Spirituality, Art, and Fire
In my growing up years down in East Tennessee my family moved around several times--mostly in the same Halls Crossroads area; in the last house mother and dad bought, which they owned for many years before moving into successively smaller spaces as they headed toward retirement, there was a magnificent fireplace. When the weather was even slightly cool, Dad had a fire going. The smell, the crackle, the warmth--I loved that fireplace! When I was home from college or seminary for a visit I would usually sleep downstairs in front of the fireplace. Eventually, Dad would have a roaring fire to greet me every time I walked in the door to begin a visit during chilly or frigid weather. It became his way of saying, “Welcome home, son!” Obviously, those fires meant more than physical warmth to me.
Stay down in Tennessee with me for just a little longer. Every summer from the time I was 9 through the summer I was 12 I went to church camp. Our camp was called Camp Ba-Yo-Ca, and it was up in the Smoky Mountains. I've told some of you this before, but some of you haven't heard or may not remember that Camp Ba-Yo-Ca got its name by using the first two letters of three words--“Baptist,” “Youth,” “Camp”--Ba, Yo, Ca; very clever, huh? Anyway it was really a wonderful set of experiences overall, and I looked forward every year to going back. Then two other summers when I was a little older I went back as a counselor.
I remember many campfires at Camp Ba-Yo-Ca, and especially the ones on the last night of each camp week when we slept in our sleeping bags outside. Special grub. Roasted marshmellows. Ghost stories galore. Fun songs and religious songs. Counselors a little older than us just chatting with us, off the cuff kinda sorta about simple spiritual truths. The fires were literally central to all we did once our hike got us to the camp-out site for that week.
Thank goodness the camp pastor didn’t camp out with us. He’d already had his chances, several nights running, to win us sinful little boys to Jesus, who would save us from our many sins. Some of the boys got saved again and again, every summer. I always wondered why it didn’t “take” the first time.
That aside, I don’t think God is any closer to us in the beautiful out of doors than God is with us in one of countless concrete jungles, but the absence of human-made things whittles down the distractions.
The Native American shaman, Bear Heart, says this about fire:
..fire came to us a long time ago so it’s our Grandfather. When that wood burns up it turns gray, like an old man, a Grandfather, and we give it the same respect we give our elders. To be a fireman in our ceremonies is a position of great honor. Non-Indians have a fireman who puts the fire out. Ours starts the fire. When a fireman handles the fire he handles it very gently because he’s handling an old person. He doesn’t shove the wood around because dishonoring the fire has its penalties — it can warm us, give us energy and cook for us, but it can also burn us, our loved ones or our homes. So we always respect that fire. We’re very gentle with it, like an old person. And then, when our firemen put the flames out, they do it very gently. They don’t just take water and douse it all at once. They do it very gently, because they’re not putting the fire out, they’re putting Grandfather to sleep. They’re thanking Grandfather for helping us and saying, “Now, you’ve earned your rest. We thank you for helping us. There may be a time when we’re going to have to wake you up again and ask you to help us. But right now, we want you to sleep.”
Many Sioux natives have traditionally believed that a fire at the center of someone’s tipi is a symbol of Wakan-Tanka, the Creator, active in the world. They remember when they were still a nomadic people, one person in every tribal grouping was appointed keeper of the fire. His tipi was typically central for all the others, and when anyone needed burning embers to start new fires, she or he came to the keeper of the fire. When that group moved to a new campsite, the keeper of the fire carried the hot coals with him so that fires could always burn among the people--to cook, to keep warm, to remind themselves of their Creator.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and fire are interestingly connected in some Islamic art. Before I say more about that, I have some explaining to do. Though it is widely believed that the Qur'an prohibits creating any kind of an image, but the fact is the prohibition is not against making an image, but rather worshiping it.
In contrast, Hadith, accounts of what the Prophet said and did are regarded as second only to the Qur’an in terms of authority, consistently prohibit all images of living beings, with special mention of punishment for painters. OMG! Nonetheless, more than a few artistic depictions of Muhammad have shown up across the centuries--especially among Persian artists. In many cases, Mohammed’s face is obscured by flames, sometimes more than his face, and the holier someone is--an angel, say--the more fire attends him. There might be a “her” presented with fire somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find one yet. The more fire there is in the picture, the holier the person around whose countenance it appears is taken to be.
French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, found limited clarity about life in the multiple disputations of his fellow philosophers who tried to explain human experience completely cerebrally. And then in one powerful two-hour period he, out of the blue, felt completely unified with God. This absolutely changed his life to the extent that he made note of it on a piece of parchment and sewed that parchment into the lining of his coat, a coat he would keep the rest of his life.
