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On Fire – Bill Lewellis

I don’t want to set the world on fire
Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, August 21, 2016

On a recent Sunday morning, a strange gospel passage proclaimed that Jesus “came to bring fire to the earth … division [within families].”

This scripture may once have given some sufficient religious direction to shun gay family members … or anyone who has moved beyond denominational doctrine on other matters.

It confuses me, but this I know: Following Jesus does not mean you have to pick a fight with your family.

A childhood memory changed this scripture for me.

I grew up in the lower Anthracite region of Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania where my parents operated a neighborhood bar.

Three rooms on the first floor: the bar, the side room with six tables, a TV and a jukebox … and a kitchen from which halupkies, club sandwiches, fresh pork and ham sandwiches, hot sandwiches and very fresh hard shell crabs were sold to customers.

Our living quarters were on the second floor. Only in theory. The second floor was our sleeping quarters. We lived in all three rooms of the first floor, especially the kitchen. Some 90% of our customers were also our friends. My first-communion party with parochial school classmates was held in the side room.

As I was falling asleep on the second floor, I could hear the familiar songs of the forties: Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James orchestras, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots.

The Golden Age of Song, the music of World War II. Nickels in the jukebox played a significant role in driving these songs up the charts.

The beginning of today’s gospel passage took me back to all of that. Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth.” The Ink Spots’ record played on the Wurlitzer, “I … don’t want … to set the world … on … fire; I … just want to start … a flame … in your … heart.”

I can imagine Jesus saying that – or singing it in a group called “Jesus and the 12 disciples.”

I … just want to start … a flame in your … heart.

Have you ever received a call from a stranger at 2:00 in the morning? Have you stayed on the line?

I listen to a variety of podcasts. The following is my abbreviated version of a story told recently on one. It lacks the impact of the woman's 15-20 minute powerful telling of her story, but it retains the powerful ending.

She spoke in detail about her addiction to drugs. At a low point in her life, she found a piece of paper on which her mother had written the telephone number of a Christian counselor. She hadn't spoken with her mother for some five years.

She dialed the number, at 2:00 a.m. She heard the rustling of bedclothes and the turning down of a radio as a man said hello.

She told him about the note with his number and said she hoped he could help her.

He replied gently … and listened, listened and listened. Until the sun came up.

"You've been so kind and have helped me a lot," she said after some four hours.

"I've been expecting that you would say some prayers or give me a few bible verses," she said, "and I want you to know that I am quite willing to hear them. After all, that is part of your profession, and you have already helped me so much."

The man said he wanted to tell her something and asked that she not hang up after he did. She agreed.

"You dialed the wrong number," he said.

Catch your breath. Four hours? The wrong number? Was this someone in whose heart Jesus had started a flame to enable him to take and stay with the call? Or did his good act ignite the flame?

“I … don’t want … to set the world … on … fire; I … just want to start … a flame … in your … heart.”

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the staffs of two bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for nearly 25 years and on the staff of the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for nearly 15 years before that.]

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