“The things of the world are ordered and designed to shadow forth spiritual things. It is apparent and allowed that there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works. The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: viz. by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.”
Jonathan Edwards, Images of Divine Things (1728)
In 2006, 32,000 acres of the Boundary Waters, the pristine wilderness in far northern Minnesota, was devastated by a raging forest fire in the Cavity Lake area. There was obvious concern for the welfare of that ecosystem – the glorious Balsam Firs and animals who made it their home – as well as concern that it would diminish the attraction and draw of that destination place for outfitters and hikers. We’ve also heard, all along, that forest fires are an essential and necessary part of nature’s course. That’s true, on one level, and not, on another.
University of Minnesota forest ecologist Lee Frelich said that if people tried to suppress or control fires over the last century or so, the forest would look pretty sad. “You would get essentially a sea of Balsam Fir,” Frelich said, “then the budworm would come, and it goes out and kind of kills half the trees. So you’d have this kind of crappy, half-dead forest which is full of brush and branches and which is not very attractive for people or wildlife.” Fire can enrich topsoil by speeding up the process of recycling nutrients, and it can effectively take care of grasses or shrubs which would grow too quickly and crowd out sunlight for other species and trees. Fire is a necessary part of a forest ecosystem.
Even more fascinating, to me, is that certain living things have become fire dependent. The cone of the jack pine, for instance, has within it a waxy substance that only opens when sustained heat comes from below – and even then it doesn’t release its seeds until another 20 minutes have gone by, obviously essential to the species’ survival lest the seed get dropped on a fire raging below. Frelich further explains: “In the case of the jack pine, the seeds germinate much better if the leaf litter has been burned away. Jack Pine, in fact, has drier foliage than other species of trees which makes it easier for a fire to run through Jack Pine. It is almost as if they purposely promote fire.”
There is a whole system, it seems, that’s not only adapted to fire, it’s dependent on it. Nitrogen, for instance, is a major portion of the air we breathe and a basic building block of compounds that make up plant and animal tissues, especially proteins. Jim Peterson, in Evergeen, notes: “Nitrogen is a marvelous fertilizer, but to do its work it must first be fixed – combined with other elements to form compounds green plants can use. The heat from fire transforms nitrogen into more easily absorbed organic compounds that fuel photosynthesis, the process by which plants, including trees, capture visible light energy and convert water from the soil and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen. Glucose is then converted into other organic compounds. In trees, these organic compounds are converted to wood fiber.” Fire is not just necessary, it’s essential.
When God comes again to Jesus’ followers, days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the images are provocative, violent, and stirring: the sound the disciples hear is “the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” (Acts 2) Fire is, here, a lively and animating force, giving them new capacity and spirited courage. But it’s also, as we’ve seen in the book of nature, a destructive, crippling force. This image of God’s revelation is profound when understood in both of those senses. This is how God comes to us, a fire which burns off the dust and dross of our old life but also, we fear, consuming it entirely – even destroying that which we hold on to and treasure, that which we feel might save us in time. There is new life in this living God; we know that in our minds, at least. But it’s hard to think about salvation when the old-growth forest of your private world is being ripped through with the licking flames of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask us to become, spiritually, fire dependent. There are those Christians today and throughout the ages who do a much better job of relying and depending on that devastating fire – the Pentecostals of today are very much related to the mystics in the Christian tradition.
Even if we’re not fire dependent, though, we could stand to be a little less fire averse. While it’s true that fires have long been a part of a given forest’s internal ecosystem, and that all of this happened long before we came on the scene, it’s not necessarily the same as the devastating tragedies we witness summer after summer, destroying homes, in some cases taking lives, and altogether wreaking havoc in the American southwest. Historically, at least, these were small and somewhat more contained fires, helping the ecosystem get rid of waste and nourish the soil; Peterson notes, in Evergreen, “they traveled close to the ground [and] most of these fires were not very intense.” “By contrast,” he continues, “the crown fires that now frequent the Southwest don’t have any redeeming value. In fact, their ferocity is difficult to comprehend: flames moving fast enough to overrun birds in flight, burning hot enough to crack boulders, melting topsoil’s organic layer into a waxy glaze that is impervious to water. The flooding that follows often strips stream channels to bedrock, washing away every vestige of fish habitat. So the irony: our early attempts to contain wildfire—a societal decision made some 80 years ago— simply postponed the unexpected but inevitable return of even larger fires and more destructive fires.”
