Live Coals and Broken Places

a multitude of candles

When a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we made a bowl yesterday.

A few hours before, I was sitting in my car, vaguely aware of a headline, picturing a building or a street corner or another place surrounded by police tape and contained. Then I switched on the radio and learned the truth: of a restaurant and a stadium and a concert hall, of AK-47s and explosives, of death and fear that could not be contained.

I’ve never been to Paris, but I could easily picture myself there, out on the town on a Friday night. I have been to concerts and sporting events and restaurants. I have walked the streets of cities glittering with history and beauty.

I turned up the volume to catch every word spoken in French accents. Between Centennial and Arvada, my world expanded with the weight of grief.

And then I got out of my car and met four others standing around a fire, and for two hours, my world shrunk to the size of a smoking piece of wood.

In this slow work of making something, in the conversations that ebbed and flowed, in the smoke that filled my hair and the breath that left my mouth, I found one of the simplest, most natural pleasures of life.

After the coals had done their work, we took tools to the glowing black, scraping and shaping with stones and curved metal, until it was the right depth and width, until it was smooth to the touch.

My feet were cold when we finished, examining our creations by firelight.

“You have some coal dust on your face,” Megan said.

We laughed and I smiled for the camera without running my sleeve across my face.

But when I was alone again, it all came back to me, this most unnatural destruction of life thousands of miles away.

In a car that now smelled like smoke, my grimy face felt like more than a mark of achievement. I thought of Ash Wednesday and lament, of sackcloth and ashes, of mourning and solidarity.

The night could not end here.

I am not a person who jumps at the chance to pray with people. I am not a person who prays much at all, honestly. But tonight was different, so I pulled to the side of the road and made a call and changed my destination.

Over hot drinks, we shared what we knew and settled in on the couch. We had no candles, and the Old English words of Scripture felt unwieldy on our tongues, but it was right, somehow, to speak aloud our hopes and our once-removed grief, to let the words stream from our lips and run circles around us.

But as the night wore on, a new question percolated in me:

Why was tonight so different?

I haven’t felt this strongly for those in Syria or Iraq, South Sudan or Burundi. I haven’t lit candles for the victims of sex trafficking and hate crimes, racism and oppression, starvation and natural disasters.

Maybe because my world looks more like Paris than the broken places in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia. I can more easily picture a world that is safe, safe, safe, then suddenly, horribly, not safe, than one trapped in an undertow of violence. My walls don’t shake from bombs falling two streets over. I do not wonder if my family and I will survive another day. I am not faced with the choice of whether or not to risk death by fleeing from death. I always know where my next meal will come from.

We are praying for Paris, and rightly so.

But may our hearts be split open for those living in constant violence, as well as for those to whom it comes like a scream in the stillness. May we light candles and fall to our knees and be moved to action wherever life is being destroyed.

Sometimes the work of justice and shalom and love is a consuming fire, but more often, I think, it is slow work. It is one page, one cup, one word, one coal at a time.

But when a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we are making something.

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