I want to tell you about the day I died in a fire on my university campus.
And most of the half dozen or so firefighters in the building did nothing to help me.
One of my part-time jobs in college was in the Residence Life and Student Housing Department (think RA’s and the like). Each year, the department, in conjunction with the city’s fire department, put on a fire safety activity in one of the dormitories on campus that was no longer in use. Basically, students were placed in old dorm rooms, then the fire alarm went off, and students had to work their way through the simulated fire to the safety of outside. Naturally, as residence life folks, we had to go through it ourselves before our students did.
Now I want to emphasize, mostly as a shameless attempt to save face, that the firefighters gave us almost no instructions before the drill began. So there I was in an abandoned dorm room, wondering what it might feel like to stop, drop, and roll down two flights of stairs to the first row, when suddenly, the fire alarm went off.
I started off brilliantly! I got down on my hands and knees, and started crawling through the “smoke” that was filling the hallway. Suddenly, I spotted a firefighter standing behind a glowing lantern! Piece of cake, I thought! Firefighter = base power. I am now officially rescued and can stop this dumb little demonstration.
However, when I reached the firefighter, he slapped a “death” sticker on me, then stood there silently as I naturally asked quite a few questions meant to clarify how exactly I had failed. Fine, whatever, I thought. It wasn’t too long before I spotted another firefighter.
Okay, listen up, third firefighter! you’re going to at least answer some of my …
I found out later that those lanterns were supposed to be “fires,” and that the firefighters weren’t really part of the scenario. They were just there in case there was an actual medical emergency, like someone having a panic attack. Oh, and of course, they were there to let you know you were dead if you got too near to one of the lanterns.
And so the people who should have been the most helpful served only to confuse me and to confirm my hopelessness.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard a speaker describe sharing the gospel like running into a burning building to try to warn and/or rescue people inside. I suppose the metaphor works to some extent. After all, the gospel does claim that humanity is in serious trouble (and most don’t realize it). And in some sense, sharing the hope of the gospel is similar to seeing someone in a burning building and trying to help — if nothing else, to shouting, “Hey, um, I think your building is on fire! Might want to check on that!” (though, hopefully, as with a real fire, most would be willing to do more).
The problem is that sometimes we are pretty crappy firefighters.
*Just like my silent firefighter friends, sometimes we hang out with “lost people” to relieve our evangelism-based guilt, or to feel better about ourselves. We’re not really there to help or get involved, mind you, but just to do our duty or convince ourselves we are more caring than we are. It’s like the church member who brags about going to a bar or a rock concert that way someone else might brag about surviving a game of Russian roulette.
*At other times we are content to hand out “death stickers” to everyone we see. We tell people exactly how we think their lives are screwed up, exactly why we think God is particularly angry with them, etc, and we call this Christianity, but that is the extent of our “helping.” On a more personal note, that’s one of the real dangers and difficulties of online blogs like this one. Without knowing each other and showing any willingness to invest in each other as people, we’ve come together to try to sort out what are sometimes pretty touchy topics. That said, I can always be bribed with free coffee for a face-to-face conversation!
As with any metaphor, we could keep unpacking (and abusing?) my symbolism-(and frustration-)laden experience with the fire drill on my campus that year. But hopefully we will spend some time thinking through our words and actions in the midst of the fire. And maybe those who don’t believe in the fire, who are even insulted by my suggestion that there is a fire, will at least be willing to admit that I was trying to help — that I treated them as more than a number or a duty, and that my presence in their lives didn’t make things worse … and that my homemade firefighter costume was super cool!.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)
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