After the Burning

The forest burned down since last I went. England has faced a series of brutal heatwaves this summer along with much of the rest of Europe. Wildfires are uncommon here, but in the hottest heatwave the Lickey Hills above Birmingham sparked into blaze. Acres of woodland at the edge of the city were gone across a day.

It wasn’t a particularly large fire when compared to the wildfires in Australia or the Western United States that make the news in the UK, but it was shocking in a country that doesn’t know them. It’s cold here and we have a plethora of words for rain because we know the varieties of precipitation well.

I walk in the hills every month or so to reflect and to pray. The fire wasn’t on the hill I usually walk with Jesus, but I was curious enough to go looking for it, slightly dreading what I might find.

I went down to the forest to look for the ruins of the wood. Life’s been difficult these last few months, and I thought the ash might suit my mood. I tend to the melancholy at the best of times. It seemed an appropriate place to stand and speak with the God who is a consuming fire. I can be a little dramatic at times too.

On the drive there I had half a mind to write a piece exploring the ash heaps of our lives, our struggles and sufferings, and what it looks like to sit in the ash heap like Job and his friends.

I thought that perhaps I would tell you that there is holy life in the ash. Hope in the dust. When much is lost it is just that we weep the bold tears of the grieving; and new life is springing forth.

It’s tempting to write ‘but’ new life is springing forth. I did, in fact, then deleted it. We’re trained to respond like that to tragedy, to find the silver lining and lift it up as high as we can to hide the storm cloud. As though the life after death makes the death a footnote.

It would be wrong to strike the clause altogether, an overreaction which leaves us with burned trees, cold graves, and a dead Christ. Even so, it’s not Christ died, but he rose; it’s Christ died, and he rose. Death is dead, Christ has conquered, and the grief of a thousand petty deaths lingers like sin’s great halitosis.

I thought that I would tell you that the trees are burned, the forest made a tomb of sorts, though bounded by sky and a car park rather than walls of carved stone. Yet like the greatest of tombs, it was also a temple.

There are these theatres within the wood, where the space between the trees opens out but the canopy remains enough that it feels false to call them clearings. Something about them always catches my breath. As I walk the hills to speak with God, entering one feels like stumbling into a temple devoted to the one to whom I was just speaking.

I thought the temples would be burned away but that perhaps the tomb of those tall pines and wide beeches would have become, mysteriously, a temple for the praise of God the resurrected, he who brings new life from sin’s wildfire.

In that place I hoped I might see again the wreckage of my sin, the desolation of the sins of others, and—if I caught the light just right—the hope of the resurrection hard-coded into nature’s rhythms.

I can’t write that piece though. Not because it would be wrong to do so but because I didn’t find it. I didn’t find the ash heap. I didn’t find the Temple, or the Tomb. I wasn’t expecting to find a newly made desert still smoking from the fire, but I thought there would be evidence of the death of so many ancient trees. Instead, I found a wood burgeoning with life.

Before we get too carried away with the metaphor, in my case this was not because the forest has bounded back from conflagration, but simply because I didn’t walk in the right direction. I figured out later once I’d got home and had chance to check where the fire was that I’d climbed the wrong hill. I was very close to the devastation I was expecting to find, but I never saw it.

My meanderings up the hill in search of a scarred hillside scoured by the brutal hand of nature’s fickle whim got me thinking anyway. I stood among the stately pines in the valley below the burning I did not find and pondered. Perhaps it is the same in the mind of God. Perhaps if I went looking for the scars that circumstance has wrought on my heart in his mind, I would not find them in my wandering.

Which might be a frightening thought. I do not want my misadventures forgotten by the only one who truly understands them from my perspective. I don’t believe that he forgets the dust of our lives, or that we are dust, or what we have endured. If we toured his mind though we would not find the ash heap that I remember. I would not find destruction and scars or the paste around my feet where my tears have mingled with the dust. I would not find temples among the trees with my sorrows framed like mawkish memorabilia. The suggestion, once explored, seems macabre.

If I went looking for all I had lost in the hills of God’s mind, I would not find it because it has already burst forth into a forest breathing with new life. The Lord, who is beyond time, sees the end from the beginning. My deserts have bloomed.

So, I stood among the brackish trees burned brown by the fierceness of the sun, autumn hanging in the August air, and breathed in relief. I stood and looked at the majestic views across my city from the Lickeys, and saw beyond circumstance to the heart of God. Everything was the green of eternal spring.

Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

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