Sunday, August 3, 2014

Refining Fire (and the Hazards of Excessive Underbrush)

July 31, 2014 - ca. 8:30-9:00 p.m. - Fall River Mills, CA
As a young pastor, I remember my mentors describing themselves as frustrated firemen. We were called, they reminded me, to glorify God through the proclamation (spoken and enacted) of His word. We were to build maturity and ministry skills into our congregations. And we were to stand in the gap, delivering the resources God provides to the needs of the communities we were called to serve. And yet, they warned, it was often the case that any sense of vision, mission, and progress in ministry was shoved to the back burner as we ran from one conflict to another, pouring oil on troubled waters and putting out fires. I questioned the wisdom of such a focus, even as I fulfilled it. And over the years, I think I have discovered a better pattern in my ministry. More about that in a moment.
First, though, I need to tell you why this comes to mind at the moment. As you probably know, I live in the Intermountain Area of Northern California. We’re in the news at the moment. State of Emergency, mandatory evacuations, and the destruction of homes and businesses by the combination of three wildfires surrounding the Fall River Valley. To the south and southeast, the community of Little Valley is under evacuation order for the Bald Fire. To the northeast, Lookout is being evacuated due to the 3-7/Day Fire. And to the southwest of us, the Eiler Fire has forced the evacuation of Johnson Park, and is threatening the 3500 residents of Burney.
All four photos from back deck of my home.
What’s most interesting to me is a conversation arising repeatedly in the midst of concerns for packing family photos and heirlooms, planning escape routes around the road closures, offering housing to the displaced, and causing traffic hazards by watching the fires, trucks, airplanes, helicopters, and other unusual sights instead of the road. In the midst of all this, most of us find time to discuss underbrush. Specifically, its presence, absence, and/or relative density.
Why is underbrush so important to us up here? As it’s been explained to me by people who not only majored in Forestry, but have practiced the art for most of their adult lives, it’s underbrush that turns a routine, manageable forest fire into the explosive monster that is described in the U.S. Forest Service’s incident reports as running and torching, with long range spotting, rapid rates of spread, and showing “resistance to control (that) is very high” due to “unstable, old decadent brush.”
These are of the "Bald Fire."
Forest fires have occurred for as long as there have been forests and lightning. When they occur naturally, I’ve been told, they keep the underbrush burned out, only rarely topping into the trees because of the limited temperature and duration of the relatively low level of fuel on the forest floor. Why, then, are we seeing the kinds of wildfires we are experiencing, three-at-a-time, in what should be some of the best-managed forests in North America? “Over a hundred years of fire suppression,” was the answer I got. The build-up of underbrush allows the fire to burn hot enough, long enough that it becomes the beast exhibiting “extreme fire behavior” that was described earlier as “exploding” and continuing to “burn in all directions.”
My understanding of Fire Science is minimal. I’m sure some feel that excessive underbrush has little or nothing to do with our current troubles. Certainly, if it was an issue, some would assume, then it would have been addressed long before the destruction of so many homes, businesses, and communities. Maybe so. Probably not. Why am I so doubtful?
Because my understanding of Church is not minimal. And there, excessive underbrush, the continued build-up of dangerously volatile issues, continually collecting while we “put out fires,” making sure that there is hardly ever any open conflict among us…until something touches off the wildfire, the church-fight, the church-split, and (between some congregations/denominations/traditions, we should just as well admit it) church-wars.
The other two fires are the "Eiler" and "Day 3-7" fires.
Our conflict-avoidant behavior requires us to treat minor annoyances, petty squabbles, and most other disputes with analgesics—pain killers. We “agree to disagree.” We “forgive and forget.” We “let bygones be bygones,” and “bury the hatchet.” We pretend that the conflict is resolved, when all we’ve really done is refuse to face, focus, and fix the conflict.
When we pretend that “little fires” can be put out so easily, we often leave those who have hurt and/or been hurt by them to smolder. Even where the flare-ups are extinguished entirely, though, we simply leave the fuel to build up, until something else ignites in close enough proximity that it all goes up together.
What can we do instead? The pattern I’ve discovered isn’t a new one. It’s twenty centuries old. Jesus gave it to us in Matthew 18:15-18. But because it is so rarely practiced, it only gets tried when the stakes, and the flames, are already at their most extreme.
As an alternative, try facing the conflicts, even the littlest ones. Build the relationships among us by focusing clearly on where we disagree. And fix any damage to the solidarity in our families, to our oneness as members of Christ’s body (the Church), and to our mutual interests as a community, by realizing that we may not entirely reconcile our diverse viewpoints, but that in dialogue with one another we can reconcile our relationships together.


Pastor Greg said...

Love it Bill! We don't take the time and emotional energy to work through where we disagree. We either walk away from difficult relationships or we sweep stuff under the rug until low-level issues too easily jump into the canopy by the smallest spark of a misspoken word (James 3:5-6).
The other contributing factor, as you know, is drought. Little issues can easily become big issues when we are not planted by rivers of water (Psalm 1:3) and thirsting for the presence of the Lord each day and like the deer coming morning and evening to drink deeply of Word and Spirit that we might not fail to love well.

Great pictures as well! Be safe!

Anonymous said...

Bill those photos from the deck of your house are frightening and staggering! Today I drove by three fires like that in my state. It took over three hours to drive past them at 70 mph. One of the fires has burned 400 square miles and 300 homes so far. The difference was that I could drive away and be left with only the smoke cloud surrounding my house, close to two hundred miles away, while your house is actually in dire danger of being burned, as so many of the neighbors you care about have had. I think some of the things you are writing about may be questions such as, "With all that is dear at stake, are we sure that church wars are worth fighting?" and "Can perhaps unity come at a price short of losing all?" jp

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks for the comments! We are relatively safe here in Fall River Mills. But the drought and threat of thunderstorms continues, of course. Still, we're very thankful to have a few means of helping out, and supporting both the local residents and our very welcome thousands of guests working intently to save as many homes and communities as possible. Greg, you make a good point about the drought, too. And, JP, once things get to the point of church-wars, I think we're all better off to admit defeat, and start over by demolishing our own heavily fortified boundaries.

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