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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Creation Care: Fire


Note: The following was presented via webinar at the Advent Series "Creation in Crisis: Meditations on Earth, Water, Air, and Fire" at the Washington National Cathedral, Tuesday evening, 12/29/22. 


I am both delighted and daunted by our conversation this evening, so I want to begin with a disclaimer. I have absolutely no credentials which give me the right to speak to you tonight on either Creation Care or Fire. While I have a deep affection for St. Francis, I am not an environmentalist or scholarly theologian. My theological perspective does not come from the Academy; neither am I a fire fighter or a park ranger.


I know that fire burns and fire can destroy. One of the first things I learned as a toddler about cause and effect was for one of my parents to point to the stove and say, “Hot!” The frown on their faces while simultaneously pulling away their finger or hand from the stove led me to understand that “HOT” was not a good thing.


When I was old enough to hold more complex thoughts in my brain, I later learned is that ‘hot’ or ‘fire’ is not a good thing if used improperly. The stove was, in fact, “hot” because it was doing something good – cooking food, washing the dishes, making water a more comfortable temperature for bathing, boiling water to kill bacteria, warming the house.


When I was even older, I understood this idea of the holding of completely different facts as truth was called “paradox”.  Fire can hurt and fire can help. It’s but one of the many paradoxes which the earth holds deep in the mystery of its center. More on this later.


So, what I am – or like to think I am – is a good citizen of the universe, a comrade in the movement to take care of and tend to “this fragile earth, our island home”.


I speak to you in your home, listening in, hoping that you, too, came to this webinar because you also strive to be a good citizen  and comrade, and you, too, sense the urgency of this moment in our lives to do better and be a better child of God and tend to our creation. Advent seems a particularly good time to think about being pregnant with possibilities for a new creation.


So it is from that perspective that I come to you tonight, this first week in the Season of Advent, to talk about Creation Care and the element of fire. I’d like to start by first defining what I mean when I say, “Creation Care”. And then, I’ll turn my attention to the element of fire.


First, I believe strongly that care of God’s creation is a Gospel issue, in that I believe repentance and reconciliation are central to the message of the Gospel and the mission of the church. If you recall, our catechism (sometimes called “An Outline of Faith” BCP p. 855 ) tells us that the mission of the church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”.


Repentance and reconciliation are central to restoration. We cannot ‘restore’ something – return it to its former owner, place or condition – without repenting and then reconciling the damage that was done that caused it to need restoration in the first place, even though we know that the actual thing that was taken or damaged or destroyed may not ever be able to be completely replaced.


So, then, repentance, reconciliation and restoration are essential ground work to fully receiving the gift of the resurrection of Jesus from the cross and empty tomb. And, the gift of that spirit of resurrection is grace – grace to see that out of death comes life; grace to know that the tomb that appeared empty is actually filled with hope and possibility; grace to know in the deepest places of our knowing that the passion of Jesus fires our imagination and creativity.


And, I must add, these two – imagination and creativity – are what I find most lacking among Christians in general and the institutional church in particular. In my view, it's part of the reason we are in this crisis. It's time to start thinking out of the box. More on this later.


The gift of the grace of the resurrection leads us to the transformation of our lives. We become newly born again in the spirit of reconciliation and restoration. Our lives are transformed as we strive to live in greater unity and harmony with ourselves, To love our neighbor as ourselves as the Great Commandment decrees, to love one another as Christ loves us, as Jesus asks in the New Commandment, with God and with each other in Christ Jesus, just as it says in the mission statement of the church in the Outline of Faith.


On these cornerstones, then – repentance, reconciliation, restoration, resurrection and transformation – rests my understanding of the work of Creation Care.


I hope you have some comments or concerns or questions or wonderments about what I’ve laid out as my understanding of the work of Creation Care. I understand that I’ll be able to take your questions and we can have a bit of a conversation – such as it is in this technological format – about this increasingly important issue in our common lives.

I want, now, to turn our attention to the element of fire.


