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Happy Fourth of July 2020

I want to make it official. This is a weird year to be celebrating. It is always strange to celebrate in a desert with fire anything, especially in July.

And this year, the world is on fire.

The question growing up in a more rural and usually wetter place was whether you put a fire out or let it burn. I grew up with occasional controlled burns on our family’s land. It could clear out underbrush and bring needed nutrients for later growth.

At least once when I was very young, a controlled burn got out of control. My memory from that day is from under wet blankets in the back of a pickup truck as we drove under burning branches.

This year has felt out of control for many people. COVID19 has gone from being a rumor to being a force and is now leaving behind wreckage in nations, relationships, homes, and bodies.

(And yet, for many people it still seems to remain a rumor that can be ignored seemingly safely.)

Our nation’s struggle with racism has exploded again after the murder of George Floyd. Ironically his death was one of the first to get called out by police officers, police chiefs, and even police unions as grotesquely wrong. Yet it still set off protests and riots and more hopefully questions about how we as a country might live together and police differently.

This is a time of burning. It felt strangely cathartic to drive out to Carefree two weeks ago in the middle of two raging brush fires. It was as if our national life was being manifested physically.

So we came to Independence Day smelling of smoke and still smoldering. Many fireworks displays and civic events were cancelled, though not all. Most people celebrated at home, or at least socially distanced, as numbers climbed again in states that had been largely spared before.

In some ways all of this is like a wildfire in over tended landscape; there is an inevitability to the spread of coronavirus and protests. We could hold them off for a moment with early intervention, but we have been just waiting for something like this.

As firefighters know, you can create the situations that will lead to fire and leave them for years before they finally get the spark that sets them off. Fire prevention can only do so much when property owners will not comply with common sense and safety.

The coronavirus has felt like a monster coming for us for over six months as we heard the warnings and saw what was happening in China and Italy. Now it is finally here in Arizona and wreaking havoc. It is past time to do prevention. Now is when we work to fight it.

Race feels the same way. We have had prevention and even active intervention for a long time, but it seemed inevitable that finally something would set it off. It has been coming for several years. Police actions and political discourse have set small sparks, but it was Minneapolis that finally got the large fire started that is now burning around the world.

There is no simple way to fight a virus until a vaccination is widely available. Instead there are a million small decisions that each person must take to push it back and contain it. It will eventually run through the population, and there will be devastating losses. There already have been.

With a virus, you have to do external prevention, like washing hands and masking, but even more important is internal prevention, like building immune system health and maintaining general strength and stamina.

As a runner I know that my immune system is down for a day after runs over ten miles, so I plan accordingly. You have to know when to reserve resources.

While I am no expert on race relations, I suspect that similar responses are necessary.

One, we have to realize that like a fire in the landscape it will burn through the underbrush and find the places where there is fuel. Hopefully, it will be good for the landscape of the United States in the long run if we make the necessary changes to our structures and our perceptions of our selves and other human beings.

Fires change things. They kill people and destroy property. We are learning that long term exposure to the fire itself can poison the firefighters too. Cancer is now a routine outcome of the job, and we are doing a lot to fight that reality.

Racial unrest is like that too. It is inevitable when the conditions are left unchecked and uncorrected. It changes things, and not always for the better. And the unrest itself can be successfully dealt with and still leave poisonous cancers in the souls of those who work most heroically to fight it.

We cannot do everything perfectly. Sometimes the conditions that create the fire are the results of our best efforts. Land management for decades controlled fires to the point that in our generation led to devastating super fires in the West.

This moment and these reflections lead me to this. The fire of this moment is a super fire. We have to fight it and let it burn at the same time, knowing that it will change things and working to be sure that it changes things in ways that are life-giving.

Let the protests challenge our hidden habits of thought and perceptions. Dig out the pockets of fuel that each of us carry inside and clear them out, so that we can be fire lines in the forest where the hatred and hurt get stopped by those who can stand with clear conscience and genuine love for their neighbor. This work will have consequences, and not all of them are desirable.

Put out the fire where and when you can. “A soft answer turns away wrath,” the book of Proverbs tells us. Speak with gentle strength and let the other person be right rather than stoking the fire. Know when to give and where to put your efforts.

We are Christians. We gave up hate on the cross with our Lord. We gave up selfishness in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before. To quote Romans 6:

6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So let us be the place where the fire stops burning because we have cleared the old dead brush of sin out of our lives.

That is a tall order. It may take our whole lives and the help of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. So let us pray to know Christ, love Christ, and serve Christ in all people.

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards
Christ Church of the Ascension
Paradise Valley, Arizona