I love lighting fires. It feels a bit non-pc to say that these days not least in these times of climate change when the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global warming, rising sea levels and soaring temperatures are the result.
Nevertheless, I love lighting a fire on a cold January afternoon in the vicarage hearth. I have become something of an expert at lighting fires as throughout my ministry we have been blessed with living in houses that still have open fires. Though expertise at fire lighting has not always been the case. In my first post when I was living in the country and we had just moved into a 16th century vicarage with an open fire my attempt to light a fire failed miserably. It was 1996 and we were moving house during the coldest January for years. The vicarage had been empty for some months and a day of removal men coming and going ensured the house was freezing cold. The large rooms with high ceilings and sash windows were filled with cold air which yielded little to inadequate radiators and oil-fired central heating.
But we had a fire, or at least a fireplace and some logs, though we couldn’t understand for the life of us why they just did not catch alight when we put a match to them. After several feeble and unsuccessful attempts to light a fire we gave up until the next day when I asked one of my churchwardens if he could help. He was a farmer, a son of the soil, and farmers are known to be able to turn their hand to anything. David was gracious and gently inducted us into the art of laying a fire. We were taught and shown that it requires careful layers of newspaper, kindling wood, small sized coal to get it going before it can take on the challenge of logs. Purists would say that method should work every time, the rest of us have discovered that firelighters are an invaluable addition in ensuring a successful blaze. Those long white cuboids impregnated with lighting fuel work like magic. Though they too are probably not so good for the planet.
David, my churchwarden, told his wife later;
“That new vicar and her husband are real townies, they haven’t a clue how to light a fire, they’re trying to do it by putting a match to two logs!”
I think of him most times that I light a fire and since those days I too have honed the art of successful fire-lighting. For a start there is no easy way to learn except by continuing trial and error. Sometimes you think it’s all going blazingly only to find it doesn’t ‘catch’ and you end up having to clear everything out and start again. I find building a fire and watching it slowly come to life is one of life’s pleasures. It is also a centring and meditative process. I am absorbed when I watch the small flame curl it’s way round the coronets of newspaper, crackling through just the right amount of kindling wood and creating the perfect environment for the coal to begin to burn.
And yet it is also mysterious. The path a flame takes is unpredictable. Sometimes one side of the fire will catch alight while the other half remains untouched. The story is still legible on one coronet of barely scorched newspaper while its companion sheet is consumed by flame. You may be able to see this on the photo I took to try and capture this. The art then is working with the small section of the fire that has caught alight trusting that as it grows the warmth will spread and take in the rest. You must fuel the fire, feed it with just the right amount of coal, and it will work its magic.
This speaks to me of life and human flourishing. We need to fuel the fire of our hearts and minds. Do we take too long trying to keep everything going when nothing seems to be catching alight? Perhaps dull, unresponsive attitudes and activities need to be let go when all they do is drain us.
Over the years I have tried to be aware when a spark of inspiration or curiosity catches my attention causing me to want to know more or follow that star. I fear that all too often I have ignored those inner impulses because of laziness or given in to the tyranny of the urgent rather than take note of the important.
Images of fire in the biblical tradition are often a sign of God’s leading. In the Old Testament, Exodus chapter 3, there is the story of Moses and the burning bush; even his attention had to be caught by fire as he watched a bush burning whilst wondering why it wasn’t being consumed by the flames. I understand that a little more now as I watch my fire both alight and yet not consuming all the fuel. I wonder how many bushes had to be set alight before God got Moses’ attention!
Later in the New Testament at the feast of Pentecost, tongues of fire appearing over the disciples’ heads symbolising the presence of the Holy Spirit coming to empower them to do God’s will. Fire burning but not consuming.
As I write, we are in the season of Epiphany, this is when we remember the journey of the Magi. These wise men were curious, attracted by another flame, this time in the form of a star. Perhaps this ball of heavenly fire ignited in their hearts an answering flame which they could not resist until it led them to Jesus. The one we affirm in Holy Communion as:
Our Saviour, born of Mary, in whom all our hungers are satisfied.
This New Year may we be given 2020 vision so that we don’t miss the signs of God’s presence with us and may your hearts and mine be warmed by the fire of His love.