In his fascinating and compelling book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, reports that << some human species may have made occasional use of fire as early as 800,000 years ago. By about 300,000 years ago Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis. Humans now had a dependable source of light and warmth, and a deadly weapon against prowling lions.


Not long afterwards, humans may even have started deliberately to torch their neighborhoods. A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teaming with game. In addition, once the fire died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and tubers.


But the best thing fire did was cook. Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms – such as wheat, rice and potatoes – became stables of our diet thanks to cooking. Fire not only changed food’s chemistry it changed its biology as well.

Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favorites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked. Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food.


The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain.

Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.


Fire also opened the first significant gulf between man and the other animals. The power of almost all animals depends on their bodies: the strength of their muscles, the size of their teeth, the breadth of their wings. Though they may harness winds and currents, they are unable to control these natural forces, and are always constrained by their physical design.

Eagles, for example identify thermal columns rising from the ground, spread their giant wings and allow the hot air to lift them upwards. Yet eagles cannot control the location of the columns, and their maximum carrying capacity is strictly proportional to their wingspan.


When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks.

Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman or a small child with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come.


That sign of things to come has arrived.


As I was writing this, I checked the web page “Fire, Weather & Avalanche” which tracks natural catastrophes. Right now – as I am speaking to you – the United States is on fire:

In the state of Washington: 16 fires, 26,505 acres

In Kentucky: 8 fires, 480 acres

In Montana: 46 fires, 21,322 acres

In Texas: 16 fires, 622 acres (a total of 382 fires this year, destroying 54,463 acres, to date)

In Missouri: 11 fires, 136 acres

In Oklahoma: 10 fires, 29 acres

In California: 85 fires, 5 acres (an 8-fold increase in the areas burned by wildfire since 1972)

There are several other, smaller fires in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona but these are the major ones right now. It’s important to know that several of these fires have been burning for months.

Drastic climatic and ecological conditions, including climate change and long-term drought, led to the anticipation of a potentially above-average wildfire season on the heels of two previous such seasons in 2020 and 2021.


Our country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, is on fire!


What can we do? What are we supposed to do? I mean, I consider the images of the destruction brought on by climate change and pray about them as I dutifully rinse out the jar of mayonnaise or pull apart a cardboard box before placing them in the recycling bin.

I take my cloth bags to the grocery store instead of plastic or paper bags and even have mesh bags for my fruits and vegetables instead of using the thin plastic ones at the market.

I’m careful about using my AC in the summer and heat in the winter. I try to live simply so others can simply live. And yet, despite my best efforts, things seem to be getting worse.


Is there anything else that can be done? What am I supposed to be doing?

Here’s a hint: Theologian Jürgen Moltmann notes,

“It was modern industrial society which for the first time viewed the earth simply as matter, and no longer as holy. It is time for us to respect the holiness of God’s earth once more”.

With my particular perspective of Creation Care – repentance, reconciliation, restoration, resurrection and transformation – what might happen, what might change, how might we be transformed if we reconcile ourselves to the restoration of the holiness of God’s earth once more?


I want to turn now to the particular perspective of the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, who is the Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, as well as the Creation Care Advisor for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

Margaret points to a puzzle that consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three.

The goal is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page or retracing the same line.

The only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box

Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or
accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.


Margaret writes: "That’s what religious and spiritual traditions are meant to do: to help confused, isolated, and fearful human beings to think, feel, and understand outside the box of our little ego-selves so that we can experience our connections to each other and to a sacred Reality greater than “I,” “me,” and “mine.” 

Imagine, Margaret asks, that we live in a world in which everything feels fragmented, divided, and falling apart, a world in which a beloved landscape can go up in flames, a flash flood can drown people in a subway, a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store, and starving birds can fall dead from the sky.

Imagine a world in which people feel helpless, frightened, and alone, more tethered to their cell phones and social media than to each other, more ready to arm themselves and stock food in their basement than to reach out to help a neighbor, and perfectly willing to douse their lawns with herbicides and to eat cheap beef from a factory farm because the fate of other creatures is of no concern.  Imagine isolated dots, trapped in an increasingly hot, harsh, and violent world that could well tumble into social and ecological collapse.


