Redefining fire

by Kristin on October 15, 2013

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by krembo1

I was in college before I ever heard the phrase “on fire” used to describe the intensity of one’s faith—how a person felt about Jesus, or perhaps how the Holy Spirit felt about that person.

Of course, I was well aware as a child that fire was a symbol of the Spirit at work. After all, I grew up in a United Methodist church, a denomination whose logo consists of a cross and a flame. Plus, I spent a week each summer at church camp, where I got all emotional while sitting around a campfire on the shore of a Northern Michigan lake singing “It only takes a spark.” But did I ever use the phrase “on fire” to describe myself or anyone else? Definitely not.

Later, as a freshman at a conservative Christian college, my awareness of what it looked like for a Christian to be “on fire” grew, in equal measures with my confusion and skepticism. I went to Bible studies and saw students open Bibles filled with underlines, exclamation points, and handwritten notes in the margins. In my dorm kitchen, while popping popcorn for late-night study sessions, I heard students talking about “spiritual warfare” and Frank Peretti novels—how we needed to be always on alert, ready to fight evil forces we couldn’t see. I went to chapel on campus and visited churches where people sang with their eyes closed and their hands raised, and said things like “Yes Lord” and “Thank you Lord,” while others prayed aloud. I knew 18-year-olds who wanted to be missionaries—who wanted to give their lives to Christ and to the important work of spreading his love.

What was wrong with me? What was I missing?

The summer after my sophomore year of college, while my roommate went off to spend the summer in Wildwood, New Jersey with Campus Crusade, where she would be handing out Four Spiritual Laws tracts to partying college students on the beach, I packed a suitcase for an experience that better fit my conflicted and confused sensibilities: The Ocean City Beach Project. About 20 of us were going to spend the summer on the New Jersey shore, but we would be trying to figure things out, not demonstrating that we had it all figured out. We studied the Bible in relation to how God intersects with various aspects of our everyday lives, from our dealings with money and the environment to our understanding of vocation and popular culture. Our approach to evangelism was coined “relational evangelism.”

I liked that. “Relational evangelism.” It gave me access to the mysterious E-word that had been absent from my childhood vocabulary, but it didn’t make me squirm. Our goal was to build a real friendship with one or two people over the course of the summer—to invite them to play volleyball or have a bonfire on the beach, and to organically share with them what we were doing in Ocean City that summer. It was OK that I didn’t have a neat and tidy faith package to hand out to the people I met. Relational evangelism took into account that my testimony was still in development, and always would be. We only had to share our lives, our stories, our struggles in the world, and our hopes based on what we knew about God.

Of course, when we encountered the Ocean City Campus Crusade team on the beach (there’s one in every boardwalk town), or when they stood up in the church we all attended to share with everyone how many people they had “saved” the week before, my friends and I poked one another over their obvious self-righteousness. But in a way, we were just as smug and self-righteous as they were. We each felt that our own version of being “on fire for Jesus” was the right version.

Thinking back on that time brings into focus the real reason the phrase “on fire” both grates at me irritatingly and sends a twinge of nostalgia rippling through me. The term is irritating because it has become a stereotype—a narrowly defined version of active faith that doesn’t allow for variation or difference. At the uncertain age of 19, that drove me to waste a whole lot of time and energy focused on whether I was “doing it right,” rather than simply focusing on God and what he was doing in me.

But the nostalgia is also there because in my own liberal, Birkenstock-wearing, guitar-playing way, I did have an “on fire” experience that summer on the Jersey shore. And those experiences can be an important part of faith development—especially for kids who are trying to fit the faith of their childhoods into the independent adult they’re becoming. Those “on fire” moments are all about connecting with God on a deeper, more personal level, while also building your own faith community, apart from your parents. Sure, those experiences aren’t sustainable (and are often cringe-worthy), but they can provide an important bridge from one solid faith ground to the next. That’s why I’m starting to think it’s time for me—for many of us—to redefine what it means to be “on fire for Jesus,” so we can embrace it for the powerful force it is.

* * * *

This post is part of a synchroblog in celebration of the release of  my friend Addie Zierman’s new book, When We Were On Fire. Although I’ve just started reading the book, I’m betting the conflicted feelings I have about the title are shared by Addie, and that she addresses the complexity in powerful ways through her own story. Trust me—buy this book! And be sure to check out the other posts that are linked up in the synchroblog!

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  • Caris Adel

    That sounds like an awesome way to spend the summer. I love the ending too.

    • kt_writes

      It was an awesome summer. (It’s also the summer when I met Jen Luit, a sister in Christ who has continued to grow alongside me all these years.)

      • suzannah | the smitten word

        yay for CCO:) I never actually connected with CCO in college, but I realized recently that most of the influential christians in my life–my pastor growing up, camp’s leadership, and my first boss–were all CCO trained, and so I was influenced through their ministry and philosophy in positive ways as well.
        I like this glimpse into your backstory:)

  • Kari

    What a great post about living in the tension. I admire how you write with such balance, Kristin.

    • kt_writes

      Thank you, Kari! My life seems to provide an abundance of living-the-tension experiences—I get lots of practice trying to balance. :)

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    I still feel like that: at once totally secure in my faith and understanding and scared in totally doing it wrong. I look back on this time with such fondness. It was really the best place for me. And I feel, too, like we (I) escaped a lot of the more intense evangelical trappings. So much love, you!

    • kt_writes

      You’re right—we were able to explore and figure things out that summer, without getting sucked into anything that would be hard to undo later. And yet, we still have those “on fire” stories. We were SO intense, staying up half the night discussing theology and philosophy (that was the summer I got hooked on coffee, you know…).

  • Erin

    This is fantastic. I was in college before I even learned what a tract was (and quickly ran the other way when I did), but that doesn’t make my faith any less real or legitimate.

    • kt_writes

      When you’re raised in a church that doesn’t have that evangelical approach, it’s very shocking to eventually be exposed to it, isn’t it? That’s part of the reason I’ve loved reading so many of the When We Were On Fire blog posts people have written—so many different perspectives!

  • Addie Zierman

    I love your take on the “on fire” thing — not as something that is “supposed to” be sustainable, but as a bridge from one kind of faith to another. That seems to me a very healthy way of looking at it. Thanks so much for sharing friend.

    • kt_writes

      Thank you, Addie. I do think that was one of the most important things for me to come to terms with—not only that these intense, emotional faith experiences don’t last, but that they aren’t supposed to. They’re opportunities to get recharged and to grow in some new direction. I can’t wait to dig into your book this weekend and see where your story takes me!

  • Pingback: When We Were On Fire: Synchroblog Round-Up | Addie Zierman | How To Talk Evangelical

  • Pingback: To the Current Pastors – From the Formerly “On Fire” | Addie Zierman | How To Talk Evangelical

  • drew

    To be on fire for Jesus simply means to be in awe of Jesus! Good post!