“Whatsoever things are . . . lovely . . . think on these things.” Philippians 4:8
Fire: The Joy of Stoking and Poking
By Foy Valentine, Founding Editor
Winter's grip has been firm again this year. It usually is. I deal with it grudgingly and sometimes grouchily. One of my best but not very clever or innovative ways of dealing with it is by building a good fire in my big wood-burning fireplace in my blessed study.
Just today I have been contemplating my blessings while sitting in front of this fire which I have kept stoked and poked since very early morning. Some of these blessings have not exactly overwhelmed me but have instead slipped up on me, sidling in, dropping down, and even creeping up from behind. Some may be worth sharing.
1. The fire itself. Since time immemorial fire has been one of our most treasured human possessions, one of life's most basic necessities, about as rudimentary as food, clothing, and shelter. Our ancestors, of course, did not invent fire. After lightening would strike a tall tree or after a volcano would erupt with a fearsome flow of red hot molten lava, I suppose our forebears readily enough found that they were significantly more comfortable with the fires that had been started than they were without them. Then I suppose they began to tend the fire, to nurture it, and to guard it. When the weather was cold neighbors would share a few live coals with which their friends could rekindle their own fires that had inadvertently been allowed to go out. Early on, ingenious persons around the world devised ways and means of starting fires, using sticks rubbed together, flint rocks, or twirled points in a bed of dry moss. Matches were not invented until very recent times. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that the first practicable friction match was marketed in 1827. That is when my great grandfathers and grandmothers were already grown young men and women. My particular fire before which I am now sitting was started with an ingenious little propane torch costing about $3 which, when triggered lights a natural gas starter which in turn quickly catches my wood on fire. Presto. I have fire in my fireplace.
Hearth and home have long gone together. In the old days home without a hearth would hardly have been imaginable. When I was growing up 75 years ago, my mother, on a bitterly cold winter day when it was simply too cold to fire up the kitchen stove on the north side of our drafty two storied house, would prepare a big black iron pot of hominy which she would cook for a very long time over a big bed of hot coals raked out from the fireplace in our living room to the edge of the hearth. Then at suppertime when the hominy was deliciously tender she would rake out more live coals onto the hearth and on these would cook a hoecake, biscuit dough formed into one big, flat portion. When fully cooked and beautifully browned, broken into pieces and generously buttered, it became with a hot hominy, a meal fit for the gods. Ah, hearth and home, indeed.
Thank God for the fire itself.
2. Warm feet. Once the fire is going, there is nothing sore delicious on a really cold winter day when there is a heavy cloud cover hanging low overhead, than to prop your feet on the raised hearth, happily built of rough sandstone to about fifteen inches in height, and there leave them until they are toasty warm. Even when I was a boy, I remember how much I liked putting my feet, as often as not wet and cold, in front of the fire and leaving them there until the numbness of the cold was all gone and the warmth of my newly blessed feet had osmosed to the rest of my happily thawing self. Now that I am old, the former pleasure of really warm feet seems to have been multiplied exponentially. So, thank the Lord for warm feet; and may your own feet be warmed by whatever fire you can relate to when winter's fierce blasts come your way.
3. A warm back side. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more profoundly satisfying than backing up to a good, warm fire on a really cold winter day. City slickers who grew up with space heaters, floor furnaces, or central heat can always be identified by their unseemly awkwardness in front of a winter fire. They seem incapable of grasping the elemental importance of backing up to the fire instead fronting up to it. (There is a downside to this stance, however. If a body has a big, older brother, he can come up and catch the front part of your britches and pull them smartly so that the inordinately hot pants legs next to the fire are brought into painful contact with the tender calves of both legs. This unholy maneuver requires a little time and a good deal of grace before fraternal relations can be smoothed out and the fire can once again be backed up to.) It is my belief, based on long observation, that real men and women will always spend about as much time backed up to a fire as they do facing it. I just think you can trust the heart of a man who backs up to a fire.
