The footage from Fort McMurray is hellfire. A caravan of seven thousand souls in three thousand cars drives slowly through walls of fire shooting over a hundred feet into the air, charred tree trunks punctuating the scene, a carpet of small flames filling any chinks in the fire’s walls while smoldering embers shoot onto the road, the cars. Thick smoke blankets the sky and I wonder how the soldiers, directing the traffic, can breathe, and if what they are breathing will kill them. Inside the cars, where the cameras are, people are sobbing. For miles, they drive past a ruined landscape, burnt out homes, trucks, shells of towns. The fire has consumed an area as large as Massachusetts. And it is predicted to grow.
A different kind of fire is sweeping across the US. New York Times columnist and PBS commentator David Brooks describes Donald Trump’s breathtakingly effective campaigning as ‘calling down fire’ upon his opponents. The reference is to the prophet Elijah, who called for and got, divine fire to descend on the altar of his rivals, the priests of Baal, and the fire consumed their altar and even its stones. Brooks says Trump has done this to all his GOP rivals, one by one. Now he has six months to focus entirely on Hillary Clinton. The earth of our politics will be scorched as never before, that seems certain.
It is the custom of the Church to celebrate the Day of Pentecost as a Fire Day, leaning into the description in Acts of the Spirit descending as in flames on the heads of people, and in tongues of foreign speech. In this, there is an echo of John the Baptist’s promise, that he baptized with water but the One who was coming would baptize with fire.
But I think,in Canadian congregations, no one will want to be cheery about fire this Pentecost. No one will want to decorate the church with red paper flames, or whisper metaphors about spiritual conflagration.
Perhaps it is providential that the lectionary this year has lit upon the Gospel of John’s quite different description of the gift of the Spirit. Jesus himself describes the coming of the Spirit, in response to Philip’s plea, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ And Jesus replies, Do you still not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? It is God in me who does the works I do. And you who believe in me will do them, also, and I will do anything you ask, in my name. And you will receive another Advocate, to be with you forever, who will abide with you and be in you. I will not leave you orphaned, Jesus promises them all. I am coming to you. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. So Pentecost is not a Wow occasion, but an awareness of Oneness. More enlightenment than spectacle.The empowerment here is not represented by fire, nor by acquisition of powers. The image here is of presence. Jesus is not departing for a far away throne, where we may call upon him. Jesus is, instead, becoming part of us, as God is and has been part of him. And the Spirit, who will guide and remember all this, enhances this Oneness in which we, in faith, abide.
John’s image presses us to accept that God, whom we seek, is in us, with us, among us, and that the Spirit works in us Jesus’ final gift, Peace.
But how can our life be holy when we are surrounded by evil, when we do evil? The man who was hung on a cross to die is just not a binary thinker.
And so that’s how God works, that’s how God prevails: by being present, even in hellfire, in the caravan of the frightened who are driving away from a once-beautiful, now ruined world they love, people who will find shelter in the arms of family and strangers on the other side of the fire.
Praying for rain, the great blessing of water, they will sing hymns to the Spirit, wondering if it can be true that God is with them in all this, and also knowing how it has been true, how they have seen God in so many faces in their hours of distress.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump says, If I’ve been attacked, I get to hit back, right? and continues to decry his detractors. But of course, his thinking is wrong. If he could see with eyes of faith, he would see that he and his detractors are all part of one another. That there are neither winners nor losers (a name he likes to paste on others – Loser).
Stephen Colbert uses a video of Hillary/Dorothy skipping down the yellow brick road to the White House, only to find Trump/the Wizard appearing in a fire image above the roof, proclaiming himself Great.
But Jesus, in John’s gospel, says we don’t have to go to the Emerald City, or Foggy Bottom, or anywhere, to find power or to be with God. For God is with us everywhere. Neither a Winner nor a Loser be. That seems to be the theme.