I remember the bus ride home from San Pedro High School to our own Palisades High School in 1978. We had just beaten our cross-town rivals in water polo on our way to another championship for the third year in a row. We were full of excitement and ready to celebrate our victory.
|Photo (from year book) by teammate Bob Baker|
From twenty or so miles away, we saw smoke rising on the hills in the direction of our hometown, but we didn’t think much of it . . . until we got closer. Pulling into the school lot we witnessed a long line (ten miles) of fire descending from the ridge above our neighborhood. All celebration ceased.
I grew up in the canyons of Southern California, where each fall the winds shift from the cool, moist Pacific Ocean to blow in from the hot, scorched deserts to the east. These “Santa Ana winds” come after the warm, dry summer months have killed all the underbrush in the canyons, leaving plenty of dead, dry grass. Any fire up in the hills will soon be raging out of control—and often several fires at once.
What makes these wildfires so challenging is the “perfect storm” of conditions. The dry chaparral makes excellent kindling, and the steep hillsides of the many canyons form wind channels that accelerate the already fierce gusts exploding off the desert. The narrow stretches of the canyons also bring acres of tinder that much closer to the ravenous reach of the flames that skip from ridge to ridge as if dancing in the glowing inferno. The fire spreads rapidly, whipped by the strong winds, with no regard for whatever lies in its path. The sight is wondrous and devastating at the same time.
It’s strange that we can know why these fires happen, where the vulnerabilities lie, and even when they will start, and yet we’re powerless to stop them. There is a force of nature that simply laughs at our vain attempts to control its fickle fury.
|Photo of 1978 fire taken from Venice by Jeffery Stanton|
After the fire was out, I went for a hike through the hills above our neighborhood and felt like I was in another world. For miles in every direction, all I could see was scorched, black earth, with the charcoal skeletons of dead trees reaching up in petrified agony. Not a single green leaf, blade of grass, or smallest of insect could be found. And not a solitary bird ventured over this wasteland. It was like being on the moon.
In 2008, after battling canyon fires for more than fifty years, my father lost his home, his lifetime of artwork, and most of his pets in the Sylmar fire. The flames that had taunted him as a young man, and haunted him throughout his adult life, had returned to claim their final victory. My dad passed away in 2011 at the age of 81. His drawings and paintings of fire are some of his most memorable work.
Not all fires are destructive, of course. Fire is also a gift to humanity—for warmth, illumination, nourishment, energy, purification, and the forging of tools that make human culture possible. In the Bible, fire often symbolizes the holy presence of God. It is this latter fire—the primal fire of God—that we will consider throughout this book.
For some, the word primal may conjure up images of unshaven men in loincloths gathered around a bonfire, beating drums. But primal simply means “original” or “first in importance.” When applied to the fire of God, it speaks of a fire older than time itself, yet always fresh; an eternal flame that is both ancient and immediate. The primal fire of God flares up throughout the Bible, often bringing with it dramatic, world-altering changes.
The first time God appears to Abraham, it is as a smoking firepot and a flaming torch. (Genesis 15:17). It is the same fire that later appears to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), descends on Mount Sinai after the Exodus (Exodus 19:18), and settles on the heads of the believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). And on the eventual judgment day, it is the primal fire that will burn away all the chaff, leaving only what is pure and valuable enough to be in God’s presence (1 Corinthians 3:13).
Although the Bible describes God as “a consuming fire” in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Hebrews, there are several remarkable occasions when the fire burns but does not destroy what it rests upon. Whether it is the bush that Moses encountered in the desert; the flames that tested Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Babylonian furnace; the hot coal applied to the unclean lips of the prophet Isaiah; or the tongues of fire and rushing wind that descended on the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, the fire of God brought healing rather than destruction, freedom instead of bondage, and illumination, purification, and divine revelation that were desperately needed.
Of course, if we step outside the will of God, all bets are off. Let us not forget that the same flames that warmed the feet of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego consumed the men who had tossed them into the furnace. The fire that fell from heaven on Mount Carmel destroyed the prophets of Baal but left Elijah unharmed. And I doubt that anyone wants an up-close encounter with the flaming sword the angel wields to protect the Garden of Eden.
So, the fire of God is at once terrifying and beautiful; all-consuming and yet restorative; deserving of our love and our reverent fear. What seems to make the difference—and this will be important when we get to the topic of the lost gifts of Jesus—is that we remain within God’s purpose as He applies the fire to vessels that are both set apart and willing to be used.
To be clear, it’s not that the receptacles God chooses must somehow make themselves worthy. It wasn’t the bush that made the Moses encounter so special. When you think about it, any old shrub would have sufficed. No, it’s always the fire that is special, and we must not lose sight of that.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three young Hebrew lads living in exile. The prophet Isaiah confessed his own unworthiness and was mortified by his “unclean lips.” The disciples waiting in the upper room were the same guys who, just weeks before, had been arguing about who among them was the greatest, then hiding in fear from the authorities. But what these otherwise flawed and ordinary people all had in common was that they were available and willing to be used by God.
Such is the kindling that can catch fire if the spark is ignited. When the wind of the Holy Spirit blows, the flame will spread. But first we must recognize and acknowledge that the primal fire of God is still with us today—that the fire that Moses encountered and that came upon the first disciples is available to us all. The flame that was in the burning bush was the presence of Christ, just as the flame that fell on the disciples at Pentecost was the presence of Christ’s Spirit. The same person whom Nebuchadnezzar saw standing amid the flames with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is with us now and wants to energize us with the flames of His primal fire. Let him cleanse our unclean lips and replace our own words with a holy message: “Here am I, send me.”
This is an excerpt from the Introduction to my book Primal Fire.