In honor of our first hot day this summer, I wanted to share some thoughts about when we're in life's fires and the heat gets to be a little much. So, here ya go:
It was a cool autumn day when our tour bus chugged slowly up the road to Tuolumne Meadows. Majestic evergreens rose on either side of us and towered over the smaller bushes beneath them. I leaned over and opened the window, hoping to get a whiff of the sweet scent of pine. I took a deep breath and frowned. I didn’t smell pine. I smelled fire!
I stuck my head a little further out the window and searched the sky for the telltale smudge of smoke. There! A few hundred yards before us a dark plume rose over the trees.
I clutched the seat in front of me as the bus rumbled up the hill and headed toward the smoke. The road curved, and I saw it – a line of orange flames running low and fast up the bank to our right. The ground near the road was black and charred, and I knew that in minutes the entire hillside would look the same.
We pulled abreast of the flames, and I could feel the heat on my cheeks. My knuckles turned white on the seatback. Where were the helicopters? The fire trucks? The flashing lights that would tell me that someone was doing something to stop the blaze?
Then, I spotted something odd. Five rangers stood at the base of the hill not thirty yards in front of the bus. But they weren’t fighting the fire. Instead they were watching it progress.
I was about to shout to the bus driver when his voice boomed from the loudspeaker overhead. “Some of you may be wondering about the fire off to our right,” he said in the same calm, lackadaisical tone he’d used when pointing out a grove of giant sequoias ten minutes before.
“Why aren’t those rangers putting it out?” hollered someone from the back.
The driver smiled into the rearview mirror. “They aren’t putting it out because they’re the ones who set it.”
“What?” I, and about twenty others, gasped.
The driver chuckled and slowed the bus to a stop. “Yep, this here’s a controlled burn, folks. When the underbrush gets too thick the rangers burn it away to prevent wildfires later.”
So much for Smokey the Bear.
The driver continued his explanation as if reading my thoughts. “Not all fires are bad. This one will clean out the dangerous underbrush and return nutrients to the soil.” He pointed out the window. “If you look closely, you’ll see the big trees are unharmed. It may look bad now, but you just wait till next spring. This’ll be the most beautiful part of the forest.” With that, the bus jerked forward and continued down the road.
As the fire disappeared behind us, I sat back and thought about the controlled burn. I’d always considered fire a destructive force (unless of course, it was neatly contained within my fireplace!). But this was something entirely different. Here was a fire that cleansed the forest, nourished it, and prevented rather than caused destruction. Was this type of thing the Bible meant when it said “our God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29)? I’d interpreted that passage as a picture of God’s wrath toward his enemies. But what if “consuming fire” wasn’t an analogy for destruction, but for purification? Perhaps what Hebrews and Deuteronomy were saying was that God wants to be like the controlled burn – he wants to sweep through my life and burn up those things that are stifling my growth. Maybe the purpose of God’s fire was also to nourish me and to safeguard me from wildfires of temptation and sin.
As the smell of smoke dwindled behind us, I decided that I wanted to be like the forest. I wanted to stand still before God’s cleansing flame and let his fire do its work in my life, even if the process seemed painful, even if it was a little scary.
These days, when I see parts of my life withering away beneath God’s hand, I remember the fire on the way to Tuolumne Meadows. Then, I can trust that when God’s done, I’ll see that I, like the forest, will be beautiful in the spring.