Maybe it is the primeval nature of it all, but I find it occasionally necessary to build an outdoor fire. All other activities that might have gone into that day now must not. The display would be amazing. My back will ache before the afternoon sunlight turns rosy again. But—and my late father-in-law would attest—there is something inherently unsafe about open burning in the mountains. It deserves respect, if not a little fear, to go with the power.
I gave myself until 8:30 am for my second cup of coffee and then donned the mud boots. Last night’s pizza boxes, all the dryer lint I could collect, and the partial bottle of lighter fluid from beside the grill—these helped start the fire under the dripping wet, 6-foot tall, 10-foot wide pile of branches collected from across the property from previous tree work. “What am I forgetting? Ah, yes, I mustn’t forget the matches.” But more than burning (and perhaps better) I received also a word picture—an epiphany really—about the gospel ministry during my day burning. The ministry deserves respect, if not a little fear, to go with the power.
Consider some precautions. All extraneous flammable materials—including the ones I brought to the scene—must be well removed. After all, a careless ember could spark a forest fire; faster than a horse, ravenously and indiscriminately hungry, jumping from treetop to treetop. So, I raked all the other leaves and brush 12 feet away from the blaze. I positioned the lighter fluid even further away, hidden behind a tree trunk. I lugged out the garden hose just in case, although everything in the forest was heavy with precipitation. Shovel, hard rake, axe, and wheelbarrow each stood at hand. Since every fire needs three things to live—fuel, oxygen, and heat—I was prepared to give or to take away any or all of the three as the situation demanded.
The analogy to ministry is not a difficult one to see. It is a similar process between lighting a brush pile and making disciples. There are many concurrent activities and concerns; many factors that can either smother the fire or carry it out of control into the realms of damage and division and death. But this should be mentioned first—the goal is not fire, the goal is a controlled burn … and a controlled burn requires forethought. Some de-emphasize the whole formal education and mentorship parts of ministry preparation saying, “We just want to get started. The need is so great.” And who can argue with that? But how many of the same ones who impatiently skip preparation are complicit in lighting entire forests afire without owning their part in the destruction or amending their ways before doing it all again in a different forest? There are flammable materials all around the ministry, some of which we bring in—past angers, juvenile willfulness, messiah-complexes, and depraved hearts that John Calvin famously and accurately described as “idol factories.” Preparation is incredibly shepherd-like.
Now the blessed work begins. I collect twigs and branches of varying diameters from the center of the pile where last night’s rain did not fully penetrate. I split a nearby wedge of softwood into narrower and narrower wedges. A match put to the dryer lint stuffed into the pizza box spritzed with accelerant is only the beginning; a necessary but short-lived flare. This huge pile would never ignite with an accelerant-dependent or paper-thin flash. So before the moment comes and goes in this initial blaze, I must be ready with kindling of all sizes within reach. Although I was never a boy-scout, I kneel down in the mud to build my A-frame of sticks as the pizza boxes roars to life. Blocking the breeze, blowing life into the embers, and coaxing the process along with a prayer I never tire of hearing the crackling of the first twigs and seeing the release of steam trapped inside. When it happens, then I know I am into the next phase of fire-development.
It cannot be stated often enough or well enough that the ministry contains, and even requires, all types of people. Some are quick to light, like newspaper, while others are excellent at carrying the burning process from cardboard to small branch. A few in our midst are accelerants—where “a little dab will do”; even fewer are matches. Some are half-consumed logs from previous burn days. With a skill for identifying them, one might be able to find people who are like wedges of poplar that can heat up the fire hot enough to catch the maples which can heat up the fire long enough to catch the oaks—and once the oaks catch, then even green wood will burn. Every once in a while a mammoth stump of locust can burn for days and days and still be too heavy to roll. (One such stump smoked for nearly a week after the fire was extinguished). But a safety-tipped match will never light a locust; not even a locust twig. There are multiple kinds of diameters and densities and proximities and qualities that work, or fail to work, together for building a sustainable, controlled burn. The ministry leader will know this and train others in the whole process—not just in how to strike a match and watch it burn. Once again, the goal is not fire; it is a controlled burn … but really, with the wide angle lens, the goal is training others how to make controlled, sustainable, safe, productive, and long-lasting fires who can also train others in due time.