I repeat: The only way to solve the puzzle is to go outside the box. Can the church help people find a way to do that?


I would like to ask you to just take a moment here to pause and consider these two images. As you look at the image of nine unconnected dots, I invite you to consider the problem of fire, the paradox of fire with its potential to help and change and transform as well as the potential to do great damage, to hurt and to hinder. 


I invite you to consider the unintended consequences of thinking we might “domesticate” fire and, instead, find a force of nature that is wild and, if not respected or well-tended to, can devastate.

And now, I invite you to consider the solution – going outside the box. Notice, please, that in order to connect the dots in four straight lines without raising one’s pen off the paper, the solution is to not just once, not twice, but to three times to move outside the box.

Also notice, please, that the solution, as a whole, forms the shape of a bow and arrow.

Margaret asks: “Imagine now that we find four lines of thought or four arrows of prayerful intention that disclose an underlying wholeness and unity. What if those isolated dots – what if all of us – discovered that we were held together in a sacred reality, that we were embraced by a love that created all things, connects all things, and sustains all things?”  


“On the surface, in the realm of our senses, we might notice only differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we would sense common ground that holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with the sacred Mystery that some of us call “God.”  Now we would be living outside the box.  And from this place we could begin to heal ourselves and an ailing world.”


I want to be bold and suggest to you that the way of Creation Care is the way of the Gospel. I want to be bold enough to suggest to you that the model of Creation Care – repentance, reconciliation, restoration, resurrection and transformation is nothing other than the Way of Jesus, a path of Christian life which Jesus has set out for us.


I want to point to you that Jesus was always pushing the envelope, blurring the boundaries, going outside the box in order to begin to help us turn on the light, wake up from our stupor of sleep and heal ourselves and this old, dark, broken world.


It is here, I think, that the mystics can help us, as they often do when it comes to learning to live outside the box. I want to close with a story from one of the great mystics of our time.

This is called The Seed of the Jack Pine, from “Meditations of the Heart”  by Howard Thurman

In response to a letter of inquiry addressed to a Canadian forester concerning the jack pine which abounds in British Columbia, the following statement was received:

“Essentially, you are correct when you say that jack pine cones require artificial heat to release the seed from the cone. The cones often remain closed for years, the seeds retaining their viability. In the interior of the province, the cones which have dropped to the ground will open at least partly with the help of the sun’s reflected heat. However, the establishment of the majority of our jack pine stands has undoubtedly been established following forest fires. Seldom do the cones release their seed while on the tree.”

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat. The forest fire sweeps all before it and there remain but the charred reminders of a former growth and a former beauty.

It is then in the midst of the ashes that the secret of the cone is exposed. The tender seed finds the stirring of life deep within itself – and what is deepest in the seed reaches out to what is deepest in life – the result? A tender shoot, gentle roots, until, at last, there stands straight against the sky the majestic glory of the jack pine.

It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly imbedded, dormant, latent and inactive. These things are always positive, even though they may be destructive rather than creative.

But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation may be involved. The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.

If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we may, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky.


It is my fervent prayer that the fiery crisis in which we presently find ourselves which melts the snow in Alaska and scorches the plains in California, polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink, threatening every element of fire, air, earth and water that are holy gifts from God – that this very “climate crisis” provides the release of something that has been locked up within us, as individuals and as a people, through the years.


It is my deepest hope that that which has been locked up within ourselves is nothing less that love – the love that Jesus exhorted us to have for one another. The love that was incarnate in Him.

The sacrificial love that was born in a humble cave in Bethlehem, died on the cross on a hill called Calvary and was reborn in the empty tomb in Palestine. The love that lives in us all when we discover the Christ in me and seek and serve the Christ in all creatures and creation.


I hold fast to the promise of which French Jesuit priest, scientist, paleontologist, theologian, philosopher and teacher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, 

“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”

Thank you for your patient listening. I now invite your questions and comments, your curiosities and wonderments.


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