Faith Matters - Playing with Fire

I did a double take. I was sure that my eyes were having me on. It has happened before, of course. It could just be a variation on the mistaken identity that regularly inflicts aging eyes. Settling back into the cushioned pulpit furniture after the processional, I was strategically positioned to get an unobstructed view of the back of the pulpit. Being an occasional visitor to chancels, I get to see the preacher side of pulpits now and again. This time I looked once, twice, three times. This was a new one on me.

Can you tell anything about a church from what is stored in the pulpit? Of course, there are those that have a hinged door to keep the contents discreetly secured from curious visiting eyes. In those cases, I am just left to wonder what is behind the door as the last notes of the prelude fade and the call to worship reclaims me. There is nothing systematic about my observations, you understand, it is just a curiosity that takes possession of my attention until I get around to the next order of business. 

Some congregations use the pulpit cavity as the community lost and found, the church history repository, or the supply closet. I have seen pulpits that were packed so full that I had to hold my water glass for want of a few centimeters to afford a resting place. 

I recall Bibles in every version since the Latin Vulgate, hymnals representing every division and merger of the denomination for 200 years, bulletins for advent 1979, burned stumps of candles in any liturgical color you care to name, assorted flower vases for birth buds or funeral bouquets, match books from the Golden Nugget, nubs of pew pencils with broken points, dusty glass communion cups, brocade Bible markers for Pentecost, books of children’s Bible stories, a reminder to someone “don’t forget the offering,” printed heartfelt prayer requests for friends and loved ones, reading glasses in several strengths, assorted microphone cords and spare batteries, and a final page from a sermon that never made it to the next service.  

Sure enough, upon closer scrutiny, my first impression was accurate: it was a fire extinguisher. My mind went wandering off into a flight of fancy as to the reason for a fire extinguisher in the pulpit. 

Perhaps the folks thought that if a fire broke out the preacher could see it first and react to it right away. The pulpit was essentially empty except for that piece of emergency equipment. Someone clearly wanted it there for a reason. Tall, red, and sporting a tag indicating that it had been recently inspected, it was ready for action.  

Driving to my next stop, I was kidnapped by that fire extinguisher. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that having a fire extinguisher pulpit-side could well be understood as a statement of faith about what can happen in worship. Perhaps the fire extinguisher should be regularly and prominently placed upon the communion table for all to see. Let it be a reminder of the Holy Fire upon whom we call in our prayers.  

Our prayers of invocation are intoned sleepily, casually and perfunctorily. We plead with the Spirit of God to come upon us and set us aflame with a passion for God. We beg for an infusion of transforming power to set our hearts on fire. We invite the divine presence to “come by here,” “fall afresh on us,” and “our hearts inspire.”  

The extinguisher might serve to remind us that we are playing with fire when we keep issuing such invitations to God. Jesus said that he “came to bring fire to the earth and I wish it were already kindled!”  

One of these days, our blithe prayers might just get answered in full view of pastor, choir and congregation. If that Pentecost fire ever does come calling, some walls will be pushed out, some doors removed from their hinges and the roof raised. The order of worship will be set aside that Sunday as some things are re-ordered. The word “awesome” will recover some of its original meaning.  

Not such a bad idea to keep that red canister out in full view for all to see. Admittedly, it is a peculiar icon for most of our sanctuaries. However, it is an appropriate symbol for an alert and expectant people, for those that stand on tiptoe, and for those in an advent state of mind. We should be playing with fire. Who can say when our prayers will be answered? For all of that, when the fire comes calling, the extinguisher will be of no consequence.

God’s peace.

Chuck Johns 


By: Reverend Chuck Johns On 9/1/2009
Topics: Faith Matters