I remember a song from my childhood that we sometimes sang on parochial school trips or youth retreats. “It only takes a spark…to get a fire going. And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love…” It is an image that stays with me today. Though I might feel at times that the measure of God’s love I am able to pass on to others will not..cannot…make a difference in the world, the reality is actually quite different. God’s promise to me is that even the smallest gift of love I give can produce unforeseen good in the long run (2 Cor 4:1-6, Gal 6:9, et al.).
As at least one wildfire in California taught us this past summer, destruction on a massive scale can also start with just a spark. Apparently, on a road near Redding, California, when “a tire failed…on a trailer and its rim scraped the asphalt, the result proved to be catastrophic for the entire region” (CNN Wire, posted August 4, 2018). That tiny spark ignited the Carr Fire, which resulted in over 200,000 acres going up in smoke. St. James has something like that in mind when he warns us of the destructive power of words spoken carelessly: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…setting on fire the entire course of life…” (6). James is not hopeful that human beings will succeed at keeping the fires begun by gossip, verbal abuse, and hatred out, for he writes, “No human being can tame the tongue” (8). Yet all the warnings and encouragements of his letter are preceded by this promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom [“wisdom” = an attitude of repentance and desire to turn away from doing what is wrong] let him ask God who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him” (1:5).
Our inclination is to play with fire and start the worst kind of destruction, as a result. Jesus spoke words of forgiveness even when his tormentors hurled insults at him. The words we hear again this Sunday, “I forgive you all your sins” is the gift of the crucified yet risen Christ to you and me, a gift from the one who uses words to put out the fires of destruction and bring the warmth and energy of a different kind of fire into the world…a fire that brings blessing and Life.
What kind of fire will you start this week?