One of my favorite stretches of highway is I-35 between Emporia and Wichita, Kansas. That section winds through the heart of the Flint Hills, one of the last large sections of intact tallgrass prairie in North America. It’s stunning at any time of year; each season brings its own variation of color and texture, and cultivates its own spiritual affect in the driver’s heart: mournful longing in the gray of late November, serene stillness in the lengthening light of early summer.
But my favorite time is in the heart of spring, when the controlled burns are in full force. If you’re driving about twenty miles south of Emporia late at night, you’ll come to the top of a ridge and for several minutes, you’ll be able to see dozens of fires burning at every point on the horizon. The small tongues of fire give the imposing darkness an otherworldly, almost mystical quality. It’s just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
The controlled burns, of course, are a way of renewing and preserving the prairie. They get rid of noxious and invasive species of plants, they enrich the fertility of the soil, and they are critical to maintaining a complex and fragile ecosystem.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. . .Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. . .” (Acts 2:1-2). Pentecost is God’s promise to do for all human flesh, and for the whole creation, what those fires do for the Konza prairie. The Acts reading goes one to describe the ecological and cosmic implications of Pentecost by quoting the prophet Joel: “And I will show portents in the heavens above, and signs on the earth below. . .”
The Day of Pentecost closes out the season of Easter, and the Holy Spirit that descends this day is the instrument of Easter’s promise to make the whole creation new. Mainline Chrsitians are usually pretty good at talking about God, but our talk often suggests we don’t actually expect God to show up and do something. Pentecost is the loud, fiery, ecstatic and frenzied reminder that God is not just a character or an interesting idea, is actually up to something in our lives and in the world. And the thing that God is up to is renewing, connecting, reconciling, crossing boundaries and divisions, and healing the whole world.
The hope we celebrate during the fifty days of Easter isn’t just about our own disembodied souls. Our Easter hope isn’t just for some future and vaguely imagined resurrection. It’s about the kingdom of God being made known, on earth, right now, as it is in heaven. The Holy Spirit’s activity in the world is about flesh and blood, relationships and communities, hills and rivers, oceans and animals. The promise of Easter is for nothing less than a new heavens and a new earth.
Pentecost issues a renewed call to care for creation. The brokenness of our hearts, our homes, and our communities is inseparable from, and caught up in, the brokenness of creation. So God’s redemption of ourselves, our souls and bodies, is inseparable from the redemption of the whole creation. Renewing creation is one of the things that God’s Holy Spirit is up to in the world, it’s one of the marks of the Spirit’s activity, and it’s one of the key ways that the church of Jesus’ disciples joins God’s mission in the world.
The earth is dying more and more rapidly every year, and like all death, it’s a consequence of our short-sightedness and self-centeredness, a consequence, in other words, of sin. Caring for creation is not simply a side activity, the purview of a few progressively inclined Christians and churches. Caring for creation is central to our vocation as human beings, and to our vocation as disciples after Easter.
Every spring in Kansas, tongues of fire light upon the prairie to heal and save and renew it. Every day of Pentecost, tongues of fire light upon all of us who are successors to those first disciples. May those fires burn bright and hot within us, to join God’s project of making the whole creation new.