“Silence is golden” is a phrase that was often uttered by my dad when I was growing up. As a child, I talked a lot and probably embarrassed my parents –– especially when I asked our neighbor if he was my dad because he had red hair like I did. My parents always said that I was the milkman’s because of my hair color and he was our milkman. So, wasn’t the question obvious? How many other times I embarrassed them, I do not know, but I’m sure I did.
As children we need to be taught about our words, how many we speak, and what we speak so, when we become adults, we understand the power of our words and how our words can be used by the enemy. Unfortunately, I was not taught the wisdom of the Scriptures by my parents and the lesson has been hard-learned. Though silence is golden, everyone talks and wisdom needs to be taught.
When I read James 3:4-6 I can almost see Yeshua working, doing whatever it was that he did, while his little brother, James, either sat next to him or worked next to him. I can imagine that James had either spoken something without wisdom or maybe someone had spoken without wisdom to James. Perhaps someone spoke unwisely about Yeshua to James. Whatever the reason, Yeshua’s words stayed with James.
“And think of a ship – although it is huge and is driven by strong winds, yet the pilot can steer it wherever he wants with just a small rudder. So too the tongue is a tiny part of the body, yet it boasts great things. See how a little fire sets a whole forest ablaze! Yes, the tongue is a fire, a world of wickedness. The tongue is so placed in our body that it defiles every part of it, setting ablaze the whole of our life; and it is set on fire by Gei-Hinnom itself” (James 3:4-6).
When read this Scripture this morning, I was given the vision of a forest fire –– not the burning itself, but the aftermath. Living in the Colorado foothills, forest fires were always a possibility. Escape routes were planned for the fire storms that might start, and take only several minutes to go one or two miles. Though I am grateful to never have experienced one, the house that my husband and I built with love, sweat, and tears did. Nearly a year after the fire, we returned to our log home in Boulder and witnessed the devastation.
The contrast was evident. Under a blue sky with beautiful clouds, everything was blackened and lifeless. Though there were small shoots of green trying to push their way through the charcoal-colored ground, the landscape was black, black, black. What was left of the forest around our house was black dirt and black stick trees. The smell, nearly a year afterwards, was still that of wet ash as the winter snow melted. Sticky wet soot from a dream stuck to the bottom of our shoes as we wandered around the property.
The man who owned the house was the only person in the area who had not cleaned up the remnants from the fire. Bits and pieces of items we had bought and put into the home were laying around. We recognized the iron wood stove, parts of the furnace, a portion of the dishwasher, the chimney cap, and a bathtub. We tried to scrape some of the compounded ash layers from where a door had been in the basement to see the markings of our children’s hands. Though the foundation still existed, it was difficult to dig through the debris and we gave up.
Around our property, landowners were collecting hay bales to put on the ground where their homes had been. Without trees, grass, and underbrush to protect it from the coming spring rains, mudslides were feared. Everyone braced for a second wave of destruction from floods that would wash down the empty hillsides taking whatever was left with it. Though the actual forest fire was a memory, the results continued to bring daily trials.
Twelve to fourteen families had homes on our mountain road. No one lives up there at this time because there are no homes remaining. Some families sold their property and made the decision never to return. Others considered the odds and are in the process of getting permits to rebuild. Still others remain in limbo, not sure whether to rebuild, sell, or just allow their property to sit as empty forest land.
This is the vision I had when I read James. I saw the blackened forest and residue of what was once our home; the place where we brought our children as newborns. The hills where they grew and thrived and enjoyed the mountain’s fresh air. It was no longer an inviting place. It was a void. Dead. Black. Lifeless.
As I considered James’ words, I realized how the tongue can quickly destroy people and relationships. In a moment, they can go up in flames from a blazing wicked tongue. When I’ve read this passage before, I only thought of the tongue being the fire and how we needed to guard our tongues, but I never considered the devastation the fire would leave behind, how challenging it would be to dig through the debris, and that rebuilding would be very difficult.
