Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Rerun: Everything That We Know, All That We Love?

I wrote this in August of 2006... and quite frankly, forgot I wrote it. It's not half bad - and today, I needed this reminder about discipleship.



  Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior. - Isaiah 43:1-3

That's me at a much younger age... and wearing something different from a clerical collar and suit.

I rarely watch movies or television shows about firefighters; I was a firefighter and EMS responder for over 12 years, and I either get bothered about technical inaccuracies or too caught up in the emotions. But I watched a good movie the other night; Ladder 49. A little bit about the movie:
Under the watchful eye of his mentor Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), probationary firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) matures into a seasoned veteran at a Baltimore fire station. Jack has reached a crossroads, however, as the sacrifices he's made have put him in harm's way innumerable times and significantly impacted his relationship with his wife and kids. Responding to the worst blaze in his career, he becomes trapped inside a 20-story building. And as he reflects on his life, now Assistant Chief Kennedy frantically coordinates the effort to save him.
I went into several burning buildings in my life, and I always prayed the words above from Isaiah each time. Contrary to what most people believe, firefighters are usually scared of fire – because they intimately know what it can do and how powerful it can be. I’ve never failed to be thankful that I was never seriously hurt. In all of those years I only had one close call.

Twelve years in the fire service also taught me a lot about camaraderie, teamwork, and brother/sisterhood. You put your trust into so many persons: the person on the nozzle with you, the pump operator supplying water, the rapid intervention team who will come in after you if something goes wrong, the officer in charge of the incident… the list goes on. Even weeks of training at the fire academy couldn't wholly prepare me for the real thing. I remember going into my first burning house with Jerry, a seasoned firefighter. The room next to us suddenly flashed, and I wanted to run, run, run. He put a hand on my back and said, “We’re okay. I’m not gonna let you get hurt.” And then he proceeded to teach me how to cool down a room, how to fog your nozzle stream, and how to think like the fire in order to find it and extinguish it. I learned the difference between acceptable risks and stupid risks. He helped make me a good firefighter. And I passed on the craft to others as I got older.

Most firefighter shows and movies end with a tragic death, and having officiated at three firefighter funerals myself, it’s the part I don’t want to see of the movie. The wail of bagpipes, the lineup of firefighters and engines from neighboring departments, honor guards, dress uniforms – all very impressive, and all very depressing to me.

But Ladder 49 was a little different. A funeral takes place in a large Catholic church. In his eulogy, Chief Kennedy concludes by asking the congregation to stand and give thanks for the life of the fallen firefighter. The congregation stands, and they clapped with thunderous applause. Firefighters saluted. They walked in formation behind a fire engine that served as a hearse for the coffin. It was respectful, and it was a celebration.

It begs the question: why does the fire service, law enforcement, and the military have the best funerals?

My hunch is that it has something to do with the way we approach Christian discipleship… or more accurately, how we don’t approach it. Churches often get a rap for being cold, unapproachable, or even downright unfriendly. Worse, it’s been said that the Church is one of the few institutions that shoots its wounded. While I might take exception with anyone saying these things to my face, the fact that they’re said means that the perception is there.

One of the tag lines for Ladder 49’s movie trailer is this: “Everything they know, all that they love, is what they risk every day.”

Man, that’s good. I wish someone had thought of it for the United Methodist Church before we adopted “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”

The observation has often been made that many bars have better community life than some churches. I would place public service personnel even higher than that. Why is it that the Church abdicates to other organizations the very ideals and roles that it is supposed to excel and take a lead in? And why is everyone else taking risks while the Church plays it safe?

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” I pray that one day, people will once again say that about the Church... and the Cross.


Unknown said...

great Sky, i too have 6 years as a fire fighter

Unknown said...

Great Sky

Rev. Josh Newberry said...

Wow, that was great! Before becoming a Pastor, I was a Paramedic/Deputy Sheriff for 7 years. Thanks for the reminder, and for the challenge. Peace to you!

Unknown said...

Great post!

It Is What It Is* said...

That's awesome Sky. I agree 100% in your thoughts. Thanks for the reminder.

Betsy said...

I was amazed how much the phrase about the church being the only institution that shoots its wounded resonated with me. I had never heard it expressed like that. Unfortunately, that phrase very much describes my experience the past 3 years with my long term congregation. And it is just not me. Twice I've had the mother of a downs syndrome child tell me how she felt safe turning her child loose within the small school district he attended, but she would never do that at church. It did not use to be that way.

Individually, there are some very good-hearted people who are wondering why people don't stick around. It's the group dynamics that are "fatal". Shortly after General Conference a pastor who monitored it blogged about how he felt like "I know" trumped the Holy Spirit. I find that is a good description of how this church currently operates. It could also be attribitued to a failure to "help bear one another's burdens/shortcomings." Again, it did not use to be this way--at least, not to this extent.

I appreciate you taking exception to the negative perceptions of church. I am going to float a thought/impression that has been niggling at me and developing for over 10 years: Clergy in the UMC have a completely different experience of "church" than the rank and file member in the pew. The best way I can describe it is, it feels like all the spiritual richness and support sits on top and very little of it trickles down to the pew in any meaningful, life altering way. It's a perception that has developed after spending my adult life in one church "doing everything I was supposed to do" as a good church member. I now describe my faith journey as "wandering around waiting for something to happen"; God and Jesus were sitting up on pedestals watching and probably waiting. What happened was a major crash and burn after a two-part train wreck that started within the church: the heavy handed way in which a new pastor brought about "change" exposed my spiritual vulnerability, which then set me up for the crash and burn when I had to confront some less than positive personal realities when my estranged father died. After the second personal derailment, the only person from the church that stepped out of his comfort zone and walked with me through the darkness was the next brand new pastor that really did not know me from Adam. He is the first truly practicing, passionate Christian I have encounterd up close and personal outside of "doing church". He became part three of the train wreck.

After much prayer and monitoring, I am seriously contemplating a jump to The Wesleyan Denomination. It's not an easy decision because I always thought I was supposed to be Methodist and being Methodist used to be the best part of who I was. Wesleyan thought and practice absolutely resonate with me but I don't know that it is in my best interest to wait for that emerging movement within the UMC to trickle down to this local church.

In all fairness, I realize that because of three fantastically timed events that resulted in a perfect storm for me, I have been forced to get on top of "what went wrong". I have experienced a major paradigm shift that was forced upon me; on one hand, I feel "lucky" on another I think there could have been a better way. The rank and file member is not open to a paradigm shift. I certainly wasn't. I now understand what the first new pastor was trying to do, but he went about it all wrong.