The irony indeed is that, like in the natural order of things, we have so tried to make ourselves immune to the kind of low-level flames which are, in fact, good and healthy that we’ve actually brought about even more devastating and consuming fires. The attempt to make oneself more fire averse will, in the end, be one’s own downfall. Even if we can’t make ourselves, like those mystics of old, reliant on the Spirit’s flame, we’d be wise to find ways to make our spirits and hearts a whole lot less averse to Her power.
It’s much more godly and, I’d say, a whole lot easier to live this way, anyway. It’s healthy to have a form of spirituality that is open, not closed; inquisitive, not dismissive; willing to be changed or taken in new directions, not averse or resistant. If you are rooted in God and you trust God, wholeheartedly, what seems new or different is actually part of God’s drawing out the story of redemption. In fact, this is what it means to follow and worship a living God. I’ve always valued what the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
On this point, I find the response of the crowd in Acts 2 interesting: most of those who heard the apostles speaking different languages were, scripture records, “amazed and perplexed.” They were also honest, saying to themselves and one another: “What does this mean?” That’s a perfectly normal question for an odd, unexpected, even chaotic series of events. But we often leap-frog over that question on our way to judgmental interpretation or our own spin (or uncritically adopting another’s spin). Even on that first Pentecost, not all were so open-minded. Some, maybe more than some sneared and in their negative judgment automatically dismissed the event, labelling the apostles a bunch of drunks: “They are filled with new wine.”
At that, Peter preaches a pretty thorough sermon. Over the years, I’ve read Peter’s sermon as a definitive, erudite, and bold exposition of the faith, only it’s now a faith revealed in an astonishingly different way. To be honest, that kind of spirituality can be off-putting, as well. Those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ aren’t necessarily looking for the answers, given in black-and-white, and if we read Peter’s sermon as a kind of take it or leave it proposition, we might as well leave behind an increasingly vocal majority of American people who genuinely want what we call the Holy Spirit but, in equal measures, are tired of Christian dogma and assertiveness. Outside these doors and, I know, sitting in these pews are people who are genuinely looking for a community of seekers, a gathering of ordinary folks who want to live with the questions and wonder, together: “What does this mean?”
Looking at it from another angle, though, perhaps Peter was wondering aloud, a seeker himself, drawing into the present the seeds of the past. Perhaps Peter was simply bringing forth Joel’s words – words which had lay dormant for centuries but were nevertheless imbued with a holy force. It reminds me of another interesting aspect of the Boundary Waters fire: after the 2006 fire, wild geraniums suddenly shot up everywhere. A type of perennial known as Bicknell’s Geranium, a geranium which only germinates in direct sunlight, was long buried under all that clutter and leaf litter, just waiting for it to be burned away. “That site had last burned in 1801,” forester ecologist, Frelich, said: “Those were 200-year-old seeds germinating.”
Describing what visitors would see in the growing seasons immediately following the 2006 devastation, Frelich described a picturesque scene, albeit one that’s radically different from a forest previously dominated by imposing Balsam Firs: “Raspberry plants can have seeds that have been in the soil for decades, and those will sprout,” Frelich added. “Blueberries will sprout from their roots underground. By the end of the first summer, you’ll see Fireweed, which has a bright pink flower. By the fourth and fifth years, that’s when the berries are the most prolific. Raspberries, blueberries and berries of all sorts. By then, the saplings of trees will be four or five feet high. That’s when it’s really ideal for moose — birch and aspen that are their favorite thing to eat, and there will be billions of them, and they will all be within reach. In an 80-year-old birch forest, the moose is not going to be able to reach the crowns of the trees. But in a young forest like that, they have all the food they want. The population of Black-backed Woodpeckers will go up. You don’t see many of them in mature, closed-canopy forests, but after these big disturbances, by a few years later, you can be sitting there and eating lunch and a dozen of them might fly by.”
An amazing and beautiful landscape, all right there, all along – just waiting for the old-growth to be burned away, waiting to behold the truth that nature conveys: our God is not dead, our faith is not placed in a cabinet of cherished, fading memories, our convictions are not of a bygone era, nor has God forgotten us. The One we worship is a living God, and ours is a living faith. Because of which we wonder, aloud, and are unafraid of doing so: “What does this mean?”
From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Pentecost Sunday, 19 May 2013