This old story comes to mind today as we hear John’s words about unproductive trees being thrown into the fire and being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. This old story comes to mind as I consider first the damage that fire can do and the powerful threat it often seems to hold.
I know I have told it before, but on different days, taking different meaning from it.
Here it is.
I was all of six years old.
We had just arrived at the campsite where our family would be spending the next week. It had been a long drive for me and for my three younger sisters and we were eager to get out of the car.
As my dad started to set up camp, my mother walked the others down to use the bathroom. I stayed behind. In those very next moments, he spoke to me a word of caution for the coals of the last campers’ fire were still there, you see. I was barefoot, no doubt having shed my shoes hours before. He told me then that even though they didn’t look like it, those white coals were probably still hot and to stay away from them.
He turned his back.
I immediately forgot what he had said.
And I walked right through those white-hot coals.
I’ve used this story before on days when we call to mind our sinfulness, our forgetfulness of warning words meant to keep us safe. And while it certainly speaks to that, that is not where I land today.
No, instead I am remembering my reaction that summer afternoon.
For you see, I could still hear the echo of his warning words in my ear.
And I was ashamed.
And so, I stifled the automatic cry which rose up in my throat.
I never said a word, in spite of the pain.
And no, the burn could not have been that bad or I would not have been able to get through the week without someone noticing me limp.
And yet, I think of that today and I know that the outcome could have been so different.
And I think of it today as I consider John’s words about Jesus burning the chaff away.
And I know that we have so often heard those words as ones of threat — and I suppose they are or at least they can be. Even so, this time through I hear them differently. Indeed, this time through I am wondering if it is surely not John’s intent to equate human beings with chaff to be burned. And no, perhaps this is not even really a threat of burning away that which makes us sin, nor even the sin itself, at least not in the usual way we think of it. And not in the way I have long thought of that old story as an example where the burning somehow exposed that which was most human in me in the worst sense…
- Rather, I am wondering now if instead this isn’t a promise to burn away that which keeps a six-year-old from crying out in pain because she is ashamed.
- I am wondering now if that which needs to be ‘burned away’ is the shame itself which leads even children to believe themselves somehow unworthy of love which loves no matter what. Even when we do precisely what we were told not to do but moments before.
Indeed, I am wondering now if the promise in John’s words is that Jesus will come and simply sweep away that which keeps us from resting in and living out of our essential human beloved-ness. All those long-ingrained messages which tell us that we have to be strong. Or always competent. And certainly, never vulnerable and no, not ever broken by what life has handed us.
Now I know that this is true.
At its core, this message understood this way sounds inviting, doesn’t it?
And yet we have spent lifetimes building up that ‘chaff’ which we thought would protect us, haven’t we? And to let go of them, to allow them to be burned away, can well feel as though we are losing a part of ourselves, even an essential part.
At least I know this is so for me. From at least the summer when I was six, I have been trying to project and to live into an image of self-sufficiency or of competence. And yet, each of these has also been accompanied by the fear of being found out as other than these.
So today I have come to this:
I think that when John speaks (and maybe John did not even fully know what he was saying) he is speaking of Jesus burning away that which is not needed, that which gets in the way, that which is just ‘waste’ anyway, all that chaff which does nothing whatsoever to build up that which God so wants built up in us and through us in the world.
Indeed, now as I listen to John’s words pointing to Jesus, I find I realize more deeply that the purpose of the fire which Jesus brings is never to endanger, but always to protect, to only destroy that which does not matter, making possible the growth of that which does.
And so, I think of these last few years, and I wonder if Jesus is somehow using even this time to burn away the chaff within us and around us. Obviously here I speak of my own experience. Yours may well be different, but I wonder if even in different ways, you have also experienced some of the same:
- I think, for instance, of my own deep grief when we first shut down and of how I simply did not know how to be and do as I tried to live out my calling to pastor a particular people here and now.
- I mean, who was I if I could not show up at the bedsides of the suffering and the dying?
- Who was I if I could not press into the hands of God’s beloved the bread of Holy Communion?
- Who was I if I could not pour the water over the heads of God’s little ones and bearing them high, introduce them to the faithful who had come to bear witness and speak promises on days when baptisms were ours to celebrate?
And no, it is not as though any of those are ‘chaff’ in and of themselves, right? Oh, each one of them potentially bears the gifts of God’s great love.
And yet, that is the point, isn’t it?
For decades I have been privileged to bear those gifts to those among whom I am called.
But being the one who bears them to others is not what first defines me or you either if you found yourself where I did.
What defines me and you, too, is something a whole lot more basic than what we do, how we spend our time, or even what gifts we are called to carry to the world. For God is the bearer of those gifts and will be present to those who need them even when you and I cannot. (Sometimes, blessedly often over these many years, I have just gotten to tag along and witness it all up close.)
Indeed, what I have come to now from this vantage point of at least a little distance from all that was so hard is that Jesus would burn even all of this away — or at least my deep reliance upon them — to get you, to get me, to simply stand still in the searing light of God’s love for me, for you.
For no other reason than that you are, than that I am.
Simply human. Somewhere between broken and whole. And always, always loved no matter what.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my six-year-old self that. This not being possible, I can only try to hear this truth today and somehow live into the gift of this for the sake of a world that so much needs to hear it, too.
- This time around, perhaps for the first time ever, I do not hear John’s prophecy as threat, but as promise. Is this a proper hearing of his words? What do you think?
- What ‘chaff’ have you experienced Jesus burning away in these last years or these last days? Are you yet able to see how that might bring new life? Are you seeing signs of that new life yet?
- The truth is, though, that fire always burns. Even when it is necessary. Even when the result brings you all that much closer to what God intends. How is it possible that we submit ourselves to this essential ‘burning?’ What promises, what words of hope, what gifts of trusted community enable us to do this? Indeed, how has this been so for you?