I know A LOT about fire.
Seriously. I’ve spent a third of my life studying fire. I went to a university that offered classes taught by world experts in fire science and spent several years researching wildfires.
And you know what I’ve realized more and more? There is SO MUCH that I don’t know about fire. Strangely enough, when you plunge into the depths of a topic, you often realize how vast and impenetrable it really is.
This became abundantly clear to me during my years of research on wildfires. In fact, preventing these destructive occurrences has been termed a ‘wicked’ problem—an issue that appears impossible to solve because the underlying dynamics are misunderstood, paradoxical, and deeply interrelated. This is a field of human knowledge that remains wide open to interpretation.
And that’s exactly why I loved to study fire. It is not easily tamed. It is wild. Unpredictable. Mysterious. Beautiful.
I tend to find myself captivated by wicked problems. I suppose this might be part of why I’m attracted to mission work in the city of Baltimore…
Baltimore, by the estimation of many, represents a wicked problem. Whether or not you see it as a “rat and rodent infested mess,” it is increasingly hard to deny that major problems exist. Many have tried to alleviate the pain felt within its boundaries, but lasting remedies continually evade human effort. Year after year, this suffering city continues to cry out in agony. In light of these failures, I would like to propose a radical solution:
Let Baltimore burn.
Before you come after me with pitchforks, let me assure you that this is not a demented scheme hatched by an overzealous pyromaniac (although, given my background, I cannot fault you for jumping to that conclusion). I am merely recalling the proclamation of Christ, who, in the Gospel of Luke, defiantly declares, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
This is indeed a radical solution! Here, Christ is speaking of the baptism of the spirit—the divine conflagration he so deeply yearns to ignite in the hearts of his disciples. This is not simply a passive dwelling of the Spirit within us, but an active and deep-seated transformation that should inflame every fiber of our being and propel us into conflict with the world. In the same passage, Jesus assures us that life in the Spirit will pit us against the culture when he says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
In other words, we should expect opposition as the life of divine charity takes root in us. The devil cannot stand to see his kingdom dismantled, so he will do everything he can to undermine God’s initiatives. Satan is looking to establish a city of Baltimore turned inward upon itself, in which each member of his kingdom remains isolated in a sterile cocoon of lukewarmness.
This is exactly where Baltimore will remain if we do not invite the Holy Spirit to ignite our hearts and transform the city. It is easy to become discouraged when faced with the incredible hurdles our communities have spent decades failing to surmount. Yet, somehow, as I come closer to the faces of the men and women of Baltimore, I cannot help but believe that fires are igniting in hearts all across the city. I see this in the overwhelming outpouring of support for our mission; I see this in the love and friendship I encounter each day from homeless men and women; I see this in a growing desire for believers to remain rooted in the sacramental life of Jesus, the Source of all hope.
Earlier this year, I joined parishioners to conclude a Pentecost Novena with a prayerful celebration on a rooftop deck in South Baltimore. As we looked out upon the entire city, we called upon the Holy Spirit, armed with the knowledge that in times of great tribulation God provides greater mercy.
I am growing more and more convicted that the Lord wants to bring about a revival here. I cannot say what that will mean, but I know how it will happen—through individuals giving the Holy Spirit a daily invitation to use them. All that is required is a simple prayer—“Come, Holy Spirit, use me today”—a prayer that has been the catalyst of growth in the Church from the very beginning. Few understood this better than the Desert Fathers, the ascetical masters of the spiritual life who inhabited the deserts during the early centuries of Christianity. As a way of concluding, allow me to relate a short anecdote from these spirit-filled hermits:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”