When real love sets something on fire the something doesn't burn up. It's like the burning bush or the pillar of fire leading the Israelites through the desert at night. It's like the warmth of my late grandmother's kitchen. It's like the sincerity of my father's smile. It's like the perfect light filtered through the trees in my mother's garden. It's like the heat of my infant son curled against my chest exactly three years ago today. Our lives catch fire from love and are not consumed. Renewable energy at its best.
I have a story about fire. Sometimes stories take a long time to unfold, don't they? Especially if they are stories we've buried in the ground. Roots take a long time to grow. This story has been buried in the ground for nearly 12 years. Several days ago it sprouted.
Last week I was in church on a Wednesday evening learning about liturgical practices in the Episcopal tradition. We'd been going over terms and definitions for a few weeks in our study and had come to the setting of the communion table. Our priest asked us if we knew what would happen if a consecrated item (a blessed item) were worn out or broken. Would it be thrown away? A cloth used in the serving of communion, for example? None of us knew. She explained to us that there were two options. Such an item could either be burned or buried in the ground.
Burned or buried.
I've always known about the leftover communion elements. They go straight to the ground or they are consumed. But altar cloths and blessed chalices? This was surprising to a Methodist-raised girl. I found myself thinking of an old story from my own life. A story of matches that wouldn't light and a piece of paper and the love of a good friend.
We were just beginning our junior year of college. My heart was broken. I'd suffered a loss. Something had been taken from me and I knew I'd never ever get it back. Something holy had been mishandled in my life. I didn't have the vocabulary to name my experience at that time. I didn't understand it enough to verbalize it. But I could list the facts, and so I did. I wrote my story on a few pieces of lined paper, front and back, folded them, and left my house with my best friend.
We walked off campus, down a gravel road we knew, and through the woods. We had a bottle of water and some old matches I'd found in a road side emergency kit. I intended to burn the story as a sort of symbolic healing ritual. We walked until the gravel became dirt. At a bend in the road, sheltered from view, I said, "This is the place." We made a little groove in the dirt and I pulled a match out of the little box. I struck the match.
I struck the match again.
I struck another match.
There were only 4 matches.
When we go into the wilderness with our pain, intending to burn it away, and find that our matches will not light a heavy blindness settles over us. Maybe our pain isn't a true enough pain to be burned away, we think. Maybe we should just go home and accept a muffled life.
My best friend rescued me that day.
Forgive me, dear friend, if my memory isn't perfect . . . but this is how I remember it: She stood up and dusted herself off. She said something like, "We need a big stick. We're going to rip this story into a million pieces and drown it. Then we're going to bury it." She found a stick and started digging. I found a stick and dug, too. Then the paper was ripped up and the whole bottle of water poured over it. Then we buried it. And we walked home.
All these years later, long since a wife and a mother and many other things, I found myself sitting in an Episcopal church hearing about the validity of my former experience. Something holy in my life was broken, and the broken thing couldn't be burned . . . but it could be buried, and it was.
Fast forward a few days. I sat in the back of a room full of women at an IF: gathering in a United Methodist church. I'd been leading worship for these women and they were being asked to write some of their personal challenges down on a piece of paper - some of the things that caused each of them to feel somehow "disqualified" from service to their fellow human beings . . . things that whispered doubt into their lives and discouraged them from engaging their doubt in a productive way. I knew immediately what to write on my paper. 12 years ago I wrote the facts, but not the name. This Friday night I named my old loss. One word. I folded my paper and carried it to the sanctuary.
Before my sisters took communion I took a moment to share with them the story of the matches that would not light. I shared with them about the love of my friend, who helped me bury my brokenness in the earth. I shared with them the love of my priest, who took time to explain to me what could be done with our broken holiness. And I shared with them about the love of God, who works constantly under cover of the ground, growing the roots of our lives in the midst of a mystery. I told them what they could do with their challenges and disqualifiers: keep them until you understand them better, wrap them in the word of God, put them on the altar, burn them, or bury them in a garden. I shared with them that I'd be taking my one word - my biggest, most difficult disqualifier - home to my garden, where it would be buried in the dirt with special intentions for new things to grow from it.
After worship was concluded and everybody was sent home I stood alone in the dark for a few minutes and said to God, "Thank you, God, for Love. Thank you, God, for never withdrawing holiness from my life though sometimes holy things get broken. Thank you, God, for my garden."
Then I went home and walked straight from the front door to the back door. I flipped on the deck light and got my gardening shovel. Right behind my beautiful purple asters, between dozens of hollyhock sprouts, I planted my one word, written in gold ink, and gave thanks again for the fact that my life had not been ended 12 years ago by the force of my loss.
It's impossible for me to know about your losses. It's also impossible for me to understand all of the things that seek to disqualify you from a life of love and service. But it is perfectly possible for me to understand the love of God, which sets our lives on fire and yet does not consume them.
My paper would not catch fire, but as I planted my pain in the ground a life of great compassion and service began to grow. The roots, stretching down and out, took 12 years to grow. What will spring from these roots, I can't tell yet, but I I can tell you that I trust it to be good.
Dearest Child of God, you are loved with an everlasting love. Even if your paper won't catch fire, you are not disqualified. Nothing can disqualify you from the love of God, which also means that you cannot be disqualified from the calling of God. All people are called by God. You are loved and called. You are seen and needed. Plant your paper, Dear One, and see what grows from it - it will be a brightness like you've never seen, and it will not burn you up or burn you out. It will simply shine.