Saturday, October 22, 2016


One of the first lessons we learn as young adults, if not earlier, and sometimes at great pain, is not to make a decision when we are angry. The decision can be to speak or not to speak, to act or not to act, or even more subtly, to think, that is, to believe, or not to think. With some reflection and further maturity, we come to realize that it isn’t just anger that is taboo territory for decision making, but almost any strong emotional state. Delight or its opposite, repugnance. Love or hate. High spirits or low. Perhaps one can even include faith or doubt, although faith is more, much more than an emotional state, though its evil twin certainly is.

It’s easy to see how and why we shouldn’t act when in strong emotional states, a little harder to see how and why we shouldn’t speak, and even harder to understand the limitations we should impose on our own thoughts when we are ruled by a strong emotion. Aren’t some emotions good? Well, yes, perhaps some are, and there’s relatively few occasions when we are totally emotion-free, maybe none. The decisions we make when we are feeling good (not just feeling well) would seem to be risk-free, but uh-uh, sorry, they are not. My point is not to flaunt the obvious, or to save myself from its implications, but to say, it’s our nature.

Human beings are not God, god, or gods and goddesses (depending on your choice of religion). We are not minerals. Though some of us seem to be vegetables, that is only a metaphor we use to chasten ourselves. We are not spirits either, despite what the poets and theologians tell, but that is almost what we are and possibly what we will become ‘if we make it.’ What we are is, in a word, unstable. We flicker. We are blown to and fro. We blaze up. We die down. We can merge and lose our identity as we move on to consume other fuels. Eventually we go out, either snuffed or, retreating to our coals, glow dimly and then go black.

What does this sound like? You’ve already pictured it in your minds if you’ve read this far. It is, we are, fire. Now, think of a campfire at night. It glows. It doesn’t keep a shape. Every little shift of the wind contorts it. It burns because it has fuel. There’s wood under it. Other fires burning in other places still consume fuel, couldn’t exist without it, coal, oil, gas, it doesn’t matter what. Fire burns, and unless it has fuel, there is no fire. This is just another metaphor, but it does shed some light on our human nature. What I also want to say is, don’t take your human nature, your life really, too terribly seriously. Even most of your decisions.

Just as fire needs that fuel to keep burning, to keep existing, we cannot live, at least not for long, unless we have fuel. It may seem harsh or judgmental to hint that some fuel is better than others to keep the fire alive and burning, but it is still true. Start a handful of steel wool on fire, watch it sparkle as it is consumed, and then see the fire go out, all in a matter of seconds. Tear up a phone book and use its pages as kindling under the grate in your family fireplace. Light it and hope that it will burn long enough to catch the real fuel, alder, maple or oak logs, on fire. No one believes filling his grate with just paper will keep him warm.

It’s no accident in my choice of metaphor that wood is the fuel and paper the kindling. To get your fire going, you may start with paper, but ‘paper Christianity doesn’t have much holding power,’ I mean, it can’t hold its own, keep burning. It goes out after a few minutes. If we think a little bit harder, we can also see what the wood might be. Some of us wear tiny copies of that wood and say we stake our lives on it, but few of us bear it. Yet that wood is the only fuel that will keep us burning, and burning is our nature. ‘There is no higher way above nor safer way below…’ It seems odd to me that we should be made this way, but we are.

As I complete the last months of my sixty-fifth year of life with wretched trepidation, I confess my humanity, my fallenness, my instability, my inability to exist on my own, my need for fuel to keep me going another year. I confess that all my thoughts, words, and actions are flawed, and the decisions I have made and continue to make are somehow outside my control, that I am just a fire blown about by the wind. But I know that the fuel I need to keep burning, because burning is my nature, has been provided. I cannot provide it. Only One can provide it and He has, so that others can be warmed by the heat as I burn, and maybe see by the light.

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