The Fire and the Rose are One

Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, “Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this. These people are not drunk, as some of you are assuming. Nine o’clock in the morning is much too early for that. No, what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days,’ God says,

‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

Your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams …

But everyone who calls on the name of the Lord

will be saved.’

Acts 2:14-17, 21

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire …

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

~ Selections from “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets

I’ve had T.S. Eliot on my mind this week. You know, the 20th-Century English poet who makes you work hard to find the meaning of his vexing references to medieval history and literature. His poem The Four Quartets feels modernly relevant to me this morning as we learn more of the news from London about the terror attack in London leaving 7 people dead, many injured, and many more on high alert. Londoners are being told to run and hide until authorities learn more.

Run and hide. Those words evoke the story of Pentecost in my ear. Today we remember those first followers of Jesus who are supposed to “go and tell” the good news of God’s love. Instead, we find them doing something else. They run and hide. And I don’t blame them. They know all about violence and terror. They know about fear and the need for self-protection. The Spirit of God seeks them out and rains down some fire, ready or not.

In the final chapter of Eliot’s Four Quartets, we find the poet on fire patrol in London during WWII, dealing with the wreckage after bombs rain fire on the city. In some ways, those fires of war and violence must remind T.S. Eliot of the fires of hell. Maybe I’ve been thinking of T.S. Eliot this week because poets have a stubborn refusal to be scared by terrible circumstances. They can praise the gift of life and the beauty of this world amid suffering. They know this world is a ruthless furnace. It devours everything in its flames.

On Pentecost, we remember there are two types of flames. As Elliot reminds us in The Four Quartets:

The only hope, or else despair,
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed by fire or fire …
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire …

Which flames do we allow to define our existence, the flames of hell or the flame of the Holy Spirit? When we are captive to the suffering of the past, we turn inward, tempted to wallow in self-absorption. In our personal hells, injustice becomes the only measure of our attention. Gladness, joy, beauty, delight – these have no place in our hells. But the flame of God, the blazing breathe of the Spirit, turns us outward to the world, no longer alone.

Our world is both heaven and hell. Sickness and healing. Despair and light. War and peace. Terror and harmony. When we feel sad or afraid … when all we want to do is run and hide … we can feel like victims of the past. Our job is to feel the depths of the sorrow, not run from it. And when joy arises, who are we to question? It’s OK to give in to delight. In the face of suffering, the only thing we are not allowed is indifference. Indifference is the greatest obstacle to an awakened heart.

With all our traumas, our personal hells and inner caves, our obstacles and challenges, yes, even in rehearsing the sufferings of the past, we acclaim this: the fire and the rose are one. The Spirit of Pentecost summons us with a passionate, fiery thrust forward into new life. Her summons does not always feel so good. Sometimes her presence comes through purging and pain. And sometimes we experience her as a rosy and peaceful Comforter, settling, building and establishing us in a new way of life. The flaming Spirit of Pentecost is a cleansing fire, and a fire of ardent love, all at once. The two cannot be separated. The cleansing fire of Pentecost leaves human cruelty and greed in ashes. She burns our cherished, self-protecting lies into ashes with a love more heartwarming and generous than the fires of self-deception. The sizzling Spirit incinerates sin, fixes fissures, and binds brokenness. She animates us and enflames us with all the energies of God at work in our world. No more cowering in fear. Pentecost is a day of new beginnings to go and tell the world about a God whose love declares:

all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 2, 282.
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