When an entire city is destroyed by fire, it is the resiliency of a people that is left to rebuild. In 64 AD the Great Fire of Rome destroyed more than 2/3 of the city under Emperor Nero. He sought to blame the Christians for the fire because they were easy scapegoats. They were already unpopular among the populace.
3 months after the fire, the Apostle Peter was crucified upside down according to Church tradition and apocryphal texts. Tradition and theory are all we have in relation to the fire and Peter’s martyrdom. Both of these events don’t rest in the realm of truth.
I reflect on Peter often because of his impetuosity, his quickness to react, his overt emotion and his ability/spirit empowered unction to bounce back and be useful.
I reflect on fires now to remind us of what fires do; they destroy, consume, reveal what lasts and in some rare cases of Scripture fire does nothing. People are in it and protected by God. It is used as a metaphor for the spreading of the Spirit in the book of Acts.
And sometimes fire is used to test the life we build on top of our faith:
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Will what we have done in this life survive a testing fire? What interests me is: how in the world do I know the caliber of resources I have built with will remain? What if I don’t have interest in building something with the wrong kind of materials?
I’m fairly certain, Paul is writing about the Christians part in the work of ministry and building up the Church. And I’m also fairly certain that most of what people in the West call ministry will be burned up. A reward will be given for what lasts and loss will be felt for what doesn’t despite us still being saved.
At this stage of life, I am not sure what will be left. I’m not sure if it is the work I have done for the upbuilding of the Church that has burned away or my trust in things working out for my good while trying to do it (Admittedly, I don’t know if I’m trying hard to do it). I can still tacitly believe that God is doing and working good for others, but I have been unable to reconcile my own paralysis, lack of confidence and seeming inability to let go of hurt and rejection over what I perceive is my calling and personhood. I am stuck.
As I was driving in my car on the phone with my mom, I shared my frustration over interviewing at schools, frustration about church life, frustration with the cyclical nature of hurt from the same people and the inability to cope with the fact that I still feel perpetually stuck. And she said, “Could it be God is refining you?”
To switch I swiftly replied, “For 3 years?! I don’t need any more refining. There is soon to be nothing left but ashes.”
To which I heard the Spirit more swiftly reply, “If that is all that is left, I will trade you even that for beauty.”
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
I don’t know if there is a poetic, prophetic text in Scripture that is more filled with hope. Jesus reads this passage in the Temple and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
At the same time, I read this passage and wonder: when? How in the midst of being stuck, held captive, strung along, grieved, in despair do we just get out? Does this only come in the resurrection? Does it actually happen now? Is there actually a sense of communion and love and safety in the assembling of the faithful?
Maybe. Jesus thought there would be.
Maybe, when I’m sufficiently refined, we can trade up for beauty.