“Putting out fires”

Many years ago I worked as a Clinical Supervisor for a local 3-county counseling center here in southwest Ohio. I was one of three such persons on staff, and in conversation among ourselves it was not unusual to hear these words, “all I’ve gotten done today is putting out fires.” Not literally, of course, but our meaning was metaphorically clear: every time I try working on my own agenda, someone would call or walk in with a problem that needed solving immediately. This familiar metaphor in conversation typically conveyed the emotion of frustration , heard with unanimous head-nodding empathy.

Years later, that experience would serve me well when, as a local church pastor, I found my agenda of sermon preparation and program planning interrupted almost daily with other problems to be solved now rather than later. “Putting out fires” was, among my fellow clergy, the same old euphemism for “they won’t leave me alone to get my work done.”

This is not to say that I was ever so necessary as to be THE problem solver in any relationship.   My efforts were always to assist as needed and never to micromanage or at all manage anyone else’s affairs.

Now that I’m retired, I can see through some sharper lens of hindsight that “putting out fires” really was my calling all along. Didn’t always make that printed sheet of job description bullet points, but it was always my job. As a supervisor of counselors. As a pastor. And, get this, it is still my job as a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. It will always be my calling here on earth as a Christian. And if you self-identify as a Christian, it is your calling as well, whether you appreciate it or not just yet.

The Jesus of both the synoptic and fourth Gospels was perpetually putting out fires. Whether he was en route to Jerusalem, or trying for some time away just to pray and meditate, he was always being interrupted by people with problems that needed solving now rather than later. He couldn’t even attend a wedding banquet in Cana as an ordinary guest without being pressed into duty as a winemaker. Every day it was a different fire that needed “putting out.” People were sick, hungry, had another question, had another crisis, and needed something now rather than later. That was his job. Putting out fires.

Now consider this in way of a Christian response to the refugee crisis in the middle east and in Europe that currently begs our attention. There have actually been several different responses that I’ve noticed in public or social media. One is that we have our own problems here at home to take care of. Our own agenda. Let’s not be bothered to stop and handle this interruption.

Another response has been “it’s too frightening.” Think of the analogy of “call the fire department, because I’m no firefighter myself.” Here the unspoken message is, “I’m afraid of fire” so don’t pick me.

Another response has been “let’s keep the fire from spreading to my house.” If we can’t keep them out of country, let’s at least keep them out of our state. If it spreads to our neighborhood, let’s at least protect my house.

Another response has been to blame the victim. As in “they should have never left those matches out where the kids could play with them.” Or “they should have known better.”

Another response has been to blame the firefighters. They haven’t done enough. They’ve used the wrong tactics. Or the arsonist who started it all in the first place. That’s always a great excuse for not having to putting out any fires ourselves. We’re too busy spreading blame.

Yet another response has been to throw fuel on the fire. Yep. That’s the spreading of fear from one house or neighborhood or State house or media outlet to the next. This response compares refugees to rabid dogs or the ebola virus or whatever other analogy it takes to spread panic in this world’s crowded theater.

And then there is the Christian, which in reality means Christ-like, response.

“Putting out fires” is what we do. It’s who we are. It’s our calling. It’s our job. It’s keeping our main thing the main thing. It’s the Jesus thing. It’s what Jesus would do. It is Christ-like.

And it matches the words of a lady named Emma Lazarus (I like that last name) when she penned her 1883 sonnet later inscribed on France’s gift to our nation of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Terrorism is like a giant fire burning in our world today. It’s not the only fire. There are many others by other names and labels. They involve people who are hurting. Scared. Angry. Confused. “Tempest-tost.”

A good friend of mine recently told me that he finds great meaning in thinking of this world as being hell. It is our curse, our punishment, our pain, our death, our crucifixion. Yet, he has found a way to turn his curse into blessing, his punishment into reward, pain into pleasure, death into life, crucifixion into resurrection. “How so?” I asked him. His answer: “by giving of my time in putting out fires.” By helping the hurting, one person at a time. By spreading joy, peace, hope, faith, love, a taste of heaven in the midst of hell, a lift to the fallen, a cup of cold water to the thirsty child in Christ’s name.

This friend of mine nailed it. For him, joy came from being Christ-like, descending into hell and taking on the sins of the world, easing others’ sufferings, comforting others’ sorrows. Carrying the water. Bringing God’s Kingdom here and now……on earth as it is in heaven. It was, and still is, his greatest reward in life as a follower of Jesus. It is life in abundance. See also John 10:10.

“And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” — Matthew 10:42 (NLT)

Today, on this eve of Thanksgiving 2015, I am thankful for many things. That includes my aforementioned friend, and it includes my own jobs past and present. That’s my calling as a Christian. Especially when I’m having one hell of a day (you know the type).  Those are the blessed days of greatest meaning when when all I get done is “putting out fires.”


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