Fire! Conflagrations, Congregations, and Council Committees
Photo by Karen Claassen
Our house caught fire early Saturday morning, April 10. We don’t know what happened, but we woke in the night to the neighbor’s house ablaze. By the time the firefighters prevailed, the fire had burned our eaves and rafters, blistered one wall, and blown in the bedroom and bathroom windows.
Days later, the smell of burned plastic still lingers in our house and in our noses. Whatever I had planned to write can wait. So: three observations that apply as well to church and presbytery life as to house fires.
One: People come in all kinds.
I met a new opportunist on April 10. Among the onlookers was a non-neighbor, wearing face mask and oxygen pack, recording the event while the firefighters worked. At 3:00 AM, he phoned (from across the street) to offer his services on behalf of an independent company—beginning, predictably, with a heartstring-tugging story about his own experience in a house fire as a child.
Churches and presbyteries, just like the world, have people who value their interests above the moment’s true need. Sometimes they don’t seek money, as the man above did, but simply the excitement of group drama. And sometimes, intentionally or not, they create drama in order to revel in it.[i]
The night brought plenty of lookey-loos. The neighborhood gathered from blocks around to watch. I marveled at the firefighters’ patience. They moved fluidly among the crowd, never losing their cool, even when people were clearly in their way. But the crowd did make me think. After over a year of pandemic-related vigilance, would we be ground zero for a super-spreader event? Hardly anyone, including Karen and me, was masked.
But people do come in all kinds. Helpers appeared amid the opportunists, drama queens, and looky-loos. One woman brought bottled water. Another handed out surgical masks. And I will forever thank God for the desk clerk at the Homewood Suites who finagled an unoccupied room for us at 4:30 AM, when the firefighters and crowds had all gone home and we needed a place to sleep—and several hotels had already said “no.”
Sometimes a small kindness makes a night a little better. Sometimes it might save a life.
Two: Grace means handling messes we didn’t cause.
We didn’t start the fire, but it did affect us. Often when a mess is not our fault, we still have to clean up. As apologetic as the other party may be, they cannot fix the problem. And whether it’s a neighborhood or a congregation, living in community means carrying the weight when our (figurative or literal) neighbor’s mess becomes our own.
Specialists are good for such moments. A professional service will pack out all our contents, clean and store them, and return them when we move back in. That is a major part of my work too—to provide people and processes when a congregation’s or committee’s mess has grown beyond its own abilities to respond.
It irks me, of course, when the mess comes from neglect, or from a few self-appointed “decorators.” Disrupting a faith community by pushing one’s agenda might benefit the disruptor. But my city block would not respond well if someone sowed wildflower seeds on the front lawns in the name of neighborhood beautification. And I am working to resist the word “irresponsible” when I consider where the fire began.
But even when the “shirkers” or “jerkers”[ii] cause trouble, God calls us to be gracious and firm, not reactive and angry. I am to say no to those whose actions don’t match the community’s needs—telling chutzpah-man to scram, for instance, or urging the most curious neighbors to give the firefighters room.
To jerkers, boundaries may feel punitive. But sometimes the community’s health depends on a patient, persistent “no.” Clearing the path of self-interested people (chutzpah-man) allows both experts (firefighters) and helpers (surgical-mask-lady) to contribute.
Three: The Christian community is wonderful in its gifts and kindness.
The fire summoned us to teamwork. Karen’s quick decisions in the immediate moment minimized our losses and protected our health. My tenacity with company and government call centers is slowly getting us back on our feet. Over time, healthy couples instinctively navigate toward a gift-based division of skills and work. That’s why they do better at pub games than randomly chosen pairs.
So it is in the church. When service is driven by duty (“I hate this, but they need me”) or ego (“I’ll do the important work”), frustration mounts. By contrast, gift-driven service—especially when we honor each other’s contributions and resist pecking orders—brings joy.
And finally: I’m grateful. Dozens of you have wished us well and offered help. I do not doubt the resources available if we only ask.[iii] From this and other occasions, I have seen the gift of church relationships. This broad mutual care reminds me of Christ’s encouragement—“by this they will know you are My disciples.
I’ll do my best in the months ahead to honor my commitments to you. But I’m also glad to belong to a group that believes in the power of new life. I’m just eager to see what mine will look like.
Somewhere along the Way—
[i] You’ve probably heard of “drama queens.” Susan Beaumont calls these people “tricksters.” See How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019)—a very helpful book for these days.
[ii] An old mentor introduced me to a wonderful typology of church members: “workers,” “shirkers”, and “jerkers.” I cannot recall how many times I’ve found wisdom in his categories.
[iii] We wish we did have “things” to ask for at this point. Since we don’t, we’ll ask instead: Please pray for us—for peace, for patience, for kindness, for self-control. Heck—just pray that all nine fruits of the Spirit would manifest themselves supremely in our spirits as the days grind on.