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Setting the world on fire
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Fifty days after Easter, we celebrate the “birthday” of the Church.  It’s the Sunday in which a rag-tag collection of confused, discouraged disciples of the crucified messiah were turned into missionaries who changed the world.

Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Spirit on people of faith from every nation.  Inspiring, freeing, transforming, empowering, enlightening, and uniting the people of God, the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promises Jesus made to his Church, and enabled him to continue his mission through those who went forth in his name.  Were it not for Pentecost, we’d be reading about an historical figure, not meeting him in every nation under the sun.

Were it not for Pentecost, the world might long ago have been incinerated.

Or, better, it might have imploded, caving in upon itself for lack of Spirit.

What began as a cenacle of prayer, in which Jesus’ followers had gathered for nine days (a “novena”) to beg for anointing from heaven, now became a nuclear explosion of light-energy that would set the whole world on fire.

This fire would purify, enkindle and radiate, not scorch and reduce to dust.

Wednesday morning, I dreamt of a geyser that suddenly sprung up from a barren stretch of land.  Many people had gathered for prayer in that spot. I was watching from a distance, not knowing why they chose that location, much less what caused the hot fountain of water so quickly to ascend.  
At first, the spectacle seemed inspiring, but soon the water grew caustic and what appeared to be hot lava blew upwards from the crater, reaching higher and higher altitudes, scalding the startled victims in every direction.

When I awoke, I broke with protocol and turned the news on right away.

Amazingly, the feature story was about Mount Saint Helens. Exactly thirty years before, she had imploded, then exploded upwards in superheated ash.

Despite two months of warnings, 57 people died.  They’d been caught in the rapidly expanding sphere of devastation.  The outer shell had moved with such force that entire forests were flattened as if made of matchsticks.

I was working three stories up, tearing tiles off a roof on Queen Ann Hill.

From that vantage point, bewildered, I stared across Seattle’s downtown panorama, between the Space Needle and far-off Mount Rainier, to the giant grey plume rising fifteen miles high.  According to online Wikipedia:

“Mount St. Helens is most famous for its catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 am (PDT), which was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.  Fifty-seven people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles (24 km) of railways, and 185 miles (298 km) of highway were destroyed.  The eruption caused a massive debris avalanche, reducing the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 ft (2,950 m) to 8,365 ft (2,550 m) and replacing it with a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide horseshoe-shaped crater.  The debris avalanche was up to 0.7 cubic miles (2.9 km3) in volume.”       (“Mount St. Helens”, Wikipedia)

Although life is reclaiming St. Helens’ gigantic graveyard at a remarkable rate, you can’t argue with the fact that the forces of death acted so rapidly.

And the recent eruptions over Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull glacier remind us of how quickly destruction can occur.  What began on March 27 as the awakening of a dormant volcano in picturesque flames and lava, on April 14 turned into a major threat to the island and a problem for all of Europe.

And now, our attention has turned to another out-of-control disaster, the explosion and subsequent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.  Repeated efforts have failed to plug the petroleum, drilling the relief well will take too long, and the dispersants are themselves menacing the Gulf’s delicate web of life.

Why do I mention these deadly disasters and accidents on such a beautiful feast as Pentecost?    Why not simply focus on the benefits of the Spirit?

These recent (or recently remembered) devastating events remind us of how fragile life is, and how suddenly what we take for granted can be destroyed.

But if they expose latent powers that can reduce everything to dust and turn oases into cemeteries, they also shadow (in their sinister way) the life-giving potential of the Spirit.  Take these deadly events, and throw in also the atomic bombs of Trinity (Alamogordo, New Mexico, 1945), totaling their overall destructive impact.  Now multiply this a million times, not in the realm of death, but of life.  Imagine a force as great as the sun at our solar system’s center, generating light, heat and life from 93 million miles.

Imagine a second “big bang” that could put new flesh on old dry bones, bring dead men back to life, deliver entire nations from darkness into light, free those in bondage, breaking the chains of the underworld, guaranteeing that from then on every human being would have access to eternal glory.

And imagine this great miracle of grace taking place through ordinary folks like you and me, who, anointed with the Spirit, become apostles of the New Covenant, in whom Jesus Christ now lives and is active. This is Pentecost.