I had a friend in college who burned down a tree one time.
I wasn’t there when it happened. All I know is the story he told me that fall after he had been a camp counselor one summer.
Apparently there was a beautiful, big, old, dead, hollow tree out in the woods near the camp where he was working. He would take cabin groups out there from time to time, and they would camp out near this old hollow tree.
If I remember the story right, he had heard a story when he was a kid where the main characters live in an old hollow tree. He always thought that was cool, so one evening he took a group of campers out to this tree…and here’s where my memory fails a little bit.
For some reason, he thought it would be fun, or interesting, or adventurous (or a combination of the three) to start a fire in the base of this hollow tree. I can imagine it would be kind of like having your very own personal fireplace out in the middle of the woods, right? Complete with chimney.
Unfortunately for my friend, he didn’t think much beyond the first 30 seconds.
He wasn’t exactly prepared for the flaming tower that promptly ensued. He hadn’t foreseen the plume of smoke rolling hot and high, or the speed and violence with which an innocent, hollow tree could turn to a flaming beacon of danger.
He did start the fire, but he never imagined the size or the scope of the ensuing tower of death.
Now, it just so happens that my friend (and the innocent campers he was leading, caring for, and…um…”protecting” that week) ended up being pretty fortunate. Some responsible adults saw the plume of smoke in the woods and ran to his aid…but everyone was ok in the end, and the fire was successfully contained (I have another friend who unwittingly started a full-fledged forest fire that consumed thousands of acres and took days if not weeks to contain…but that’s a story for another time).
God, in my experience, is not unlike that hollow tree.
What I mean is, we are drawn to the spectacle of natural strength and beauty that stands sentinel over our existence. God (or at least a version of him) stands, gnarled and weathered, within these mysterious woods we call ‘home’. He is faithful, he is strong, he watches over our camp with a protective nod to the activities we deem important. Cooking…Eating…Hiking…the Telling of Stories and the list goes on.
This God, like this old hollow tree, is our most beloved landmark and provides us with our truest sense of ‘home’. We might find ourselves returning to this campground from time to time (maybe even once a week!). We sit in the shadow cast by our landmark-god, or risk exploring the wilds in and around that most sacred spot, careful not to venture too far from the familiar sight.
But then there comes a day (and I’m convinced this day comes for all of us, and not just once), a day when this sacred tree erupts in flame with such ferocity that we can only run, terrified, seeking shelter and safety from the thing itself.
That day is a terrible day, when our illusions are burned away and we’re left choking on flame-soaked air searching for shelter with (and sometimes from) those who matter most. It is a terrible day, to reckon that hollow god for what he is.
Betrayal of friendship is a flickering flame. Cancer is a living coal. Job loss is a hungry spark, Infertility a molotov cocktail.
On and on, our hollow gods stand proud and strong and beautiful.
But in the end they do burn, don’t they? They burn because the water of life has ceased to flow within them (if indeed it ever did). They burn because they’re dry, and ready. They burn because they do not live.
The burning is a terrifying thing, and painful, and choking. But in the end, when the burning is complete, we are left with a choice between two fundamental options.
We can turn and look for other hollow trees to turn into hollow gods…
Or we can turn and find God in our turning, in the stories we tell, in the shelter we seek, in the cooking we do and the rest.
For faith is more like fire than we might suppose; and too often we fashion idols of driftwood.