I find it interesting that one of the key images for the Holy Spirit is that of the flame. We know flames have their purpose. They help us cook and keep us warm. They are key to my developing hobby of smoking meat for family gatherings, and they are what we use in our fireplace, our furnace, and our outdoor fire pit to keep us comfortable and warm.
But flames are also destructive. We know from getting too close to the flame on our stovetop or the smoker or the fire pit that we can be seriously burned. I have a couple of scars to remind me of what fire can do, and I have a healthy respect for the power of fire to harm. Kids running around the backyard while I am cooking outdoors get frequent warnings about being too close to the smoke box or grill currently in use.
Then there is the story of John telling us about Jesus at his baptism. In Matthew’s gospel we read:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)
Here, as elsewhere in the gospels and in Acts 2, we have this image of the Holy Spirit and fire combined together. John’s image of the winnowing fork and the threshing floor tend to bring images of hell to mind, but that happens only when we see the wheat and chaff as persons. I think it is less about who gets to go to heaven and who gets to go to hell; it is more about what parts of our lives need to be cleaned out to make room for God to fully embody our lives and what parts create that sacred space.
The truth of this text is that the coming of Christ tends to throw us all in the air. The threshing floor was a hard surface with boards or stones around the sides (thresholds), and the winnowing fork was used to throw everything in the air. It was only done when the wind was blowing so that the dried leaves and unwanted stems would blow away while the grain would break loose and fall back onto the threshing floor where it would then be gathered for storage.
We do a great disservice to the text when we make this be about “them” (those bound for hell) and “us” (those bound for heaven). The only true reading of this text is to see that each of us comes to the threshing floor of Christ as both grain and chaff.
I am fully aware of the parts of me that are grain. Those are the parts that practice and reflect the love revealed to us in Jesus. Those are the parts that see the sacred worth, not just within myself, but in all people. Those are the parts that are more integrated and capable of seeing beyond our divisions to pathways of healing, justice, and hope for everyone and everything.
Then there are the parts of me that are chaff. These are my obsessions, anxieties, worries, and fears that tend to appeal to the primordial, limbic system. What that means is that I can easily move into fight or flight, and it is what disconnects me from others … from God … ultimately, from myself. Jesus is blowing this chaff away when he talks about not being afraid or worrying. He blows chaff away when he asks us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors … when we stand in solidarity with the poorest and most disenfranchised among us. If I am doing these things, I am living beyond my fears, worries, anxieties, and obsessions … those are burned in the fire of Christ! It is a fire that purifies and brings healing.
In my doctoral work, I address issues of brokenness and the need for healing and wholeness among the clergy. One of the key insights I gleaned was given me by one of my faculty advisers, Dr. Tex Sample. He knew I loved country music as much as he did, and he challenged me to look for words of truth in that music.
One day, I heard it. Garth Brooks was singing, Standing Outside the Fire. In that song, Garth is talking about the foolishness of a radical kind of love … a love that comes with the risk of getting burned. He talks about the risk of letting our hearts be open to the possibility of love knowing that it can be painful.
Here is the truth that with great love comes great suffering, and perhaps that is the greatest meaning of the gospel message. When Christ comes into our lives, we are shaken up. We are thrown into the fire of the love that first set the universe in motion … an explosive love that seems to destroy yet which is creative and ever-expanding. It brings us closest to Christ, yet it asks us to let go of everything that we hold onto for security.
Going to the threshing floor of Christ is the ultimate act of letting go!
Standing outside the fireGarth Brooks, Standing Outside the Fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire
So in this new year, perhaps we will find the deepest expression of our faith dancing among the flames of Christ!