4. Flickering firelight. The dancing flames of a fine wood fire are authentically lovely, nothing short of truly beautiful. The aesthetic value of the fire is one of its primary benefits. A fire is admirable in its early stages when the flames are just beginning to lick the logs and get hold of the wood which they mean soon to devour. A fire is more wonderful still when it moves toward its maximum blazing and is coming to the zenith of its marvelous powers. Then when it has passed the height of its blazing, the fire comes to what is to me its most exquisite stage with a full complement of glowing coals, red hot, some almost white hot, with just a little white and gray ash beginning to form as the embers prepare to fade away and finally die. The whole life cycle of a fire is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, a phenomenon to wax lyrical about.
5. Aroma therapy. On two occasions lately, I have been in shopping malls where I have walked up on aroma therapy salons. I gather that these enterprises are trying to make money by hawking scents, perfumes, sprays, smells, odors, and sundry aromatic offerings. Good idea, I suppose. Actually, however, I can think of few things that could be more pleasing to the olfactory nerves than the subtle odors of burning wood. One of the main reasons for having a wood fire is to enjoy the delicate cachets of different kinds of wood as they burn, pinyon being a prime example. A smoking fireplace is, of course, an abomination. When a poorly built chimney does not draw properly, smoke pours out into the room, burns the eyes, offends the nose, and antagonizes the whole household. I am thankful that the builder of our house used an experienced and knowledgeable subcontractor to build our two wood burning fireplaces for they are constructed in such a way that neither of them has smoked a single time in the sixteen years that we have lived here. When a wood fire is burning, however, a delicate, unobtrusice, but splendidly pleasing aroma can be detected. It is therapy.
6. Little sounds. Separation from God is sometimes spoken of in the Bible as being cast into outer darkness and Jude calls the ungodly "wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever." One thinks of silence. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, theologian, and mathematician, has spoken of the eternal silences of the infinite spaces. There is a certain profundity about silence. Sound, however, is profounder still. God Himself is Word according to John 1:1, reason expressed in a language that humans can understand. God communicates with us through spoken words, through sung words, and through written words in his special Book. Do not judge me to be out of touch with reality now if I put forward an opinion that the little sounds made by a good fire may be heard by those with ears to hear as one of the languages of heaven. When there is green wood burning, a very special spewing, blowing, or even whistling can be easily heard. A piece of green hickory wood which has been coaxed to vigorous burning by several pieces of dry oak and a couple of small pieces of dry ash is capable of producing marvelous little musical notes which are beautiful and gloriously unique. A certain amount of dignified small popping is quite welcome, also. I especially enjoy the phenomenon called "popping snow" which can occasionally be heard. The churlish, raucous popping of fir, green or dry, however, is to be avoided if at all possible because it will both scare the living daylights out of you and wake up your wife in the nearby bedroom where she is trying to catch another little nap in the early morning when you have braved the elements by dawn's early light in order to get the fire going and drive the chill away before breakfast.
Mostly though the little sounds speak comfort, peace, happiness, and warmth, at least to me.
7. Reverie. A comfortable chair in front of a nice fire blazing away in a good fireplace is the quintessential matrix for reverie, which I understand to be the art of being lost in thought. It is near to being a lost art, of course; but I reckon that reverie is one of the fundamental building blocks of a healthy psyche. In these times we are so hurried by agendas that are too full, so harried by assignments, obligations, tuggings, and deadlines that we are hard pressed even to pause long enough to draw a deep breath. Sabbaths are not kept. Sleep is slighted. Rest is denied. Reverie is hardly in our vocabularies.
To sit alone in front of a good fire is to encourage contemplation. To stare at the coals as the fire burns down is to inject into the day's experience a solid quietness. To grow warm by the fire is to aid and abet the inclination to be still and know "that God is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (Heb. 11:6). To doze a little in the company of a warm fire is to relax in the deep knowledge that things are working together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
The ancient Greeks thought that fire was a very special possession of the gods and that it could be shared only grudgingly with mortals. With a different take on it, however, I understand fire to be one of God's good gifts, a not inconsequential component of his gracious provision for the abundant life.
And if all this doesn't light your fire, maybe your wood is wet.