It happened to me years ago—an experience so vivid not even the passing of decades can steal its power. I only saw it for a few seconds, but I was never the same. I sat in a prayer circle with some friends as we prayed for anything other than God’s presence among us, and there I saw an image of a burning bush. I can’t say it was the burning bush of Exodus 3, but it was a bush, and it was burning.
I looked into the translucent flames and saw what Moses might have seen: The bush was not consumed in the fire. Stalk, limbs and leaves, the bush looked more alive than if it was not burning. Yet I saw there was something consumed in the fire.
That “something” was everything that was not the bush.
I saw insects buzzing about the bush, incinerated. Somehow, in this picture, I saw the very mites that crawled on the underside of the leaves consumed even as the leaves themselves flourished in flame. I saw the creeping, parasitic vines (so strong as to choke the very life out of the bush) cremated in the fire of God.
And I heard the word “Holy.”
Even as a young man, I knew some of the biblical language of holiness and fire:
I knew that three Hebrew boys met God in a furnace at Babylon, where they were set free of their bonds and met the Son of God.
I had read the Psalm, “Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages.”
And I knew there was somewhere a kingdom that would never be shaken, underscored with the words, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
In that instant, on a summer day in the far away world of the 1970s, my view of holiness was formed. In the decades since, I have carried the image of a holiness ignited and sustained by God, the kind of holiness that depends not at all upon me, except for the courage to embrace the fire.
I learned God reveals himself in a burning bush, and I still hear from the flame a constant invitation to come, barefoot, and step into the fire.
In one sense, my walk with God has been the process of welcoming this God who is consuming fire because he burns not me, but everything that is not really me. I have recognized my on-going fear is that I will be consumed, because I so easily believe the lie that tells me that the parasites and I are one.
It is no easier today than then, because the voice of self warns me to stay away from the burning. But I have learned—and am learning still—to gaze into the flame to see what is consumed and what is set free.