Why Not Become All Flame? | Jennifer Helminski

I’m excited to share another guest reflection with you today from my dear friend and colleague Jennifer Helminski, following up on her Love You Two Pennies and Troubling the Waters. Here she places us in Moses’ sandals just at the moment he removes them to stand before the Holy, lighting up his ordinary awareness. She invites us to consider what sets our own hearts aflame.

If you’d like to hear more from Jennifer, come see her at Wisdom Camp and the Wild Goose Festival July 14-18! And please consider contributing to Jennifer’s GoFundMe — if everyone who’s able contributed even $5, we could fully fund her care to mitigate lupus today.

 

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.”

Exodus 3:1-15

This account is one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible: Moses encountering G-d in the wilderness in the form of the burning bush. I find so much meaning and intimacy in this meeting, this moment where G-d directly introduces G-dself to Moses, and to all who encounter this narrative throughout the ages. This moment also marks the beginning of Moses’ prophethood, as he responds to G-d’s call.

There is so much here in this meeting that parallels our own lives and conditions. When we read these stories, we tend to read them and their characters as being distant and far away, the things happening to them occurring in some kind of holy vacuum; totally unique circumstances happening to totally unique people that don’t resemble us in any way, whom we now venerate from a safe distance. But what if we saw ourselves in these figures? What would that mean for us, for our relationship with G-d? What would this mean we are asked to do? How would we live and show up in relationship to one another?

In this excerpt from Exodus, Moses is a displaced former prince of Egypt, a once-fortunate, adopted son of empire. But now, he is out beyond the wilderness, beyond what is known, feet and tunic dusty as he tends his father-in-law’s flocks. He wanders to Mount Horeb where his attention is caught by the burning bush; he turns his gaze towards it.

G-d does not first call out to Moses to get his attention, but instead waits for Moses to notice and be present with the wonder before him. When G-d calls out his name, Moses responds with my favorite Hebrew phrase: hineni, meaning “here I am.” This is no mere statement of location, but a powerful statement of presence, readiness, willingness. Prophets utter “hineni” in response to G-d’s call throughout the Bible. G-d, too, declares, “Behold, here I Am,” in advance of a powerful act, oath, or decree. And as electrifying and significant a declaration as this statement is, it is in this moment, in Moses’ awed utterance, that I find the most intimacy between human and G-d.

I imagine Moses, dust-coated and windswept, hurriedly removing his sandals with trembling hands at G-d’s command, feeling the cool stone of Mount Horeb beneath his feet. I imagine the hair on the back of his neck standing on end as he hears his name called out by G-d from within the Holy Flame, his heart racing, his mouth suddenly parched. In faithfulness, he immediately responds to the call: hineni, here I am, before even knowing what might be asked of him.

And then G-d tells him: I have heard the cries of those who suffer in the land of Egypt, the land where you were chosen as a fortunate son, the land which you fled; but your story there is not finished. G-d says, “I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them […] to a land flowing with milk and honey” – and you, Moses, will speak My command unto Pharaoh, to free the Israelites.

Now, Moses was keenly aware of the vast power wielded by Pharoah. Like any one of us would, he felt wildly intimidated by G-d’s command, totally inadequate to waltz into Pharaoh’s presence and demand the freedom of an enslaved people. “Who am I,” he asks, to be the one to do this? Surely there must be someone more powerful, more influential, even more eloquent than I. How many times in our own lives have we been Moses? What cries have caught our attention, where has G-d called us to courageous, liberatory action, only for us to turn away and say, “Why me? What could I possibly do? Surely there must be another more equipped than me.”

When I was doing environmental and climate education in public schools, I would sometimes reference the phrase, “no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” There seem to be over 7 billion people on this Earth who feel under-equipped to hear the cries of our siblings, to meet their needs; surely someone else with more money or more power must be the one to take action.

