Driving home one late afternoon I was puzzled to see what I took to be an enormous wall of cumulus clouds stretching across the horizon in the direction of my house. The forecast had called for clear skies all day.
Suddenly my heart leapt into my throat. Those weren’t clouds. They were billowing plumes of smoke rising from a massive fire in the Kisatchie National Forest. That’s where I live with my wife and my daughter and my dog and my cat.
Recent images of whole neighborhoods engulfed by flames in California flashed through my mind. But my panic subsided as I remembered that the Forestry Service purposely sets fires in thousands of acres at once.
Paradoxically, longleaf pine forests are fire-dependent. They need fire on a regular basis in order to thrive. Burning is part of a healthy forest’s lifecycle.
When I got home I mentioned to Joy that I had seen the smoke from a controlled burn. She told me that she had checked into the smoke as well and had learned that the Forestry Service refers to these planned fires as prescribed burns. And what a difference a single word can make in understanding a thing!
I had been thinking of fire as destructive. Burning down houses, destroying forests, killing wildlife, and displacing people. Controlling a burn minimizes damage. The intention is to protect some things from the effects of the fire while putting the torch to less valuable things.
But the Forestry Service prescribes fire like a medicine or a tonic or a course of physical therapy. A prescribed burn restores health and promotes new growth. The whole forest profits from the wise application of fire similar to how the body recovers with a round of antibiotics or thrives with a proper diet.
I wonder if on his best days this is what John the Baptist had in mind about fire when he said, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
Admittedly, John’s emotions sometimes ran toward the rage end of the spectrum. He famously called some of his listeners a brood of vipers. But to be fair, he directed his comments to a group of religious charlatans who had gotten into bed with corrupt political leaders. It was not only their hypocrisy but also their exploitation of the poor that sent him through the roof.
And it may be that, when listening to his lesser angels, he gleefully anticipated the day when political oppressors and religious con artists got their comeuppance from a wrathful God. He looked for the controlled burn that would scorch the goats and leave the sheep untouched.
However, remember that the “more powerful” one he was pointing toward was Jesus. And surely John—you know, Jesus’s cousin—caught at least a glimpse of what Jesus himself had to say about fire, about the fire that he had come to ignite.
In another context, Jesus says that he has come “to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12: 49) In her book Wearing God, Lauren Winner hears this passage as Jesus’s desire to ignite the world with love for God and everything that God loves. She reads the passage this way: “I have come to set alight your ardor for Me and for all things good and lovely, and I wish that fire were already lit.” (Kindle loc. 2567)
Jesus came to kindle a prescribed burn, a fire that would restore us to who and what we truly are. God created us in the divine image. God is love. So, love is our essence and our destiny. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Love even of our enemy. In other words, Jesus came to love us into our true selves: to be the people who seek to love what God loves how God loves it.