Are you familiar with the Harry Potter books or movies?
One of the magical creatures in the Harry Potter series is Fawkes. Fawkes is a phoenix… a beautiful, magical bird. He belongs to the great wizard Albus Dumbledore. He sits on a perch in Dumbledore’s home.
Fawkes has crimson feathers on his body and a golden tail as long as a peacock’s.
His claws and beak are gleaming gold and his eyes are black. His scarlet body feathers glow faintly in darkness, while his golden tail feathers are hot to the touch.
He is a very powerful creature: a single tear from his eye brings healing to any wound it touches. His feathers are so powerful that one of them is encased within each of the wands of both Harry Potter and …he who must not be named. The startling reality of Fawkes is that he dies by bursting into flames … and then he is reborn from the ashes.
His power comes from a continuing process – a refining process – he burns, and is then reborn, more powerful than ever.
Fire is a recurring image in the Bible. It shows up in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Fire represents both good and evil. In one Biblical moment it is a burning bush before Moses… in another Biblical moment… it is the essence of unredeemable judgment.
The author of this tiny book called Malachi, spoke of a messenger before the Lord.
Historically the Church has recognized the messenger as John the Baptist… but that was after the time that Malachi wrote the passage. Malachi’s original readers likely thought the messenger was Elijah. No matter which person it is about, the message is burning. The author asks, who can stand before the messenger? For he is like a refiners’s fire…
A refiner’s fire is hot stuff. It is used to burn away impurities. The fire burns away whatever does not belong to the essence. It burns away everything away that is not pure. The refiner’s fire is hotter than the temperature of a typical fire – which is hot enough to – in order for the refiner to accomplish the purification. It has to be so hot that everything, except for what is being refined, burns away. The refining process is undertaken because the essence is so precious.
The metaphor is that God’s people are subject to God’s refining process.
Think with me about the implications of this in its (appropriately) metaphorical sense.
- The good news is that the refining fire of God is for our purification.
- The bad news is that the refining fire of God is for our purification.
The Roman Catholic church teaches a theological concept that can help us understand the refining process. The teaching is that all Christians who die in a state of grace are made ready for heaven by spending some time in an after death but before heaven place called purgatory. According to catholic doctrine, even the best Christians still have impurities, and so everyone needs this time of purification.
In small, fine print you’ll find mention that it is a time of painful purification… as if by fire.
Good news and bad news.
Here is the wisdom of this passage as I hear it…
Everyone gets burned in this life. Oh, we call it many different things.
We call it foolishness or stupidity or bad luck or an accident.
We call it love lost or unrequited. We call it a crime against a victim.
We call it bad health or a bad job.
We call it tragedy. We call it failure… and sometimes we call it success.
But all of it is purification by fire. The prophets knew that, even when we don’t.
Those prophets, they knew that God was in charge. None of the devil made me do it stuff for them. They did not attribute the problems and the challenges of life to the wiles of a demonic influence. They did not try to escape reality or assign blame. No victims. What they knew was that God is in charge. God is in charge when things are going well; and God is in charge when things are not going well. That’s what it means to believe in the One God… God is always in charge.
The message of Job was familiar to them. The prophets knew the story of Job as spiritual truth. That you can be a person of character and integrity and still encounter times when it feels like the surrounding fire will consume you.
They knew that the challenge in the journey of a lifetime was to bless God’s holy name no matter the circumstance. When someone does this, when someone chooses to see God’s presence in all of the not-so-good things in life, it is a divine encounter.
A person is refined in that process.
We people of faith in the 21st century do not see life in the same way as did those ancient prophets.
We 21st century folks who live in America possess a sense of entitlement unlike any before us. We tend not to put it in exactly these words, but we understand ourselves to be entitled to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness.
We expect to succeed.
We expect to prosper.
We expect to enjoy good health or at least good healthcare and access to whatever medications will make us chemically comfortable.
We watch big screen tv’s, listen to digital music, go to theme parks, play computer games, and eat at nice restaurants for recreation.
Our amusements are big business. As composer Roger Waters put it in his album by the same name, we are “Amused to Death.”
There is a false sense of security in the expectation of living happily ever after.
Life is just not like that, no matter how much we try to make it that way. We want things to stay the way they are, or to get better. If they don’t, we protest. We ask God why… or we play a game of blame … someone else is keeping me from getting what I deserve… someone is responsible for the difficulties I am facing in my own life.
The most common impurity we have is that we don’t like change and we frequently resist change. This is a big challenge, because it is an impurity in us. Change is the way of God for our lives.