While it is somewhat risky to leave such a young flame at this early stage of a burn day, I know that such a large pile of debris needs the same fire-starting process to be started on the other side of the circle—so the ends can meet in the middle. There is quite a bit of rushing back and forth at first to keep these two fires going. But, since the first one caught with a little bit of a head-start, I can go and “borrow” a firebrand from the one to aid the other. Not any smoldering stick will suffice. The borrowed torch must be a solid branch that is white hot otherwise it will go out before I walk the ten feet around in the rain. But if I can encourage the fledgling side with a robust portion of the established side, then both sides can benefit. The risk of weakening the strong without truly strengthening the weak is always a possibility, but sometimes a gamble is required.
The placement and redistribution of hot coals is a skill and an art form; a risk and a reward. It is almost like the ministry of a bishop, I suppose. The assessment of the health of several churches and the wise placement of “fuel, oxygen, and heat” in strategic places is all but gone in the wider Christian subculture today. That is too bad, but certainly understandable. Churches have been burned by other churches so often and so badly that it is arguably easier for one to exist independent of the other. Trusting a leader to move people and resources around for the health of the larger body of Christ is virtually non-existent within or across denominational lines. Nevertheless, the Scriptures are clear—we are not independent. The missionary spirit—being “ready to go willing to stay”—would help the at-large church more than it costs the church or threatens the churches who are so insecure to release their clutches on their territory. Yet most churches still maintain a “ready to stay willing to go” attitude, if not a “must stay and scorn those who suggest otherwise” spirit. But that lends itself to a lopsided burn.
So, the fire is catching. The coals are dropping deeper into the heart of the burn pile and a symphony of fire-music is starting to sing. The larger branches are now igniting the logs that crisscross this brambly maze. But the hard work is just beginning. This 6-foot tall by 10-foot wide pile of branches is only part of the wood that needs to be burned today. I must now go and gather other branches for the fire. The physical work is tough to drag these limbs up the mountain slope and throw them on the fire. But the opportunity for burning will not last forever. “Today is the day for burning.”
Analogous leaps to Jesus’ words are justified: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). But there is a caution of being a ministry or a minister that only tries to attract the others to itself or himself. Jesus’ words are true, but the way He “brings them” to Himself is not by attracting them but by sending His apostles out to them—“As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
My burn pile metaphor breaks down at this point. I cannot “apostle-ize” my fire to go to the other smaller collection of stick around the property, the community, the world. I cannot commission the sparks or launch the coals. But what I can do I am doing—I teach my sons how to start a fire, how to manage it, how to prepare for it, keep it safe, enjoy it while it burns. I can explain to them why fires are occasional necessities on this mountain, in this cubicle-oriented existence. I can show them that their father is not looking to get out of work, but who values work and the beauty of a well-maintained square of earth because it has a worship quotient to the Lord of glory. I can give them real responsibility with the one fire while I start another one 100 yards up the hill. I can let them use the axe, feed the fire with branches they collect, and stoke the fire with a green branch. And when the time comes, I can trust them to start the fires without my supervision so that they can—wherever God leads them—maintain the square of earth entrusted to them for a season of time to the glory of God. And, really, that is the best and only sustainable way the fire spreads—through equipped, inspired, and commissioned fire-shepherds who have a mind, heart, and will to pass to the next generation what was passed to them. We are not merely keepers of the flame. We are stewards; both of the flame and the flame-stewards of next generation and even the process. “Come with me; today is a burn day.”
One last element of my burn day must be highlighted—the unknown element. Excellent preparation and particular skill don’t exactly guarantee success or safety. I cannot know with certainty how things will go with fire. A stiff gust of wind make kick up. A strong fire may inexplicably fizzle. A seemingly dead fire may unexpectedly reignite. I have seen sparks shoot 30 feet in the air and land 50 yards uphill—more than hot enough to light the dry leaves all around the house. Yesterday, on two occasions, fiery projectiles found their way down my shirt. Also, when I was breaking a branch into a manageable size, the broken end hit me in the side of my head hard enough to see stars. The unknowns are always hovering around unseen yet certainly present.
Ministry is the same. Humanly speaking, there are no guarantees of safety or success. We have the promises of God in place, thankfully, or none of us would be even talking about ministry. But when it comes to fire in the hands of people, there are no certainties. The unknown element—to build or to destroy—transcends us and supports a healthy level of fear that the most mature Christian leaders possess. There is an acceptable level of skepticism in ministry—for even Jesus did not entrust Himself to everyone, for He knew what was in the heart of man (John 2:24-25). The minister is a participant with, but not the ultimate controller of the fire. He will be wise to remember this vigilantly.
So Moses’ burn left no ashes. My burn left nothing but ashes. But the same God of epiphany speaks.