Watch the World Burn

The plume of tar, chemical paint, cotton, wood, and ash filled my lungs. I gasped for air, but it was a good kind of gasp. It would be in memoriam of the final wave of disgust and pain—and it filled me one last time. I was inhaling, taking it in. Letting it fill and consume me. It drifted in and out of my ears, nostrils, eyelids, and mouth. Glued itself to the pores on my hands and neck. Covered me like a venomous blanket and hugged me tight in bitterness and misery. But then the wind took it away and the puff of smoke was gone. All that remained were the burning embers and dried up ashes. 

My father, in a sense, was born to be a pastor. Though, the title itself means nothing—or should mean nothing—in the grand scheme of God’s creation. But for the sake of this re-telling: he was born to be a pastor. His great-grandfather was a pastor. His grandfather was a pastor. His father was a pastor. But he didn’t become one until he was nearly sixty. 

Instead, he worked hard to be the best dad of three he could. He strived to win financially. And ultimately sacrificed his marriage on the altar of “success”. He had a relative mansion, a great job, and worked his whole life to get to that moment, only to see his marriage fall to pieces. And then he was taking his 13-year-old son to Titusville to start over again.

I remember one evening or another, we were in the kitchen together, making one of three meals we always ate (frozen pizza, spaghetti, or “beanie-weenies”). Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he gasped for air, clutched me in his arms and began weeping all over my shoulder. His tears drenched my shirt, and I felt cold, wet, and terrified. In my whole life, I’ve never been so scared of my father. 

He eventually let go of me, wiped his tears, apologized and walked to his room to collect himself. As a 35-year-old man, I understand now a piece of what he felt. 

He could have squandered or become a helpless blob of a man. He could have given up in dismay. Instead, he put his head down between his shoulders and searched for what needed to change in himself. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick. But he knew he had to leave behind the way he had done things before, to go where he needed to be. 

Sometimes life is all about change. And mistakes propelling us forward into places we have to fix. 

Sometimes life isn’t just a turn from wrong to right at all. Or from evil to good. It is simply a turn from the life we have to the one we are offered. 

In the nineteenth chapter of First Kings, Elijah sought out Elisha, who was working in a field on the last and final team of twelve oxen-plowing teams. Elijah went to him and threw his cloak across his shoulders before leaving him stupefied and alone. Elisha runs to him after realizing what Elijah’s intent is and hollers, “First let me go and kiss my father and mother goodbye, and then I will go with you!”

Elijah turns to him and says, “Go on back, but think about what I have done to you.” 

Elisha is in the midst of great change, opportunity, and destiny. He does not hesitate again. He returns to his oxen and slaughters them there and then. He destroys his plow and sets it on fire to roast the meat. He gives all the meat away to the townspeople and then follows Elijah. 

Elijah never tells Elisha what is happening or what will happen. He simply puts the future on his shoulders and sees what kind of man Elisha is. 

No one can tell you your future. Just as no one can steal your destiny. It belongs to you. You just have to go out and get it. You have to decide what future you want—what future you will pursue—what future you must create.

You have to decide what you are willing to burn so that you cannot return.

This was never about turning from wrong to right. Or evil to good. It was simply turning from the life Elisha had to the one he was offered. And his radical behavior made it a declaration that there is no going back.

In his Gospel, John Luke describes a moment when Jesus was promised by someone that they would “follow [Him] wherever [He] goes.” But Jesus replies, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” Jesus turns to someone else and says, “Come, follow me.” The man agrees to, but informs Jesus that he must first return home and bury his father. Jesus instructs, “Let the dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.” Another turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say goodbye to my family.” But Jesus tells him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”

You cannot follow Jesus into the future if you are holding on to your past. 

We all want peaceful, joyful, fulfilled, miraculous, legacy-leaving, history-making, dead-raising, powerful, prophetic lives used by God. But are we willing to give up every last addiction, adultery, gossip, manipulation, passive-aggression, whining, partying, indulgent, prideful, foolish vice we have hidden under the bed?

