. We bring too much heat and not enough light to our personal interactions.
My invitation to you, dear reader, is to join me in thinking about the fire within, the fire in your belly, the things that call forth your deepest passion. How do you share that fire with the world? Do you throw it out as flame, hide it under a basket, or can we all become beacons of the love of God clothed in light?