Burning bushes

By Sam Candler

On the Saturday before the Third Sunday in Lent, I stood around helping my brother burn off some of the woods. My father was there, too. My brother-in-law, my mother, my wife were there. A family afternoon. Burning the woods is a regular affair on the farm where I grew up. I was glad to turn aside that day.

My brother had a nifty device filled with two-thirds diesel and one-third regular gasoline. When lit, its twisted nozzle functioned like a flame thrower, but it really just dripped fire out into the pine straw and bushes and sweet gum saplings. We always have to get rid of the sweet gums. My brother had already driven around the designated patch of woods with his tractor and plow, carving out a shallow fire line.

Burning the woods is critical to clearing out the underbrush that might start another, more serious, fire in those woods. But its main accomplishment is to clear out the underbrush for more birdlife and wildlife, and to provide for sturdier pines and primary trees.

We watched the wind, and we set the fire on the leeward side. That way, the fire would stay controlled and burn backwards into the wind. Fire likes to feed into the wind, probably like all of us do. And fire really does start quickly. I watched with my folks, mesmerized by the sheer chemical reaction spreading before us. We talked randomly about whatever was on our minds. Younger folks might call it “hanging out.” Hanging out is much more enthralling when a fire is burning before you.

Occasional sparks drifted out over the fire line, and we put them out. A few of the larger pines caught fire at their bases. The water from the back of my fathers’s four-wheeler put it out easily. That four-wheeler is really a mule, but it’s a different sort of mule from the one that trudged through these same fields so long ago.

We heard a pileated woodpecker and then saw it sail through the glade in front of us. We listened to still another flock of sandhill cranes, but we never saw them, above the thick pines towering over us. We wondered why several deer sat nonchalantly in a nearby thicket, watching us, but never running away. Too many tame deer these days.

The next day I was at church, hearing about Moses, who turned aside from tending his family’s flocks one day. He watched a bush being burned and yet not being consumed, He heard an angel remind him of his father’s God. “I am who I am,” Yahweh said. Holy ground.

Holy ground is where fathers and sons can stand around together. Mothers and daughters, too. With nothing important to do except burn something. With nothing important to say, except maybe “It is what it is.” The standing around is more fascinating than the words. Something powerful is burning all around us. It burns, but it does not consume. Instead, it enthralls and inspires. Fire destroys the straw, but it germinates the seed. Fire creates fertility. Burning bushes makes for holy ground.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. He chaired the House of Deputies’ Committee on Prayerbook, Liturgy and Church Music at the General Convention. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

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