On Faith, and Fire

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The other night at dinner someone mentioned an old friend who was writing books, writing about the need for our churches to be more on fire for God.

When I hear this phrase "on fire for God" it reaches a part of my brain that tells my body to go into a kind of cool-down mode, which then tells other parts of my brain to be gentle.

Let me tell you something about fires. Let me tell you something about fueling a fire. Let me tell you something about filling a woodshed. Something about felling trees and cutting a tree into sections with a heavy chainsaw and rolling these sections to a truck and lifting and loading them in. Let me tell you something about unloading wood, splitting wood, stacking wood. About loading wheelbarrows and hauling wood to a wood box and stoking a fire.

It is hard work.

The work is so hard it makes me weep, thinking about it now. A body breaks under this work. It is not theoretical work. It tore the fiber of my muscles. It burst blood vessels under my skin.

It breaks, and yes, it builds. It is good work. For us, necessary work. For me, work I'd never done before except in small pieces here and there. I am stronger now, but what little I did last year was enough to wear me down to the bone.

I need a flame, a fire in my belly. But I cannot sustain a raging fire.

We live in a world of seasons. My family and I live in a climate with four seasons. In the summer we work, we gather fuel and our fires go cold. Our warmth comes from the sun, something for which we do not strive. We are carried through a season of the year by the nearness of the sun, by the length of its presence. And in this season we work our hardest physical work.

In the winter we burn our gathered fuel, keeping the stove hot and ticking, and our work changes. I'm grateful for the rest, when we can use what we have stored up, when our fire blazes hot. I need the rest from the hard physical work. I need the chance to do a different kind of work.

In the winter our fire burns hot with a flame we conjure, with a flame we coax, with a flame we force into being with a starting spark, with coals left over from the night, with an open damper, with wind from our lungs. We work to start the fire. We work to stoke the fire. The fire rages, roars, crackles, glows of its own power, but we work to bring it into being. We work to keep it going. 

I think we use the terms lukewarm, cold, and hot too broadly. As my father once mentioned, my zeal for the faith is diminished. Yes. But I saw a dwindling supply of wood in the woodshed of my soul. I felt the coming of summer. This is conservation of resources. This is a warm season when a roaring fire is unnecessary, imprudent, unwise. I would burn too hot, comically out of order. You would have to be mad to heat a house in a hot Iowa summer. I would have burned out. This is reality. It was time to work. To cut and haul and split and stack with sweat pouring down my back from the heat of the sun, the nearness and length of its presence.

In summer we are warmed by something beyond ourselves and our work. Beyond our own efforts. And during this time we do our hardest work to prepare for winter, to prepare for the fires that will sustain us through a cold season.

My brother writes, "Fire is necessary because of what it does, not what it is. Fire exists to provide warmth for our bodies, light for our eyes, heat for our meals, and a reason for us all to come together. It doesn't exist just to burn."

When I heard about this man writing books and wanting our churches to be more "on fire," I felt two things. First an undercurrent of guilt, the idea that maybe I am wrong. And then, just as swiftly, a gentleness of the type that covers guilt.

The seasons are constant. The warmth of the sun provides heat enough in summer.

What I see is a need for churches to teach the skills of sustaining faith. We're breaking under the strain of stoking enormous fires through all the seasons. We're burning out for lack of fuel. Our storehouses are empty for lack of sustaining work.

A church on fire is a church existing in some kind of polar climate, brutal and inhospitable. Only the hardiest, fittest, possibly craziest can survive this type of environment. Most people visit. Few live in these regions permanently.

How do you teach the sustaining of faith? I don't know. I only know how I am learning the sustaining of my own faith. Moderation. Avoiding extremes. Bipartisanship. A Democrat offered me a plate of cookies after a parade and I felt something inside me shift. I cannot stand on one side of something without also recognizing the truth in the other side. I am learning to sustain my faith through gentleness. Honesty about what I think and feel and experience. Seeing God as a part of the natural world. Seeing the sacred in the secular, the secular in the sacred. I am learning to sustain my faith with truth. The truth of scripture. The truths of our world. The truth of my life. 

When I was young I believed my faith could move mountains. What a mystery, why no mountains moved. What I am learning is my work is not enough. My faith at its apex, my effort in its greatest extreme is insufficient. It's galling. It's heartrending and if you dwell in this too long you will ache and weep until only groans remain.

You cannot through force of will conjure healing. You cannot through unwavering faith bring about salvation. You cannot even compel peace to reign in your heart and mind when something is not right. At best you can say, I don't know, and watch as things work in their own time, orchestrated by God himself.

I am working. Basking at times in the sun. I know the constancy of God's love. The hound of heaven paces my stride on some parallel path and at times I run, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, hoping to walk once again the same road.

Photo: Our woodshed at the end of December.

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