I prefer my gospel to be all about the good news of God’s love – expansive, inclusive, eternal and regenerative love. But sometimes to get to the good news we have to face the bad news and go through the process of being transformed by fire – disorder, disintegration and deconstruction - before we can experience regenerative love. This is one of those weeks in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 12:49-59) and one of those moments in history.
Jesus said: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49) Having recently lived through serious wildfire in my heavily forested corner of Western Australia (and having had to evacuate and not know for a few days if our home had survived) I am not neutral to the image of fire and have some residual anxiety. Yet I cannot help but be excited by the image and recognise the necessary and refining possibilities that fire brings: in the natural world I understand fire to be an essential part of the process of growth, change and regrowth; in agricultural societies I understand fire to be part of the way that land is cared for and made more productive; I have friends who have a forge and it is their pleasure to learn how to use fire to work metal into objects of beauty and usefulness; in ancient wisdom traditions and Jungian psychology I recognise images of refining dross into gold through the use of fire; and as a homebody I love an open fire on a cold night.
But how do we understand the image of fire out of the mouth of Jesus? I think we need to understand Jesus as part of, indeed the culmination, of both the Prophetic and Wisdom traditions in Scripture. As the prophet Jeremiah (23:23-29) reports the Lord God asked the people: “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks rocks?” The understanding of the Word of God being like fire that refines is a theme that runs through the prophetic tradition. Fire is both about judgement of wrongdoing, particularly social injustice, but also about destroying in order to refine, rebuild, regrow and create a new order.
At this point in the Jesus story he is preparing for his last great work of love and the confrontation with the dark and destructive underside of human nature and his own society and religion. There is probably a sense of frustration and concern as he wonders if his disciples are ever going to get what he is about. For he knows that if those who come to hear him teach understand what he is really saying then they are going to be at odds with ‘business as usual’ ways of doing life and will find themselves in disagreement with parents and siblings, friends and neighbours. The gospel of love is so inclusive that it creates disturbance and division.
How can this be? How can following the one of love lead us to find ourselves at odds with those we love? How can sitting at the feet of the Prince of Peace lead us to find ourselves in the disturbing fray of our time? One of the most useful models I know is that which Richard Rohr has recently written about in his book: “The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder”. This model has value at both the societal, or prophetic, level and at the internal spiritual, or wisdom, level. I will try and say in a few words what Father Richard has said in a wonderfully profound way in several hundred pages.
The model very simply put is that individual persons and whole groups tend to have beginning times of certainty and agreement about what is important and what things mean which creates an environment of confidence and stability – an original innocence. But almost inevitably there will be disturbance either through growth and increasing complexity or alternate voices from the margins who do not find the status quo helpful or right. This process can be very chaotic and even destructive. Eventually if the process is allowed and engaged with there will be a new reorder of things.
Part of the trouble is that many people, including Christians like me, don’t really like or trust the disordering of things. We want to go from the earthly life of Jesus to resurrection without the pain of Good Friday and the uncertainty of Holy Saturday. We don’t want to do or go through stage two – the disordering of what we thought was certain and right. But we can’t get to stage three, the new order of being, unless we participate in the process of our own disintegration and deconstruction. This is true metanoia or repentance – the total realignment and turning towards the true home of our very souls. And I have come to be convinced that this is true of us as whole communities, churches, societies, families and as individual souls. While still a little fearful I recognise and accept the necessity of the refiner’s fire as part of my and our growth and transformation.
Let us explore a little further this stage two, this process of fire and disturbance, of disorder. Father Richard says: “Every age has its pain, and spirituality, in its best sense, is about what we do with our pain.” Part of the problem is that I, and I suspect many others, don’t like pain. Physical pain leads me to want to escape, rub some ointment into what is hurting, have a rest and come back tomorrow and have another try. Emotional pain also leads me into less than useful reactions of avoidance or argument or self loathing and despair or anger at the other who is ‘causing’ pain. All understandable but we do need to be able to recognise when pain is a symptom of something that needs letting go of or at least some serious reordering or refining. And the process to get there will require of us great trust as well as attentiveness (not every solution that offers itself will be good) and discernment.
Part of the process, according to Father Richard, is to recognise where God is in the chaos. “More than anything else, the cross says that God can and must be seen in all things, but most especially in the seemingly sinful, broken and tragic things. The place of the supposed worst becomes the place of the very best. The mystery of the cross teaches us to be prepared to be surprised about how and where God reveals God’s heart. It’s beyond our control.” This approach to finding God in surprising places and processes can be quite confusing. Disordering is by its nature uncontrollable. But we do have companions – the great cloud of witnesses: the pattern of the ones of faith who went before us (Hebrews 11:29-12:2); the journey that Jesus went on in his human life which had times of great ordering or formation and disordering (think of the wilderness and the garden of Gethsemane); and contemporary people of faith who we know in person or through their words and works; and the witness of creation itself. Whether we are reading the words of the saints of long ago or in a group discussion on a Facebook group page about deconstructing our faith, we are not the only ones going through this. We do need some company, we need some encouragement, and we need some affirmation or correction to our changing ideas and inclinations. Most of all know that disturbance and disintegration are not necessarily evidence of you being or doing anything wrong but part of the process of refinement that leads to restoration, regrowth and a new order of being.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, companion us through the fire that we might become a new creation.
I am deeply indebted to the wisdom of Father Richard Rohr:
“The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder”, Franciscan Media, Ohio, 2020