In response to Moses’ feelings of inadequacy, G-d immediately offers him assurance: “I will be with you.” But this does not quell the fears in Moses’ heart. In the next chapter of Exodus, Moses continues to tell G-d why he is the wrong person to send: he is slow of speech and tongue; he lacks eloquence. Why would anyone believe that G-d had spoken to him? And even as G-d shows Moses signs like turning his staff into a snake, he continues to doubt, begging G-d to please send someone else.

G-d begins to get frustrated with Moses: “Who gave man his mouth? […] Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will help you as you speak, and I will teach you what to say.”

G-d challenges the very idea that even our perceived shortcomings are outside of G-d’s design and power. Our weaknesses and imperfections are not reason enough for us to hang back in inaction, to take ourselves out of the larger human story.

When we read this story, we might read it with an element of disbelief. How could Moses, when met with G-d’s presence and shown so many wonders, still doubt? But I invite us to reflect on the ways in which we are Moses in this story. What is G-d waiting for us to pay attention to? What cries of suffering? Where are we refusing G-d’s call by telling ourselves that we are inadequate to do what G-d commands? To carry out justice? To walk in love? 

A few months ago, a very dear friend introduced me to the song Ya Hey by Vampire Weekend, which builds beautifully on this very encounter between G-d and Moses:



The chorus of the song includes the lines: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say Your name / Only “I Am that I Am” / But who could ever live that way?” I’ve probably listened to this song a hundred times, but it was always these particular lines that really struck me, sometimes to the point of wracking tears. The question of “Who could ever live that way?” speaks to me of G-d’s pain in waiting for us to pay attention, to act in mercy and justice, to act on G-d’s behalf, in alignment with G-d’s vision and desire. It speaks to me of the pain we cause by not paying attention, by turning away from the Holy Flame and saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” 

I wonder, then, what it would be like to instead turn toward this burning and ask “Why not me?” To echo the fourth-century Desert Father Abba Joseph: “Why not become All Flame?”

Who could we become and what wonders could G-d do if we courageously allowed ourselves to speak with G-d’s tongue, to measure out mercy with G-d’s hands, to love with G-d’s heart?

What if we answered G-d’s call with a ready and faithful hineni? What if we became like the bush: burning, but not burnt, with the luminous presence of G-d? 

 

Jennifer Helminski (she/her) is an author, poet, artist, and preacher who has a burning heart for ecological advocacy, sensual exploration, and spiritual renewal. Across her multifaceted vocation, she has recently co-authored federally-funded climate change research, assessed and advocated for the protection of our waters, led congregational chant, composed multimedia eco-chapel gatherings, and facilitated faith-community grief circles.

Jennifer has deep roots across the Abrahamic family of faiths, including Roman Catholicism, Mevlevi Sufism, and open-source Judaism. She is currently training in the ways of interfaith, ecological, and psychedelic chaplaincy.

Jennifer is a Master of Divinity candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she co-authored Union’s Declaration of Climate Emergency and a 10-year Climate Mobilization Action Plan for the surrounding community.

In her writing, painting, poetry, and preaching, Jennifer explores the intersection of ecology, love, and Spirit, helping all beings find belonging in this fertile and joyful tapestry.

Experience Jennifer’s teaching for yourself as part of Wisdom Camp 2022: The Ecology of Desire, this July 14th before the Wild Goose Festival. Use the code ‘WisdomCamp’ at checkout to save 10% on Festival registration!


Mike’s Note: Thanks so much to every reader who’s contributed to Jennifer’s health needs GoFundMe campaign. Thanks to you, we’re nearly at 25% funding! Since our last update, we’ve learned that recent tests show a probable diagnosis of systemic lupus erthymatosus (SLE), a chronic autoimmune disease. If you haven’t given yet, Please go here to read Jennifer’s full health update. If everyone reading this (who is able) pitched in $5, we could have Jennifer’s non-insurance-covered medical needs funded by the end of today. Check out her GoFundMe to learn more about Jennifer’s important work and to contribute!

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