One day, back in the fourth grade, I was sitting in my seat as calmly as you please, more than likely drawing pictures in my notebook instead of diligently working in my grammar book, when the teacher brought one of the boys up and announced that the young gentleman was going to play guitar for us. I looked up to see Roy (yes, Roy—boys could be named Roy back then) standing at the front of the class with a white Fender Mustang electric guitar plugged into a small amplifier. Roy proceeded to play the surfing classic, “Wipe Out.” And that was it.
From that moment on, I knew I was destined to play the guitar. And for that Christmas, my parents bought me a ¾ size Orlando steel string acoustic guitar. I picked it up. I tried to play it. I didn’t know anything about how to play it, but I tried to play it anyway. The strings hurt my fingers. And it didn’t sound anything like that Fender Mustang plugged into an amp. So the guitar ended up in the closet. I didn’t touch a guitar again for four years. Of course, it might have helped had my parents secured lessons for me, not that they had the money for that.
But even though the guitar sat in a closet, the fire still burned inside me. When I was thirteen, and living in a small mountain community, and bored to tears, I took my grandfather’s guitar, a 1939 Gibson L-30 archtop, out of my parents’ closet. Then I found a book on how to play the guitar my parents had purchased for my brother when he wanted to learn (he didn’t stick with it either, obviously.). The book was about playing classical guitar, but I could still use it to show me how to tune the guitar and the book did have a chord chart.
Then I picked up a Beatle song book by dad had brought me. It had chord diagrams over the music. I learned to play chords from that book. I started with the most simple songs. “Eleanor Rigby”, for example, had only two chords, two simple chords. I knew those songs. I knew how they were supposed to sound. I played several hours every day. I played until my fingers began to bleed. Then I would soak my fingers in ice water and then play some more. It was very painful, but I was determined to learn. In time, I developed calluses on my fingers and they didn’t hurt anymore. By the time we moved away from that little mountain home, I could play the guitar. Forty years later, I still play. The guitar is such a part of my life, I can’t imagine being without one.
That’s kind of the way we are, isn’t it? Once an idea takes hold of us, it won’t let go. No matter what we do, it keeps nagging us. We can ignore it for a time, but it’s always there, in the back of our minds. It is the way of things. This is how the world changes.
At some point, we, as a species, came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with slavery. For thousands of years, people kept slaves. Then, the idea started to spread that it was wrong for one person to own another.
By the early eighteen hundreds, most of the what we call “civilized” countries began to outlaw slavery. Of course, here in the United States, slavery was such an integral part of our culture and society that it would take a civil war to bring the practice to an end. But end it did. And a hundred and fifty years later, we almost have equal rights for the people who once belonged to other people. Change never comes about easily.
Jesus understood this. Or at least, the writer of the Gospel According to Luke understood this. In the twelfth chapter, Luke has Jesus speaking to a crowd. It isn’t clear whether he speaking to his followers only, or to a more general crowd of people. And it doesn’t matter whether Jesus ever spoke these words or not. The truth of the message is still valid.
“I came to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to be baptized, and how I am being held together until it might be brought to completion. Do you think that I came to give peace in the earth? No, I say to you, but division. For from now on, five in one household will be divided, three upon two, and two upon three. They will be divided father upon son and son upon father, mother upon daughter and daughter upon mother, mother-in-law upon her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law upon mother-in-law.
But he said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising upon west, you immediately say that rain is coming, and it comes to be so. And when a south wind blows, you say that a scorching heat will be, and it comes to be. Hypocrites. You know how to interpret the face of the earth and of heaven, but how do you not interpret this present time (kairos)?” (Luke, Chapter 12—direct translation)
Fire is a powerful symbol. Fire, in our atavistic memory preserves us and destroys us. It endangers us and keeps us safe. It cooks our foods and burns our homes. Consider the mythical phoenix bird. Upon its death, it burns. And out of the ashes, it rises again to new life. Passion burns within us. It was a pillar of fire that helped to lead the Hebrews to the promised land. Moses spoke to a burning bush. Out of that fire, came the law. And the law was a new way of living. Fire tempers the steel blade. It makes it stronger.
Jesus came to set the world on fire, and I’d say he succeeded. This poor son of a construction worker (for that what being a carpenter meant in the first century), without the internet, without mass media, without wealth, or military power, managed to change the world. Moreover, this Jesus managed to light a fire in the hearts of those who heard him. Those who heard him recognized the truth. That truth began to burn inside. They could ignore it for a time, but not forever. His message could sit in the closet, like that Orlando guitar my parents bought for me. But the fire was burning.
