Baptism by Fire

by | Jan 13, 2019

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…
Isaiah 43:1-7

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus himself had also been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Whenever you or I speak of an experience as “a baptism by fire,” we’re describing something rather dramatic. A baptism by fire is when we’re thrust into a challenging, even overwhelming situation, but through which we learn invaluable lessons.

I’m reading former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. It’s a wonderful book that pays tribute to her parents, extended family, and the close knit neighborhood that raised her on the south side of Chicago. It’s also a great love story. While she never uses the term, she writes candidly of several baptisms by fire in her life.  

The most dramatic of these baptisms that I’ve come upon thus far occurred while she was campaigning for her husband in the first presidential campaign of 2008. She started out meeting in people’s homes and coffee shops across Iowa, talking to ten or fifteen people at a time. As the campaign picked up momentum and her stature grew, she started drawing larger and larger crowds. Still, she kept her message down to earth and informal–a loosely structured, unpolished stump speech. She spoke from the heart, and her message seemed to be exactly what people on the campaign trail wanted to hear.

That all changed with one speech she gave in February 2008 in which she said something that caused enormous political controversy. Do you remember what she said? She couldn’t remember. It was some variation of the speech she’d given dozens of times. But a few days’ later, the Obama campaign communications team called her in. There was a problem. Someone had taken the film from her forty-minute speech and edited it down to a ten-second clip, stripping away the context, putting emphasis on a few words: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” That short clip aired all over the country, and Michelle Obama was attacked for not being a patriot, for hating America.

It was her baptism by fire into the life of politics, and it hurt. “And I’d seemingly brought it on myself,” she writes. “In trying to speak casually, I’d forgotten how weighted each little phrase could be. Unwittingly, I’d given the haters a fourteen-word feast. . . I hadn’t seen it coming.” (Michelle Obama, Becoming  (New York: Crown Books, 2018), p.260.)

She flew home feeling guilty and depressed, afraid that she had ruined everything. Later she felt angry and resentful. But then she assessed her new reality, decided to learn all that she could from this painful experience, and do whatever was required to become an expert communicator. With help from others she learned how to prepare more carefully for the constant scrutiny of her position, knowing that as a black woman, she would be judged far more harshly in the court of public opinion. When Barack Obama won the presidency, she resolved to enter her role as First Lady fully prepared, eyes wide open. She went on to become among the most beloved public figures of our time.  

I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

When John the Baptist speaks of the One to come in this way, the image that comes to my mind, at least, is of a warrior swooping down to whip us all into shape. A contemporary translation of this same passage describes the coming of Jesus with similar drama: “He is going to clean house–make a clean sweep of your lives, He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” (Eugene Peterson, The Message Luke 3:1-12.)

That’s not really how Jesus comes. The reality is that he doesn’t have to baptize us with fire. Life itself does that. We cause our own fires, or other people thrust us into fire, for good or ill. What Jesus does is help us adapt to new realities, to pass through the fire and come out on the other side. Baptisms by fire are really hard, but with Jesus, we are not alone in them. He’s there to see us through.  

A few years ago, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book, Altar in the World, in which she dedicated an entire chapter on pain as a spiritual practice. Pain, she writes, gets our attention the way nothing else can, and it pushes us to our edge. Pain strips away all illusions and begs for change.

How does something as non-negotiable as pain serve as a spiritual practice? “Like all other aspects of the human condition,” she writes, “feeling pain is something that can be responded to in a variety of ways: I can try to avoid pain. I can deny pain. I can numb it. I can fight it. Or, “Taylor suggests, “I can engage pain when it comes to me, giving it my full attention so that it can teach me what I need to know about what’s really real.” That’s baptism by fire, one that burns away the chaff in us and leaves behind what matters most.

If you were to make a graph of your life, Taylor writes, beginning with your birthday on the left side and today’s date on the right, filling in the major events that have made you who you are, then you are likely to note that the spikes in pain bear some relationship to your leaps in growth.

It was when your family moved for the fourth time in five years that you learned to enjoy your own company in the months before you made new friends. It was when your partner left you that you remembered what else you meant to do in your life beyond staying together. It was when the doctor called you about the spot on your lung that you finally made up with your sister. These were not the ways you would have chosen to become more than you were, but they worked. Pain burned up the cushions you used to keep from hitting bottom. (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 157.)

In a baptism by fire, we’re left with the essence of who we are, a greater capacity to let go, and the ability to face the world as it is.

Here’s the challenge: what makes an experience a baptism by fire as opposed to a calamity that destroys us, or sets us on a path of resentment and stuckness, is our response. Think of it: what if Michelle Obama, in the face of stinging criticism and public scrutiny, had stepped away from campaigning. She thought about it, even suggesting to Barack that she stay home with their daughters and only show up when she was needed to smile at his side. But she didn’t do that. She learned from her pain and became stronger as a result.

What if in every one of the circumstances Barbara Brown Taylor described, people chose despair, victimhood, or anger as their only response, instead of allowing those feelings to wash through them and then deciding to allow themselves to be transformed by fire? We’re all tempted to do that. We’d be made of stone if we didn’t feel the pain and initially lash out in response. By the grace of God, we can choose another path.

I don’t know what your baptisms by fire are, but whatever they are, I know that they’re hard. I wish it were otherwise, for all of us, but it’s not. We don’t follow a Savior who promises to spare us from those fires, but to walk with us through them, and in the process help us become more like him, who withstood all manner of fire for our sake.

For those here who are members of St. Luke’s, I need to say something as your bishop. It may be, five to ten years from now, that you and those to come after you will look back on this time as a baptism by fire. I’m not sure about that. It depends, frankly, on your collective response to the present circumstance. There are two distinct paths ahead of you, both very challenging. Only one leads to greater life. You, as a congregation, must decide which path to take.

What’s important to remember in times like this is how much God loves you, and that love is unconditional, no matter what happens here. Like Jesus rising from the waters of baptism, we are God’s beloved. In challenging times, the way God loves us may not feel like love, because God doesn’t spare us from the fire. God’s love is real nonetheless and can be trusted. It’s what carries us through to the other side. What burns away in our baptisms by fire, according to Scripture, is all that is no longer needed. We may think we need it, but we don’t.

Years ago, I had the privilege of listening to a son give a eulogy for his mom. She had suffered greatly in the last years of her life, so much so that everything that she loved to do was taken from her. “Toward the end,” he said, “all that was left was the purest essence of who she was, and that essence was love.” I remember thinking at the time that should my life meet a similar end, I hoped I would be able to allow myself to be stripped down to my essence, and that I would be able to love as she did. But I knew that the process of stripping away would be really hard and involve a lot of loss. Now each time I experience a baptism by fire, I remember my mom’s friend and try not to fight the transforming process.  

I urge you then, as I remind myself, to hear God’s words to Jesus as words to you: You are my beloved Son. You are my beloved daughter. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. Hear again, too, the words God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, as words spoken to you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine… When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

We are not alone as we walk through the fire. God is with us, and God makes sure that the essence of who we are is not only preserved, but healed and strengthened by the flames. May it be so.