On a recent road trip through southern Kansas, I witnessed a spring rite, the burning of the prairie. The billowing smoke and red glow of distant fires are quite the vista — and a sign of renewal. The distinctive smell permeates the environs, even in a speeding presidential Ford with windows tightly closed. Lightning strikes have lit up dead trees and overgrown pastures for centuries. Seeing the benefits, farmers and ranchers now set controlled times of burning so that new life may come.
It is hard to believe that from charred grasslands and withered, blackened brush can come a healthy ecosystem. Yet, that is exactly what happens. The prairie always blossoms with new vibrancy after this time of seeming ruin.
As I drove through the haze in the late afternoon, I pondered where some Christian ministries might require some “controlled burns” in order to move from surviving (barely) to thriving. Churches and nonprofits and institutions of higher learning have a hard time ceasing to do what is no longer productive. We often preserve programs or patterns rather than clearing the landscape so that the power of greening (how Hildegard described the work of the Spirit) might flourish.
Resurrecting power requires death. The life of Jesus conveys this most clearly; however, it is the paradigm for all creation. Old forms of life become the nutrients for the new to emerge.
I recently saw a brief documentary on the production of bananas. It is a complicated, labor-intensive process that moves from the plantation to our cereal bowls and lunch bags. Most interesting is how the stalks and leaves of the no longer productive mother plants are left between the young plants to nourish the new harvest. They have completed their bearing cycle and now die in the service of their progeny. There is a selflessness seen in nature that the more sentient might well emulate.
Over the years, I have witnessed congregations and individuals willing to relinquish their present life so that they might encourage a new yield. Our school has benefited from those who looked toward the future and sowed their lives and resources into the promise of theological education.
The Eastertide lectionary texts from Acts narrate such generative activities. The vivifying wind of the Spirit propels new patterns, as the old cannot contain the mighty power of resurrection. God has plans for the entire Roman Empire — and beyond. As one moves through the Acts of the Apostles (conjointly acts of the Spirit), an astonishing tableau unfolds, characterized by the bold breaching of social, religious and political boundaries.
When Paul encounters Lydia, he realizes that the new mission to Europe depends upon her faithfulness. The beckoning man from Macedonia turns out to be a woman! Paul has a new apostolic partner, and he relies on the church birthed in her household more than any other. Not only has he turned toward the Gentiles in his ministry, he now has a female ally, a business entrepreneur. We know that his beloved Philippians were a continuing source of encouragement and support, no doubt prompted by the witness of Lydia. Prompted by the Spirit, the earliest proclaimers of the gospel cross many borders and put to death existing notions about whom God chooses to include in a cross-shaped church.
Unclean becomes clean; women become equal; slaves become free; strangers become friends; Gentiles become sisters and brothers. The old is passing away, and all things are becoming new in Christ’s Body, the visible expression of ongoing resurrection. This impulse continues when we do not hinder God’s work.
I marvel as I read about the risks some communities are willing to embrace for the sake of redemptive action. Finding ways to welcome immigrants, recently released prisoners, mentally ill, and the unemployed necessitates a different allocation of a congregation’s budget. More costly is the fact that these ministries require that persons get over any “us and them” thinking, one of the key teachings of the Spirit. God makes no distinctions, even though we like to sustain them for the sake of our sense of propriety. A closed-off life is one of the casualties of inclusive faith.
As we move toward Pentecost, where wind and fire blow in new directions, may we seek discernment about the paschal rhythms — the dying and rising — of varied ministries. Full of holy imagination, the Spirit always nudges us toward creative horizons where we find ways to include more in the circle of God’s mercy. It may be that we need to set a few fires along the way.