“I really enjoy being the center of attention, God. With my instant satisfaction, easy, quick results, lifestyle. Make sure that’s part of the plan, too, please.” 

Much of our adult lives involve us living out what others want us to be. Rather than who we are supposed to be. There is a difference, of course, between setting the past on fire and burning bridges. God’s Word tells us to be at peace with all men, if at all possible. So your past-burning isn’t about destroying relationships. Burning bridges is about setting other people on fire. Burning your past is about removing the things that should not be taken into your future. 

There are people in my past, both friends and family, that I had to remove myself from, not because I wanted to “get back at them” or bitterly remove them from my life. But only because they wouldn’t let me grow into who God intended me to be. 

And I have to ask myself this all the time: “Am I still growing? What is holding me back?”

The beautiful and magnificent part of God’s personality is that ofttimes He uses the pieces of our past—both good and bad—to enrich our future. So don’t use Elisha’s plow-burning as an excuse to burn all your bridges. Burn the past that is holding you back, not the people who don’t know any better. Instead, give whatever last fruit or cooked meat you have to the townspeople and go.

My dad had to burn his past that was selfish and sinful when we were in that apartment crying. 

Later, he would burn his position at ULA to walk into what God intended for him. And I’m confident he still has more to burn.

There is something powerful, elemental, and cathartic about fire. 

I had a girlfriend in my late adolescent years. I thought she and I would marry. We dated for nearly two and a half years. But nearly every aspect of our relationship was unhealthy. And I don’t mean sexually unhealthy, but the plague and toxicity that lives deeper than that. (Though don’t be disillusioned to think sexual sin isn’t enough to ruin.) The things like manipulation, guilt, lying and pettiness that really destroy a soul. We weren’t pushing toward God anymore. She was an artist slipping away from Him every day. Until finally we broke up. And in my misery, I found the beautiful and enriching act of setting all the paintings she had given me on fire.

Of course, this wasn’t about hurting her. I never told anyone except my wife I did it—until now, I suppose. But it was about me setting my past on fire and making sure I couldn’t go back. 

There’s no going back after fire-moments. They take you all-in. 

I was not supposed to be the man that she wanted me to be.

When Elisha lit his belongings on fire, he was telling God, “I will never turn back from the calling you have placed on my life.”

If nothing else, fire-moments set you free from all the things that keep holding you down.

Those burning paintings were a metaphor. A manifested response to the pain inside. But it only begins there. We must set bitterness on fire; light it up with forgiveness and watch it burn.

Set pain on fire.
Set betrayal on fire.
Set disappointment on fire.
Set regret on fire.
Set failure on fire.
Cut them up into little pieces and douse them in kerosene. Throw the match and watch it burn. 

Drop a few hundred years behind Elisha, and we see the prophet Jeremiah. He is a joke to his people, frustrated and completely misunderstood. At the end of his rope, he loses control and yells at his God, screaming and writhing in agony. This, too, I have experienced as of late. 

O Lord, you misled me,
and I allowed myself to be misled.
You are stronger than I am,
    and you overpowered me.
Now I am mocked every day;
   everyone laughs at me.
When I speak, the words burst out.
    “Violence and destruction!” I shout.
So these messages from the Lord
    have made me a household joke.
But if I say I’ll never mention the Lord
    or speak in his name,
his word burns in my heart like a fire.
    It’s like a fire in my bones!
I am worn out trying to hold it in!
    I can’t do it!
(Jeremiah 20:7-9)

Nothing would make me gladder sometimes than to give up. But I know that is not the man I am. God has put a word in me, and I cannot stop. 

That’s what sets men and women apart from others. The ones who refuse to give up. Those who say, “I cannot give up. It’s not in me.”

There is a fire that will burn bright and light your path. It will bring warmth to your soul, light to your path and strength to your spirit and to your future. But in order to have it, you must set your past on fire. 

(The writer would be remiss if he did not declare that Erwin McManus had much influence on this message and that all should take part in the wonders of his book “The Last Arrow”.)

One response to “Watch the World Burn”

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