God made all of life to be in constant motion – and if everything is always moving, and we want something to stay the same… well… how long can that last? God’s way and God’s will for us is to deal with change gracefully;
to accept it when it comes,
to endorse it as we are able,
and to learn how to embrace our encounters with change in a spiritually refined manner.
We “become”… we assimilate spiritual refinement and it is not a comfortable process. This is another manner of growth in our spirituality.
When there is no comfort to be found we struggle, everyone does.
When we have lost someone or something we have a difficult time accepting the reality of it.
When we have lost our health or our lover or financial stability or suffered an accident … we feel victimized. What has happened is that we have been burned.
We think it is our own personal grief, our personal loss, our individual pain, our individual depression, our individual humiliation. And it is our personal experience, but it’s not our unique experience. It is the process of life… of living… and its our time to face the fire. We are moving along in a God ordained smorgasbord of human events, not particularly aware of it, but continuing to experience one after another expression in the fullness of being human. We may be aware of what is taking place; we may not. God’s refining fire. And everyone gets burned.
God’s fire purifies.
It makes pure.
It makes us holy.
It is a test.
A character building experience.
It is a burning off of spiritual baby fat.
God’s refining fire is how your soul is made holy.
One of the greatest gifts God has given to us – beyond life, itself – is our ability to create. It is when we are most like God. When we create… when we imagine… when we interpret what happens to us in a life-affirming, grace-full manner we are in touch with our true nature, acting in the image of God.
When the time of the refiner’s fire visits you, that is the time for you to remember who you are … you are God’s child. So claim the image of God for yourself and recognize the challenge for what it is.
It is your moment to grow.
It is your moment to exhibit the courage of your convictions.
It is your moment to exercise your faith.
It is your moment to rise out of the ashes like a Phoenix.
Join Job – a person who knew what it was to be burned – and say, Though he slay me, yet will I love him.
This is not something easy or simple or light. It is incredibly difficult in the midst of loss or pain to interpret the refiner’s fire in your life as anything but terrible.
Yet God is the giver of life. God hallows life. God loves life – God loves your life.
And, some day, God will take your life back… earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed be God.
I have a story for you – it’s about the refining fire and Danny Palm.
Dan Palm was a member of my congregation in La Mesa. I don’t know if he is still alive, but I’ve not heard or read that he isn’t. He told me his story…
Dan was a Navy Commander. He and his wife, Carol, lived in Spring Valley.
Between 1993 an 1995 Dan had a number of encounters with another man who lived with his parents in the neighborhood.
They guy was a neighborhood bully – he threatened people. He acted belligerently. He ran people off the road with his truck. He was a drug dealer. He made people’s lives fearful.
The neighborhood was terrorized by this guy. They reported him to the sheriff’s a number of times but the sheriffs were slow to respond, if they did at all. Finally the neighbors worked together to gather evidence to have the guy arrested, and he was, but he was released later in the day.
Then he drove slowly through the neighborhood… pausing in front of their homes. He got to Dan’s house and called out threats his family. There are lots more details, but what happened is that Dan got in his car… and found the guy waiting for him. He threatened the family again, so Dan took his 45 and shot the guy… 11 times. He died.
Dan was arrested. A trial took place… He was convicted of manslaughter. Dan said he probably wouldn’t have been convicted if he had stopped with one or two shots… but he had emptied the clip.
Later Dan found out that the guy had been arrested for dealing drugs, but in exchange for no incarceration had become an informant for the sheriffs. Dan had been told from another source that they didn’t pursue complaints about the guy because he fed them information.
Dan served 8 ½ years at R.J. Donovan Prison. He said he was so depressed and despondent during the first couple of years that he wanted to kill himself. But something else happened, God. He found God … God found him.
Dan was embraced in the Kairos Prison Ministry. Ministry to inmates by other inmates. When I came to be the Pastor at Foothills he told me about the Kairos ministry. Dan couldn’t go back into the prison because he was an ex-convict… but that didn’t keep him from working for the ministry on the outside. He gently, but persistently asked me to check it out which, after a few months, I did. Then he told me they needed clergy volunteers… not really something on my bucket list. But after visiting the Kairos program inside the prison, the Spirit pushed and I volunteered during the next three years before I was assigned to San Clemente.
Dan Palm hadn’t been interested in spirituality until this happened. The refiner’s fire. Not all of us get burned as badly as Dan Palm, but I’m here to tell you that the process brought about incredible beauty in Dan’s spirit, and he facilitated God’s access to hundreds of prisoners’ lives… mine, too.
Everybody gets burned. You interpret the spiritual purpose. But I can tell you, the best interpretation is your purification in life and love.