With a new vision of the result of a forest fire, I turned from James to Proverbs. I began to think about some of the Proverbs differently, too.
“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
“A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Proverbs 11:13).
“A perverse man stirs up dissension and a gossip separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28).
Forest fires don’t happen when there is no spark to ignite the fire. Some ‘thing’ has to start the fire. When words are spoken, many without wisdom, they become sparks that have the potential to ignite an incredible fire. The particular fire that burnt our former home began with sparks from a small fire that was believed to have been put out the day before with several buckets of water! However, it was determined that one or two sparks hiding in the remains ignited when the wind began to blow the next day.
When a confidence is betrayed or a secret exposed, the wind begins to blow. The sparks receive the oxygen they need and the fire begins. Underbrush makes a fire burn hotter and allows it to spread quickly. Anger, jealousy, bitterness, and judgment are dangerous underbrush. Soon, the fire is out of control and destruction follows its path.
Rebuilding is always an option, but so far the man who owns our house has made no obvious effort in that direction. I can imagine how arduous it would be to rebuild after a forest fire. There is so much loss and tough decisions have to be made. It takes courage to move forward and rebuild when there is always the threat of the same thing happening again.
The house itself won’t be the same if it is rebuilt. Though the concrete foundation is still there, it is cracked. It will need to be removed. The house will be a different design, a different layout, even made from different materials and filled with completely a different wood stove, furnace, and bathtub. The view will have changed too. The distant view of the mountains will remain, but the trees that encompassed the house and the wildflower vegetation will take years to return to its former beauty.
Yet as I walked where my Columbine, Aspen trees and strawberry plants used to be, I realized that there was still beauty around me. It was a different kind of beauty, not as breathtaking, but still and quiet. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. Underneath the smell of wet ash, I could detect the scent of pine and hear the distant chirping of birds. Life continued to thrive in the changed environment giving a twinge of hope to the scarred landscape.
I had some concerns about returning to my old home after the fire. I wasn’t sure what I would feel. I had thoughts that I would feel incredible pain so I guarded my heart. I had already gone through the shock of hearing about the fire and seeing clips of my home on the news, but I still wasn’t sure what I would feel when I stood on the property and saw what the fire had done.
I hoped the drive up the one-mile road would give me time to prepare, but it was void of any of any homes or neighbors. Burnt trees left standing in the middle of charred ground cover could not really prepare me for what would be around the last switchback –– the non-existent structure whose warm lights used to beckon us home. As we turned the corner, the vast emptiness overwhelmed me. It was obvious the majestic log home which stood so proudly on the hillside was gone, forever gone. There would be no going back. There would be no more leisurely drives up the mountain to show special friends our dream home or the beautiful mountain area where we once lived. It was all in the past.
As we pulled in the driveway next to the gaping hole that I had watched being dug many years before, I felt only a little nostalgia at what was and what could never be again. I stood on the edge of the foundation. I looked into the basement hole and saw the remnants of a filing cabinet, charred books, and a shovel. At that moment, I realized that not only had my dream house been destroyed, but also the home of someone I didn’t even know who had bought the house. With a few harmless sparks, a fire storm destroyed homes and lives that were miles away from where the sparks originated. Families, friends, and relationships of those near and far had been changed forever by the sparks of what was considered an extinguished fire.
My Father knew about those sparks. He knew which were hot and with the right stimulus would ignite. He knew about the wind that would blow them around. He knew about the deep underbrush that would catch fire, spread, quickly engulf my house. He knew the destruction would be great and the loss within my heart even greater. He knew the inevitable end of that house long before the building process began.
James’ metaphor holds deep truths. How many lives have been set on fire by careless words and fanned into flames by gossip? How many relationships have been charred by the underbrush of anger, bitterness, and jealousy? How many friendships have be seared by perverse people creating cracks in foundations that will need to be completely removed. Yes, the tongue is a fire, a world of wickedness, defiling the body and setting ablaze our very lives leaving behind a world of licorice-colored popsicle sticks in blackened meadows. What a great forest that was set on fire by a small spark!
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