“Go, set the world on fire!” But don’t burn it down.

By: Sam McGrath
May 03, 2016

Many of us came here wrestling with our faith – somehow our dreams for a better world were incompatible with our faith traditions and institutions that contradictorily feel like our home and our greatest hindrance at once.

The first part of this title is attributed to Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, in his commissioning of the missionary Francis Xavier. The latter was a UCC minister’s quip in response to the apparent dissonance between institutional religion and social change: “If I learned one thing in seminary it was, ‘Don’t burn it down!’”

I was privileged to attend the FTE Discernment Retreat in Burlingame, CA where young Church leaders were eager to set the world on fire with the love of Jesus Christ. The zeal present in the group was palpable, if not incendiary. But it was not just love that burned in us. Many of us were hurt, frustrated, angry, and discouraged. Many of us came here wrestling with our faith – somehow our dreams for a better world were incompatible with our faith traditions and institutions that contradictorily feel like our home and our greatest hindrance at once. At times it seemed like there was the possibility that we would take Ignatius’ challenge too literally, leaving the old traditions, seminaries, and world – leaving the Church – in a pile of smoldering ashes. Sometimes the questions, contradictions, frustrations, and disagreements seemed like too much to overcome.

On the first day of the retreat, Dr. David Vásquez-Levy, president of the Pacific School of Religion, offered an inspiring opening talk on Moses and the burning bush. Dr. Vásquez-Levy challenged us to see ourselves in Moses, to ask the questions he asked God to gain a better sense of our own vocation. This exercise set the tone for the rest of the retreat.

But what if we do something a little unusual? What if we read ourselves into the burning bush? Of course, I am not saying we should play ‘god.’ But I think there is real value in thinking about the burning bush and what it represents. The burning bush, God’s mysterious entry into Moses’ life, is full of contradiction.

God didn’t come into Moses’ life to neatly make sense of it all or to make all things clear. God didn’t come to erase all discrepancies, answer all questions, or reconcile all contradictions. God came into Moses’ life and into the world to make all possible.

What if young leaders would be like burning bushes – enflamed with the love of God, entering the Church and the world, not destructively but to renew and enlighten them? But being like the burning bush also means embracing contradiction, paradox, and mystery – the heart of Christianity.

Let us burn with the consuming love of God and bring this love to the ends of the world without razing all that seems to stand in the way. Rather than burning down institutions and traditions, instead of silencing differences of opinion and consuming contradictions, be a burning bush with life-sustaining roots deep in tradition. Lovingly embrace the contradictions at the heart of the faith, yourself, the Church, and the world and with God’s grace transform them into creative tensions.

Go, set the world on fire … figuratively!

Tags: Inspired Leaders, Thinking Out Loud, Shaping the Future


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