Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Playing with fire

The following is drawn from a message delivered in ESR Worship on September 20 by Matt Hisrich:
ESR alum Micah Bales wrote a post not too long ago on his blog in which he raised the question of what it might look like to take hold of a form of fiery positive destruction and burn our meetinghouses down to the ground.
He called us to venture, in his words, “out from the safety of the meetinghouse - all of the beliefs, processes and possessions that we cling to for our sense of identity as Friends.
“The community that arises from the ashes of the meetinghouse will have the clear-eyed aspect of a person who has given up everything to fully invest in the present moment, walking in faith with our ever-present Guide.
“Burning down the meetinghouse,” says Micah, “is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God.”
As you might imagine, Micah’s words were not universally praised. In fact, while he received some affirmation, he also received much stern eldering for even the metaphorical call to cast aside tradition in favor of action.
Among the things that I found interesting about the whole incident are not only the facts of his leading to share such a powerful perspective or the powerful backlash against it, but also the fact that Micah’s message seemed to align so well with other voices I was coming across at roughly the same time. He seemed to be sharing a message that had been smoldering in at least some of hearts.
Let me give you just one example. A number of ESR students, faculty, and others have been meeting recently on campus for book studies over lunch. The book that started us gathering was Peter Rollins’s Insurrection.
Rollins, for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, started a church in a bar in Dublin, Ireland, and has written several books and spoken widely about his ideas.
In Insurrection, Rollins introduces us to one of these ideas, a concept he calls “pyro-theology.” The term was inspired by Spanish Anarchist Buenaventura Durruti who said that “The only church that illuminates is a burning one.” But while Durruti may have wanted to consume all of church in flames, what Rollins urges us toward is to burn away the chaff - what holds us back rather than drawing us forward. I think this is what Micah was trying to get us to think about with his post, too. But just as the vivid imagery of fire can tempt and attract, it can also cause us to retreat and recoil. Not unlike how Elton Trueblood describes Christ, fire can be accepted or rejected, but it cannot be reasonably ignored.
Just what does Rollins mean by the term pyro-theology? As he explains it, “Decrying the popular view of God as a type of product that will render us complete, remove our suffering and reveal the answers, pyrotheology offers the blueprint for an incendiary faith that courageously embraces brokenness, resolutely faces up to unknowing and joyfully accepts the difficulties of existence.”
In other words, we as Christians have failed to the extent that we offer up false smiles and stale certainties in the face real and genuine pain and ambiguity. We fail others and we fail ourselves, and he calls us to burn down what is not working.
But if we are to engage in positive destruction how do avoid veering into less than positive destruction, and if we’re going to move in the direction of any kind of destruction how do we avoid backlash or worse? This is the lesson of Prometheus, after all: fire can be a great gift, but there can be a cost to those who come bearing it.
I think this may be where Trueblood’s idea of an incendiary fellowship comes in. In his book The People Called Quakers he says, “No fires burn unless someone gathers the sticks and does the enkindling, as well as the replenishing. But the persons who perform this necessary function in this incendiary fellowship can be those who are personally humble… [We] can look upon [ourselves], not as those who have a monopoly on the ministry, but rather as [those] who, in one sense, share a ministry with all Christians. The pastor, in the New Testament sense of the word, is not the minister, but one of many ministers, whose joy it is to liberate and nurture the powers of…fellow ministers.”
How can we be about the business of forming pockets or cells, as Rollins calls them, of supportive and encouraging firestarters who can also help each other engage in discernment and whose joy it is to liberate and nurture the powers of…fellow ministers?
I believe the world needs such a gathering of firestarters and firekeepers. Let your life be incendiary. For “No fires burn unless someone gathers the sticks and does the enkindling, as well as the replenishing.”
Start something together that illuminates. Start something that as it burns draws others together out of the cold and the dark. 

Matt Hisrich is a graduate of ESR and serves as the School's Director of Recruitment and Admissions.


  1. You probably already know this story, which has been dear to me all of my adult life: "Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: 'Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?' The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: 'Why not be changed into fire?'" (The Desert Fathers)

    I like the Orthodox commentator who pointed out that nothing in this story is intended to put down Lot. It's a genuine query.

  2. The Holy Spirit is the One who sets us on fire and the One who keeps us going! No accident that the Holy Spirit is portrayed in the Bible as a flame or fire in certain passages!

  3. Of course a group effort is useful, and perhaps necessary, but what needs to be burned away is not any physical or even organizational structure, but within each individual.

    To the extent we depend on the external to define ourselves, rather than our Creator, we mistake our true selves and our most unobstructed relationship with and communication with God. To finally submit, to surrender, to recognize we can never do it ourselves but only exist and move through God's continual grace is to die with Christ and find we have a new life no longer controlled by the world. We can then be involved in the world as a blessing and the as the best we can in building God's Kingdom on earth.

    This is not easy nor instantaneous. It takes persistent centering and relinquishment, or perhaps it occurs when life has taken us to the brink and we are finally forced to the realization that nothing else but God can save us. But coming through to the other side is a life of joy and peace, connected to the only true source of joy and peace.

    In the Indian tradition the initiation into a monastic order involves a ceremony where the aspirant gives away all their possessions and their clothes are burned in the ceremonial fire. They are given new monastic garments, a new name and symbolically become a new person.

    In the Hasidic tradition they recognize a "bliss fire" that streams continually from the heart of God and enlivens all creation and every creature.

    I wish we had more Quakers whose lives just burned with the "passionate, ecstatic, tender loving kindness" the Hasids recognized because God knows the world needs them.