Flame Retarded

Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

When I was a kid in North Dakota, my grandma lived in a farmhouse some twenty miles or so from where my family lived. Her house sat out on the flat prairie just outside a little town. About the only things of interest to me out there were the working outhouse, a broken-down shed filled with junk, and a burn-barrel.

I loved the burn-barrel. It was a rusted 50-gallon fuel barrel where you dumped the non-organic trash. When it got near full, you set the trash on fire and let it burn to ashes. I used to love to watch the trash burn, pretending it was a city on fire or the very depths of hell. Sometimes I would throw an extra wad of paper or something on top to watch it darken, curl, and eventually flame into a few flakes of ash.

One very windy day (in North Dakota almost every day is a windy day—some are just windier than others), while my grandma and dad were in the house fixing something in her kitchen, I noticed that the burn barrel was full. I was bored out of my mind so saw an opportunity to relieve my boredom, dispose of the trash, and watch another urban center go down in flames—all in one strike of a match. Without asking, I retrieved some matches. The wind was blowing fiercely and made fire-starting nearly impossible,but eventually I was able to nurture a flame deep within the trash pile. I watched excitedly as the fire took hold. The wind quickly fanned the barrel into a raging blast. Suddenly a huge flaming hunk of trash blew out of the barrel and landed in the dry grass. Almost immediately the grass caught fire. I panicked and tried to stomp it out, but the wind spread the flames more quickly than I could put them out. Horrified, I ran to the farmhouse, burst through the door, and yelled about the fire.

My dad raced out, but the fire had already spread across an acre of grassland.  It was now a wildfire, one of the most dangerous things that can happen on the prairie. My dad turned back to the house and called the volunteer fire department. I heard the siren blare in the nearby town and soon a water truck and a bunch of farmers and merchants came barreling up the road. Their quick work and a lot of water eventually killed the fire. They were gracious when they learned the cause and left me alone with my dad, who instinctively knew that he didn’t have to say a thing. Five charred acres taught me what I needed to know. I’ve never lit an unauthorized fire since.

I’ve often heard people say that God is a gentleman. The Holy Ghost, on the other hand, is one dangerous dude. As long as he’s tucked in the barrel of doctrine and protected from the wild winds of enthusiasm, he’s probably a safe way to deal with all that carnal trash that keeps piling up. And a weekly mild trash burn is usually enough for most of us. But even then you need to keep an eye on him; the Ghost’s been known to jump the fence on more than one occasion. If, God forbid, the Ghost gets out of control, it can take years—sometimes decades—to put out the blaze. Nothing’s more disruptive to normal life than a raging religious fire.

Unfortunately, there are spiritual pyromaniacs out there who’d love nothing more than to watch the place burn up. History is littered with these fire-loving crazies. Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, D.L. Moody—all of them did their best to torch the dry grass of their society with Ghost-fueled flame-throwers. They were pretty damn good at it too, and it took a lot of firefighters to douse the flames of religious zeal. Thankfully, the revivalist fires were contained and quenched before any lasting damage was done to our way of life. The bad news is that there are still folks like them around, and if we’re not careful, we could have another spiritual wildfire on our hands.

Don’t get me wrong. I like fire. I like candles. I like a cracking fireplace. I like a clean blue flame on my stove top. I like the smell of a wood burning stove. I like roasting marshmallows over a glowing campfire. I like controlled burns of all kinds, including church that gets out on time, prayer that is organized and quick to the amen; basically, I like a religion that warms the heart without burning down the house.

So as long as the Spirit is merely roasting chestnuts, we’re cool.  But if the winds start blowing, hunker down in your pew and DO NOT light a match (avoid amens too). Even then, it may be a good idea to have an extinguisher handy (rationalization works very well). Remember: only you can prevent revival fires.

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3 Responses

  1. Fantastic post, better conclusion.

  2. I like the childhood parables!

  3. twenty miles from Grandma’s house? That’s next door in ND!

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