Failing to Acquire the Fire We Desire

A few times a year I hear some variation of being on fire. Someone might say, “I was on fire for God after that experience.” Or perhaps giving voice to an aspiration one might say, “I want to be on fire for God.” Of course there is the idea that the church is too lame/boring/irrelevant and if only it were “on fire” then all would be right with the church. We talk about being on fire in all sorts of ways with the understanding that there is something overwhelmingly positive and admirable about being on fire.

However much we might long to be on fire, it seems that too many of us are not. How is it that we can desire something so deeply, so often, and so intensely but rarely acquire this fire we desire?

Photo by  Siim Lukka  on  Unsplash

Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash

Amma Syncletica is one of the few desert mothers that we have some writings of. She puts her finger on perhaps why we are not on fire as often as we might desire:

“In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to life a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said, Our God is a consuming fire - Hebrews 12:24). So we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and heard work.” - Becoming Fire, Edited by Tim Vivian.

This saying has multivariate meanings to be sure but one of those is the pain, tears and work that is required on our parts to help foster the ignition of fire. Some of the smoke of practicing the disciplines is that they do not “produce” anything or that we might even feel silly doing them. Praying to God does not seem to make anything happen and we might even feel like it is magic thinking to talk to an ineffable and immeasurable God. So just as we begin to step away from the work of kindling the fire.

in our efforts to fully immerse ourselves in the waters of life, we might overlook that if we want to be on fire for God, that it is very difficult (if not impossible) for water-soaked wood to catch fire. Jesus had to go to the desert. The disciplines are often practices that draw us into emptiness (fasting, sabbath, giving, serving, etc.). The spiritual life might be thought of trying to dry us out so to catch fire. No wonder we are unable to acquire the fire we desire. Immersed in waters of business and novelty we are unable to dry out and catch the flame.

He said: Why not become fire?

A story from the desert fathers: 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 become fire?

It has been said by preacher types that preaching needs to be more "practical" and action oriented. Preachers are supposed to give people something to do when they leave the place of worship so they can put their "faith in action".

The intent behind this advice is well intended, we want to give people something to do in order to keep from people a people focused on personal holiness to the detriment of social holiness. However, there are a couple of unintended consequences that may come with giving people something to "do". 

First, it implies that the "doing" is the "real point" of the sermon. Put another way, it implies that "doing" is more important than "being". It is like when people tell a story and you check out while listening only to check back in when they tell you the moral of the story. It is the moral of the story that really matters, because it tells us what to do.

Secondly, and more of my concern, is that it diminishes the imagination of the gathered community. If the preacher is the one that comes up with the things to do that put your faith in action, then there is little reason for you to imagine what you could do to put your faith in action. It lessens the chance that someone in the community will come up with something new because they are focused on doing what the preacher said to do. Trust me when I say, preachers are not always the most imaginative people.

Preachers can teach you how to do your little fast, prayer, meditation and other "action" items, but worship may be one of the few places where we are "set on fire". The inspiration of the Spirit is what sets us on fire. People come to worship and are trying to do all that we can to grow closer to God, and perhaps what we need is less "here is what you can do" sermons and more "here is how you become fire" sermons.