Harnessing the Flame

She didn’t intend for this to happen.

Catherine O’Leary was just a poor Irish immigrant milking her cow in the barn.

Nobody knows for sure – in the end it was speculation.

Some folks think it was a group of men gambling. Others accused Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan. He was the first to say anything about it and some insisted that he caused it while trying to steal milk in the barn.

The most common account though centers on Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.

Just as she was finishing her milking, the cow kicked over the lantern.

It was around 9:00 PM on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, at 137 DeKoven Street.

The shed next to Mrs. O’Leary’s barn was the first building to go up. Three days later, on early Tuesday morning, October 10, the thick smoke finally began to clear.

The city had been devastated.

The Great Fire of 1871 had destroyed more than four square miles of Chicago, Illinois. More than 100,000 people were homeless. Another 300 were dead, casualties of the horrific blaze.

The conflagration had engulfed more than 2,000 acres of the city, destroyed more than 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalks, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings and $222 million in property – about one third of the city’s total valuation.

The wind, drought and dry timbers in Chicago had conspired to make this one of deadliest and most destructive fires in American history.

It all started when a cow kicked over a small lantern in a barn.

The anguished residents of Chicago were reminded of what man learned when he first discovered fire: it is a humble servant but a fearful master.

Fire warms, comforts, enlightens and guides. Out of control, it kills and destroys.

Words are compared to fire in the Bible, especially in the Book of James. The brother of Jesus was blunt in much of what he wrote in his epistle. This includes what he wrote about “the tongue”.

The forthright James can think of no better metaphor for human speech than fire.

The tongue may a small member of the body but “behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth,” he writes (James 3:5, KJV). Mrs. O’Leary would have vouched for that.

Just like an obscure lantern in a barn, words may start small enough but carried along by the winds of slander and exaggeration, the embers of maliciousness fall on the dry wood of envy and gossip. Soon they become a howling blaze of destruction.

It may not be what anyone intended but it gets out of control.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John writes in the prologue of his gospel (John 1:1).

Words have great power – for good and for evil. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” wrote the wise man of Proverbs (Proverbs 18:21, KJV).

Thomas Jefferson helped to forge a new nation with his eloquence in the Declaration of Independence. Of Winston Churchill’s stirring orations, President Kennedy said:

“In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone – and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life – he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

But in the mouth of an evil man words are “a burning fire” (Proverbs 16:27).

While Churchill galvanized England, Adolph Hitler used his fiery demagoguery to fuel the passions of hate and lead his nation into self-destruction and world war.

Sticks and stones may break our bones but words can also hurt us.

They can be beautiful or ugly. They can wound or heal. Words can build us up or tear us down. Words can unify or divide; give us hope or cause despair. Like fire, words can offer warmth and comfort or they can consume and destroy a life.

Jesus tells us that our words don’t just determine our character – they reveal it.

“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” he explains (Matthew 12:34, NKJV).

“A good person produces good words from a good heart, and an evil person produces evil words from an evil heart” (Matthew 12:35, NLT).

That’s simple enough – cause and effect.

Words matter – tremendously. They change lives, families, churches, nations and the world.

Sometimes in an instant.

When he uses analogies like taming a horse and sailing a ship, James has this one thing in mind: control.

You and I must control what we say – and how we say it.

The stakes are high, the dangers real.

“It only takes a spark,” James warns us, “to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell” (James 3: 5-6, The Message).

Out of control, our words can be “the very world of iniquity … set on fire by hell” (James 3:6, NKJV).

May this be our prayer:

“Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, NIV).

Let’s harness the flame.

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