Sunday, May 31, 2020

Conflagration | Pentecost 2020

"When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them." — Acts 2:3-4 The Message 

It was 1979, sometime in the summer, and I was 4 years old. A quiet late afternoon disrupted by the volunteer fire department passing our house in the country with sirens blaring, headed north. Phone calls and then we raced to field a couple of miles away, belonging to one of our neighbors. Train tracks cut through it, and evidently some sparks were thrown by a passing train, setting the dry grass ablaze in this field. Already there were the volunteer fire department, and an assortment of other local men who came to help. One of them was my dad, in there with a wet towel or blanket, beating down the flames. Surrounded by woods and fields, this would be a terrible place to let fire get out of control. It spreads, in burns, it destroys, and it kills. Still, it has its benefits. 

"Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use. It is like a fire mastering whatever falls into it. A small flame would be extinguished, but a bright fire rapidly claims as its own all that is heaped on it, devours it all, and leaps up yet higher in consequence." Meditations 4:1-2, by Marcus Aurelius

In 2005 I quit the full-time ministry and moved my family to New Jersey. My wife at the time was Brazilian, and we moved to this state because of the Brazilian community, including people she knew through church connections. It was a miserable time for us. The housing rental prices here shocked me, and I couldn't imagine how we'd make rent every month. The only other professional experience I had besides ministry was teaching English as a second/foreign language, and so I taught at a language school for about a year. It paid very poorly, and we only scraped by during that time. At one point I had to go into New York for some personal business, and my wife told me to 'look around for a job' while I was there. 

I can't tell you just how impossible that is to do. She naively believed I'd see a 'help wanted' sign for office work or something, and walk right in to apply. After I finished my business in the city, I did walk around, and could only feel locked out and desperate. I had no idea how to look for the kind of job she wanted me to get, as well as no concept of what type of work I could potentially do. Our reality in 2005 seemed insurmountable.

Now, 15 years later I'm a program manager, and have worked for some pretty well-known brands over the course of my career. Without going into detail, I was up against a wall of obstacles, and wove my way through them one at a time, burning through until I got to where I am. People helped along the way, of course. The challenge was akin to that a fire encounters when it comes across a heap of damp garbage. If the fire is hot enough, it could die down quite a bit, but eventually get the waste to a point where it can be burned away. Basically, over the past 15 years I've made my way through a lot of hot garbage. 

The author of Acts wanted readers to picture the church's birth into the world as happening through wind and me, it seems reminiscent of the whirlwind that took Elijah up into the heavens, and the fiery chariot that separated Elisha from him. The scene is of a room with a fierce wind rushing through and flames appearing above each of the disciples. It's a dramatic, exciting way to think of how the community of Jesus' people might have been empowered to overcome fear and uncertainty and go out to challenge the status quo.    

One of the tropes of storytelling is that of someone going on a journey, only to discover that what they were seeking was with them all the time. Here we have something like that, I think, in that however the church began, people found the courage and determination to overcome inside themselves. It's an experience not at all exclusive to Christians. Time and again people have dug deep and pushed hard, making the obstacle into the way. This is an aspect of the human spirit at its best, and it is universal. However bad it may be, you can make it through. The path you take and the destinations you find along the way could well not be what you expected, just as I never imagined being a program manager working in media and technology. If it feels like your darkest day, I'm very sorry. I'm also certain the fire inside you can master the garbage and clear it away. You can be a wildfire.