And while that fire is burning, you are not at peace, let me tell you. Jesus did not come to bring peace, he came to set the world on fire. He turned the world of first century Palestine upside down. If you notice his words, he said he came to set family against family. Family was the foundation of Jewish society. Father against son, son against father—that is the antithesis of Jewish culture.
When John the Baptist came, he told the world to repent. That word, in Greek, does not mean to be sorry for your evil ways. It means to change your way of thinking, to see the world in a new way. That was the message of Jesus. See the world in a new way. God is not some angry ruler who punishes the sinner and rewards the righteous. God is a loving parent. God wants us to be happy. Real joy comes not from wealth or power, but from love. If we could just learn to love one another, we can make this world a real paradise.
Of course, like learning to play the guitar, loving one another is not the easiest thing to do. It can be very painful. Like learning to play the guitar, it’s something you have to practice. It takes to time to be any good at it. And it takes a while to develop those calluses. You have to suffer a lot, not because suffering is good. Having blisters on your fingers is not particularly good, but having blisters on your fingers is how you develop calluses. This is not a message we like to hear, but it’s true. And we know it’s true.
Once, after I lost a great deal of weight (one of the many times—damn those yo-yos), a woman asked me hopefully how I did it. I told her that I cut my calories way down and counted them religiously—and I exercised every day. You should have seen her face drop. She had hoped I would have an easy answer. But there are no easy answers. Deep down, she knew that. Deep down, I know that too. I’ve tried my share of miracle diet drugs. Counting calories and exercise works. The miracle drugs don’t. We know the truth when we hear it.
This is why Jesus reminds the crowd that they recognize the signs of the weather. They know when a storm is coming, or when it’s going to get hot. They ought to be able to recognize the truth when they hear it. When he asks how it is they do not recognize the present times, he uses the Greek word “kairos”. The usual Greek word for time is “chronos”, from which we get chronology, etc. The word “kairos” suggests time in the sense of “the now”, this present moment. In other words, you recognize the signs that the weather is changing, how is it you don’t recognize the truth right in this moment right now when you hear it?
People back then were no different than people now. They wanted easy answers. They wanted a messiah to come and tell them they should hate the Romans. They wanted someone to validate the culture in which the wealthy could rule over the poor with the blessings of God. They liked the part about God loving them and all, but weren’t too sure of the part about loving one another. They liked eternal life and heaven, but weren’t too keen on that cross carrying crap. But it’s that cross carrying crap that brings us closer to God.
That’s because we only grow out of crisis. Addicts only quit when they hit bottom. We don’t seem to make changes in our lives until the whole thing falls apart. Look at our economy. We knew that the real estate bubble was about to burst. But we just kept on doing what we were doing until it all fell apart. And then we passed legislation against some of those practices that caused the destruction of our economic system. Of course, it looks like we've forgotten the lessons we learned from that misadventure. I didn’t learn to play the guitar until putting up with the pain of learning was better than putting up with the pain of extreme boredom. We just don’t change what we’re doing until doing what we’re doing is too painful to do anymore.
And it seems like we don’t start to look for our spiritual side until we become so dissatisfied with our lives that we can’t seem to go on anymore. And when we finally reach that point, we begin to feel that fire burning again, reminding us there is something we’ve forgotten. We wonder why life has to be so hard. Maybe it has to be hard because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t talk to God at all.
There is a story about a four year old kid who never spoke ever. His parents couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then, at dinner, the kid takes one taste of his dinner and exclaims, “This is pure crap!” His parents, shocked, ask why he’s never spoken before. The kid answers, “Up to now, everything’s been okay.” I’m kind of like that. Times get hard and people pray.
Jesus did cast a fire on the earth. He set a fire to burn in our hearts, reminding us of the truth. He brought a fire to make us stronger. And he brought a fire to brighten our paths and show us the way to a better life. He came to turn our world upside down. And since I came to study his teachings, my life has never been the same. This story reminds us that there are no easy answers. We know that. That truth burns like a fire in our hearts. We already know that. We don’t need anyone to tell us that.
All we need is love. That truth is waiting for us, like a guitar in the closet, just waiting for us to pick it up and caress the strings. Don’t worry about the blisters. You can always soak your fingers in ice water.