God Sets Controlled Burns
John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” – Luke 3:16 (NIV)
My phone buzzed: a short series of texts from the church’s business manager.
“There’s a little chimney fire in Pilgrim Hall, I’m sure we can manage.” … “So, the fire has spread to the roof. Firefighters are here and everybody is out safe.” … “Fire has spread to the sanctuary. It’s an official conflagration.”
Driving across the Bay Bridge, I spotted an enormous column of smoke rising into the ether from what could only be our church.
Dozens had gathered. All three local network news affiliates buzzed around, as well as ambulance chasers offering their services. And of course, my people, watching from across the street.
The large assembly hall that had held their wedding receptions and anniversary parties, the nooks where they had played hide-and-seek as children, the nursery where they had first entrusted their precious bundle to another human being, all erased by the inferno. Some were weeping. Some were solemn. Some sought to comfort me.
“We’ve been through this before,” said Bonnie. “Our church is the people and not the building,” said Becky. “Thank goodness no one was hurt. The rest is just stuff.” Moe and Dan got calmly to work, talking to the fire chief, making the right phone calls.
Four hours later when the fire was finally out, I stood in our gorgeous, ruined church. Gobs of ceiling spackling pews. The drip, drip from heat-twisted steel struts making a gentle rain onto the floor. I prayed that the congregation wouldn’t remember the sermon I preached six months earlier about how God longs to set the church on fire. Metaphorically.
I had preached that God sparks controlled burns in order to pare away that which does not serve her purposes, to free up space and energy for new directions. And so she did. Since then, we have put up an energy-efficient, light-filled community center, and have decided to add affordable housing to our campus as well. We will never be fireproof, but we don’t need to be. We just need to be ready to burn.
God, baptize me with fire and Spirit. Make me brave enough to face the flames and persevering enough to rebuild afterward.
Rev. Molly Baskette is the lead pastor of First Church Berkeley UCC and the author of books about church renewal, parenting, spiritual growth and more. Sign up for her author newsletter or get information about her newest book at mollybaskette.com.