Leadership in the ashes

October 17th, 2022

We were returning home after several days away as we turned onto the long dirt road leading to our place. Our daughter asked, “Is that smoke in the distance? Is something on fire?” “No, that is probably just dust,” I replied. After two months of drought, with daily high temperatures over 100 degrees, the unpaved caliche roads produced great dust plumes visible for miles with every passing vehicle. 

As we drew closer, it was clear this was not a dust cloud after all, but smoke from a fire. “Who would burn something when it is so hot and dry?” I thought. An electrical pole in the field next to our home had thrown a spark, which found a welcome reception in the surrounding parched grass. As the crackling grass ignited, the strong Texas summer winds fed the flames and pushed them swiftly…toward our home. We sped up.

The events that unfolded next, while exciting in themselves, also offer insights related to Christian leadership in The United Methodist Church, particularly in this season.

Collaborative solutions are essential especially in times of crisis.

As we quickly drove around the last corner leading to our house, a neighbor was arriving at our home. It seems the fire started about 15 minutes before, but already the rising cloud of smoke provided an expansive beacon.

We drove around to the back where the fire burned wildly, moving toward our house. Our neighbor followed. All immediately sprang into action. I gathered towels, blankets, and hoses. My husband and our neighbor soaked the towels in water and then used them to put out flames, redirecting them from the house. This was not an approach I would have considered. I was amazed as the wet towels, seemingly so ill-equipped for the task, effectively extinguished flames. But the fire was clearly moving faster in all directions than we could control, no matter how many towels were deployed.

Luckily that first neighbor was not the last. A steady stream of neighbors kept coming, and because they were farmers and ranchers, they came prepared. As they would say, “this was not their first rodeo,” and they brought all kinds of helpful equipment. But most important were the people themselves, including volunteers from several small fire departments. People willing to drop their responsibilities to help in an emergency. People willing to shift their focus to the pressing need, ready to work, and offer comfort and support. 

The phrase, “many hands make light work” rings true and resonates with the image of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12.26). Sharing the burden, with each person using their gifts and skills, suddenly makes impossible tasks possible—and not because smaller parts are divided across a whole. When working together, a shared purpose exponentially creates new possibilities for all. I would have not understood the extent of skills and gifts (and sophisticated equipment) my neighbors could so quickly access had we not faced this crisis. 

In The United Methodist Church we arguably have enjoyed complacency because of our size and relative strength. Confronting difficult challenges together can open a space for us to recognize the skills and gifts God provides across our connection. God seems to specialize in possibilities during times of crisis, inviting God’s people to rediscover our dependence upon God and each other.

Wet blankets are immensely useful. 

Often the term “wet blanket” is used in a derogatory manner to describe someone who focuses on problems and/or dulls the excitement. However, wet blankets are remarkably helpful when needing to slow and eventually stop spreading flames. 

During a time when some are quick to figuratively burn down institutions because they are not perfect, we need some people willing to slow the flames. For example: checking if claims are accurate before acting on them, practicing interpretive charity in the midst of disagreements, offering constructive counsel for mutual benefits rather than fueling rivalry, and speaking the truth in love. These are all practices of metaphorical wet blankets and contribute constructively to our witness and life together as the body of Christ. 

The least healthy substance burns longest. 

The field in which the fire occurred is occupied by a herd of cattle—and cattle leave behind manure. My husband and a dedicated neighbor spent many additional hours until after sunset extinguishing persistent spots of flames. Grass fires are notorious for reigniting long after the initial blaze is quenched, in large part because of the flammability of manure. 

We face significant disagreements in the church (as well as insignificant ones), which can be important and helpful. There will be some who hold grudges and subsequently wait for opportunities to reignite conflict. The world is a broken place and we are all broken people. It is only with God’s grace that we can move from unhealthy substances and dangerous fires to become new creations in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. 

Again, the image of the body of Christ is instructive. In baptism, when we repent of our sins and accept God’s grace, we are initiated into the body of Christ and called to live peacefully with one another. As members of the body of Christ we practice repentance and forgiveness with each other. We are called to receive God’s forgiveness while also extending forgiveness to others. In the body of Christ, there may still be fires, but with God’s grace we are called and equipped to quench destructive flames.

There will always be circumstances beyond our control.

The most difficult aspect of extinguishing the fire was the unpredictability of the wind. We found that if we spread out, and addressed where the fire burned hottest, we could work together to contain the flames.

This is also true in the church. Uncontrollable forces are inevitable, including the powers of sin and death as described by the apostle Paul in Romans. Yet, even in the most desperate moments, when fatigue and grief seem to engulf us, God remains in control. God’s power and love is sufficient and active. We know how the salvation story ends: God’s love in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit for all creation defeats the powers of sin and death.  

The miraculous work is God’s.

Through baptism and initiation into the body of Christ we choose to receive and participate in God’s love that makes all things new. If the farmers and ranchers helping that day told me once, they told me ten times: the burned land would soon become the most fertile. Just wait. It will be miraculous. 

I confess, at the time I was not convinced. My focus was on the present, which seemed quite devastating. The fire was a very frightening and dangerous experience, and one not to be taken lightly. Yet, God ultimately managed to work—miraculously—in so many ways that day. 

And, months later, the earth left scorched by the fire is the greenest in the field.

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