On Being on Fire

Several years ago, I read a story about a man named David du Plessis. He was a Pentecostal, and he was a major voice for that burgeoning tradition when the World Council of Churches (I believe) was gaining traction–his colleagues there nicknamed him “Mr Pentecost.”

One day, he was giving a presentation to a roomful of mainline Christians when a person wearing a clerical collar stood to ask a somewhat polemical question: “I note that many Pentecostal churches call themselves ‘full Gospel’. Are you saying, sir, that we who are not Pentecostals do not have the ‘full Gospel’?”

I was struck by how the story reported du Plessis’ reply. “My brother, imagine that I invited you to my home for a steak dinner. When you arrive, I would take you down to my ice-box, and we would choose the finest cut of meat I had available. We could discuss quite a bit about its size, content, texture; indeed, there is quite a bit that we might know about it. But would that be the meal? Of course not. We would take it to my wife, who would cook it to perfection. We would sit down, and we would taste. The difference is, my brother, that you have your steak on ice, and we have ours on fire.”

“And we have ours on fire.” That final phrase has stayed with me all these years, as an expression of desire, and to a certain extent of my experience. Of course, if we take it just at a surface level, Mr Pentecost’s entire story might be just a case of denominational arrogance: “We have something y’all have lost.” It might be a statement of a minority asserting its ability to contribute to an increasingly inflexible Christendom, of speaking truth to power.

But if we extend our vision just a little bit, we realise that the 20th Century was often a period of nearly unprecedented thought about “the forgotten Person of the Trinity,” the Holy Spirit. Though different Christian traditions have re-invigorated their thought about the Spirit and His/Her/Its activity in the world in different ways, there seems to be a remarkably consistent sense that God has been doing something strange and wonderful for the past while. It is no longer a parochial Pentecostal insight that we must have our Good News “on fire.”

Unfortunately, it is still true that mainline and “progressive” Christians may be uncomfortable with things that smack of strangeness, the miraculous, or the supernatural. There is a legitimate concern, I think, that “moving in the Spirit” should not be synonymous with intellectual close-mindedness, bigotry, fakery, or unhealthy use of power and Church discipline. I forget his name, but a wise Roman Catholic theologian once quipped about Christians in our skeptical and intellectually merciless era, “All Christians must be mystics.” One way I hear that is, “All Christians must have a living, conscious, and dynamic relationship with the Triune God.” It is the fire of the Spirit, that flame that opens our mouths to speak and causes our hearts to burn, that radiates from us with the winsome and persuasive love of God, known supremely in the life and ongoing ministry of Jesus.

An ancient desert monk was seeking for more depth and direction in his relationship with God. He went to his abbot and said, “Father, I have kept my little prayer and my little fast and my little confession. What now can I do?” The abbot stood and raised his hands to heaven. Behold: his fingers became like tongues of fire! And he said to his monk, “Why not become all flame?”

“You have your steak on ice…” Is the Gospel on ice in my life? Has it transformed my heart and my behaviour so that I can be bold to say: “Here’s the thing, my friends: I am the steak. You are the steak.” We are the ones with whom people sit down when they hear, “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who trust in him!” I don’t know if I can become all flame–but I do want this year to be about learning to have my steak on fire, so that others know the utterly difficult and satisfying deliciousness of the love of Jesus in my life, and then sit down with me at his Table to learn the love that makes the guest.

O Spirit of God:
Kindle my heart with a holy flame,
and make me delicious with, and because of,
the love of Jesus.
Amen.

***
NB: Vegetarian/vegan friends have noted to me that the ‘steak’ image is unappealing. Personally, I think something about vegetables simmering or marinating after being thawed would work equally well to make the point!

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