James 3: “The Tiny Spark of the Tongue”

Great Peshtigo Fire

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, as legend goes, at 9pm Catherine O’Leary went out to her barn to milk her cow.

What happens next a still a little foggy in the annuals of Chicago History, but the ally-way behind the barn at 137 DeKoven Street became the epicenter for the Great Chicago Fire. I’m still not sure why they call it the Great Chicago Fire, doesn’t seem to be anything great about it, but who am I?

The fire blazed for two long days and nights and consumed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city. Although it’s never really been determined how the fire started you can be sure of this, fire causes fire. Just like some of the greatest forest fires in US history have been caused by cigarette buts, a small spark has the ability to create major devastation.

What’s amazing about the story of the Great Chicago Fire is that it wasn’t the only fire that was started that night. In fact, you might be surprised to know that the single worst wild fire in U.S. history, in both size and fatalities, known as the Great Peshtigo Fire burned 3.8 million acres (5,938 square miles) and killed at least 1,500 in Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, and other nearby areas burned to the ground. Some 100 miles to the north of Holland, the lumbering community of Manistee also went up in flames in what became known as The Great Michigan Fire.

Farther east, along the shore of Lake Huron, the Port Huron Fire wept through Port Huron, Michigan and much of Michigan’s “Thumb”. On October 9, 1871 a fire swept through the city of Urbana, Illinois, 140 miles south of Chicago, destroying portions of its downtown area. Windsor, Ontario likewise burned on October 12.

The Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in American history but the remoteness of the region meant it was little noticed at the time. And to think, this great devastation occurred all because of a spark from the lantern of Cathrine O’Leary at 9pm when she went out to milk her cow.

The Spark of the Tongue

Fire is one of those things that demands respect. We might be quick to declare that the larger the fire the more powerful the fire is, but the reality is, when dealing with fire it doesn’t take but a spark for a fire to quickly get out of control.

When referencing the tongue, James points out in Chapter 3:5-6 (NLT) In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.

As we talk about the power of the tongue, it’s equally important to be reminded that James was writing regarding issues in the church. So obviously, like most churches, there was a person or persons who were probably talking nasty in the church! In fact, in my own opinion, when you re-read James 3, you almost get the sense that James is trying to get people to stop talking negatively about the leadership of the church. Again, this is just my own opinion, but read it for yourself. James 3:1-2 (NLT)

For Today

As we look at what all this means for today, I do believe it’s pretty self explanatory. In the first three chapters of James alone we find James addressing faith, listening, anger, true religion, and now the tongue. All of these things are things that require a higher level of spiritual maturity.

The challenge for us is to come to the realization that when we can control what we say, we control what we do, and even who we become. Like a bit in a horses mouth, or the rudder on a ship, regardless of the amount of tugging and wind, our tongue has the ability to steer us as we go.

2 Timothy 1: “Just a Small Brush Fire”

South Philadelphia, July, 1989

If you’re just joining us, I’ve shared a couple of stories growing up, but for this story it’s important to know that I grew up on the South Side of Philadelphia. In fact, I grew up about 75 yards from the busiest set of railroad tracks on the east coast that ran from New York to Washington D.C. called, “The Northeast Corridor.”

One day in the middle of summer, my friends and I thought it would be fun to light spinners and throw them in the air. (FYI: Spinners don’t spin when you throw them in the air.) We would often go to the end of my street to perform these shenanigans because it was a dead end. Well, on this particularly hot and windy day, one of the spinner blew over the fence near the rail road tracks. Realizing, “wait, this could start a fire,” we ran around the fence onto the tracks to stomp out the spinner. Feeling the adrenaline rush of that moment, we decided to keep going.

Unfortunately our 4th grade minds didn’t take into consideration the very tall dead grass less than twenty feet from where we were standing. Needless to say, one of the spinners got carried away in the wind and fell into the dense covering of really tall dead grass.

We thought we had the fire contained and stomped out, so we all decided to put down our incendiary devices and go back to playing in the street. Suddenly we could see smoke starting to peak over the large bushes and fence down by the tracks. You may be thinking, “what did you do?” WE RAN, of course! All of us ran home and tried to pretend that nothing happened.

My mother, who apparently wasn’t born yesterday, as she would remind me, saw me sitting out on our stoop with my shoes sitting next to me, came out and asked me what was going on. Of course I lied and said, “nothing…”

“Steven? What did you do?”

“Seriously Mom, nothing’s going on…”

What happened next was a blur of activity:

  • A neighbor who’s house was right next to the fire pulled out his garden hose to fight the blazing inferno
  • The fire siren went off and the fire dept. was dispatched for the brush fire
  • The fire trucks first went to the wrong side of the tracks and had to turn around to come back on the other side
  • Thick black smoke was billowing up as the plastic covering on the fence melted away
  • South bound local train service was halted
  • The siding of the neighbors house was melted due to the heat of the fire

All because, that which we thought was extinguished, reignited because of the strong wind. Then, as the wind continued to blow it just served as fuel to spread the fire along the line of dead grass and bushes.

Fan Into Flame

Paul in 2 Timothy reminds Timothy to, “…fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.

If you’ve ever spent anytime around a fire you know that even a fire that looks out can be quickly reignited simply by adding wind. The reminder/encouragement Paul provides Timothy indicates that his fire may have all but been out at this point. When you add verse 7 into the mix, we can deduce that Timothy was probably suffering from being fearful and timid in the faith as well.

Hear me: Paul isn’t just reminding Timothy, but reminds us today to allow the wind of the Holy Spirit to reignite the flame of His presence in our lives! Later he will say, (v. 14) 14 Through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you.”

(v. 8) So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. And don’t be ashamed of me, either, even though I’m in prison for him. With the strength God gives you, be ready to suffer with me for the sake of the Good News.