I don’t know how many people knew about his determination never to forget how and when the meaning of life had come to him, but when he died and those near him were going through his
belongings the coat and the note were found. The most descriptive word he could find to describe how he felt in those intense moments was “fire.”
Year of grace 1654, Monday 23 November...from about half past ten at night to about half an hour after midnight, FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. Certitude, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus….God of Jesus….My God and your God...Joy, Joy, Joy, tears of joy...Jesus...Jesus...May I never be separated from [God, Fire].
First Isaiah, Isaiah of Jerusalem, told of his vision of God that would guide him the rest of his life:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above God….And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar [fire] with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
I absolutely love the ancient Hebrew account of how Moses discovered that God wanted him to take the lead in bringing Moses’ people out of Egyptian slavery. Moses was out tending to flocks in the desert as he always did at that point in his life, and he noticed what must not have been an unusual sight--a bush, dead or almost dead, suddenly in flames from a combination of desert heat, wind, and the absence of even the tiny bit of moisture needed for many of those desert plants to stay alive. He glanced back at it a couple of times, and something WAS different about that particular bush after all. The flames were sustained, but the leaves and branches were not consumed by the fire.
That seemingly impossible combination of factors drew him over to the bush to get a closer look at what was going on. As he neared the bush, something much more shocking than a healthy, living plant that was aflame but not burned by the fire; the more shocking part of what he had to take in was the voice of God Godself that seemed to be coming right out of the bush. An angel, meaning a messenger, from God was the catalyst for the very voice of God it seemed. And through the flames of fire on a piece of ground that came to be called “holy,” Moses came to understand what the next step in his life--which unbeknownst to him at that point would be his greatest step in life--would be; God had tapped him out to be the one to lead the Hebrew people out of their Pharaoh-imposed slavery. God-in-fire had summoned him to an uncomfortable and uncertain future.
When the seer John had the visions into heaven, which resulted in the amazing book of symbols we now call the book of Revelation, he saw the throne of God. The throne itself was clear enough, but the figure of God was murky. In the words of the narrator,
Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God.
Presumably, God as spirit/Spirit is a unified entity and can’t be chopped up into parts. But the book of Revelation, as I mentioned, is in its entirety a book of symbols; so here we have, what else?, symbols. Seven is the number for perfected completeness; not all things that are complete are perfected. God is, and the image/symbol of the “seven spirits of God” proclaims the completeness of God--not a part of God here and another part of God there, but the totality of God in one place. When God relates to humanity, all of God is relating to humanity; not a part of God.
God is a unified entity, and God part of God’s essence is fire--holiness, warmth, light, love; complete.
Our gifted artist for this week is Nita Balderston. Nita’s mesmerizing painting is called “The Fire.”
Let me tell you what Nita said about it before I talk a little bit about how it inspires me.
Where's your fire? Is it in your anger, your frustration, your passion? Does it bring fear, destruction, warmth? Fire consumes. It is a gift or a curse, sometimes both. In thinking about the burning of California, the homeless striving for warmth around a bonfire, the spark of attraction--I tried to portray the intensity, color, and energy of the flame.
I think she succeeded big time!
The blend of colors is amazing, and did you notice that in the mix of the flames, the color green joins the others in subtle, but unmistakable ways? Green is life so the foundation is laid by the painting for emphasizing or capitalizing on the life-giving possibilities of the flames that burn inside us and outside of us.
I don’t need words to be inspired by the painting, but if I were going to bring words into the picture, so to speak, I would cheat and use three words Nita used in her comment on her painting: “intensity,” “color,” “energy.” I see all of those, I feel all of those, in the painting. Since I know the artist, let me say that I think of Nita as someone who lives out the very characteristics she sought to bring to life in her painting.
Nita brings intensity, color, and energy to all in which she invests herself--her family, her church, her craft. I have wondered if it might be a self-portrait, and if not that, then perhaps it is more than a fire to admire, but rather a fire that challenges us to be on fire for all that beckons us: that part of us drawn to God or to Ultimate Reality--use your own words; that part of us drawn to make the world a better place; that part of us drawn to embrace beauty and/or to bring beauty into a fractured world.
Fire never leaves anything the way it was found before the fire came. Some kind of transformation will occur as the flames, after the flames do their work. For example, if the fire of God burns in you or near you, you will never be the same again. Amen.