Now that we’ve gotten started, our next task is to create defensible space around our destiny. Not everyone will be in favor of our new life, and we need to protect our fledgling efforts because they are still vulnerable at this stage. As our next analogy illustrates, we can’t leave our destiny exposed and at risk. We need a clear zone around it so there is room for any fires that may come to sweep around rather than tear through. The following is a student sermon I delivered during the brief time I attended seminary. It explains what defensible space is, and why it is critically important to mitigating risk. In many ways, it is my signature work. If I had to pick just one message to teach for the rest of my life, this would be it. Enjoy.
I was richly blessed to live in western Montana for most of my life. It is a land of stunning beauty and awesome people. Back home, forest fires are sometimes a fact of life. There are lookout towers spread throughout the western part of the state, which is heavily forested with trees and homes. Folks live in these towers, high above the trees, where they can see a 360 degree view for miles in every direction. Lightning strikes are a common cause of wildland fires. Every time a storm passes through, the lookouts watch for the tiniest wisp of smoke and call it in. If the fire is located in easy enough terrain, ground crews and trucks respond to contain the fire as quickly as possible. If the fire is in steep or difficult terrain, or is far enough away from the roads, smokejumpers and slurry bombers are dispatched to fight the fire. There’s a smokejumpers base in Missoula, and these hardy souls actually jump out of airplanes near the fire, to start fighting it before it gets out of control. Slurry bombers are retrofitted aircraft that hold a huge belly of pink foam that puts out the fire. Their work is dangerous, amazing, and lifesaving.
During the worst fire season in Missoula during the time I lived there, the fires raced to the western edge of town. Blue Mountain, an areas where the dogs and I had taken many wonderful hikes together, was engulfed in smoke and flames. The scene all over town was surreal. I worked at the hardware store then, and spent my days helping firefighters load up on supplies. The smoke was so bad that I couldn’t see across the parking lot at work, and it wasn’t long before the ash began falling from the sky like snow. That night when I headed home I could see the eerie glow from the fire just a few miles away. I knew that not far from where I was, those firefighters I’d helped all day were bedded down in tent cities on the edge of town, trying to grab a few hours of sleep in shifts as the fire conditions allowed. When I got home, not just the smell, but the smoke itself was in the house and I couldn’t get it out. The normally bustling, easy going Missoula grew very quiet, and uncharacteristically nervous. My dogs were nervous. And then when fire broke out on the eastern edge of town, very close to the University of Montana where I attended school, I grew nervous too. I watched as the slurry bombers accomplished their extraordinary feats of physics and dove straight down towards the ground to lay down a line of pink foam ahead of the flames. Again and again, the planes would swoop over the mountain, dive so close it took your breath away, drop the foam, and pull up sharply to return to the airbase. When the flames reached the foam and stopped cold, my friends and I stood there, amazed. These are the sorts of things one sees during fire season in western Montana.
These are the sorts of things we see in our lives, are they not? Times when the western edge of our lives is burning, and before we can regain our bearings, the eastern edge erupts. Times when our days are focused on finding enough supplies to survive. Times when our lives are so filled with chaos we can’t see our way clear from point A to point B. Times when circumstances give off an eerie glow, when we sleep in shifts as conditions allow, when not just the smell but the smoke itself pervades our homes and maybe even our hearts. Times when happiness turns to anxiety and it feels like it will last forever.
In Montana, forest fires are viewed with a wary understanding. Everybody knows that forest fires are periodically necessary to clear out the overgrowth, to thin the trees, to allow sunlight and rain and nutrients to reach the ground again. There are some seeds that are not released until the intense heat of a forest fire frees them from their shell. If fires never happen, disease can take over the trees. If fires never happen, the trees and overgrowth can become so dense that it sets the stage for a catastrophic fire years later. It is not a question of it, but when. Catastrophic fires cause damage far beyond what’s normal. They do not simply clear out the overgrowth, they torch everything in their path. They cause destruction that takes years to heal. Everybody knows this. Every fire season is approached with a cautious eye. You know the fires are necessary, but you hope they don’t happen to you. You hope one doesn’t hit too close to town, not just because of the life threatening risk they pose to people, animals, and property, but because they are stinky, messy affairs. They fill the air with thick, acrid smoke. The ash swirls everywhere in a fine mist that’s hard to clean up. Life becomes tense with a helpless feeling of watching the encroaching flames and not knowing which direction the wind will shift next. Everybody back home in western Montana has a story like this about the fires. About the years when the rivers had to be shut down to all recreation because it was too dangerous to be on them. Years when little kids and the elderly were advised to stay inside. Years when everyone, was advised to stay inside. And in some years, when the fire was bad enough, the only thing that put it out was the snow.
Our lives are like these forest fires. I do not believe that God deliberately throws down lightning bolts into our lives, but I do believe that He is with us when they strike. With God by our side, we can use these times to clear out the overgrowth and prevent a catastrophic fire later on. And there are seeds within us that are not released until the scorching heat of life brings them forth. Our lives these days are choked with overgrowth, are they not? Sometimes our lives become so dense with busyness and burdens that the sunlight, and the rain, and the nutrients cannot reach the ground. Fires present us with an opportunity to clear all that junk out and for the new seeds within us to flourish.
In Montana, the one lesson the fires teach everyone is the critical importance of defensible space. This is a term used to describe creating a zone around a home in which fire cannot easily spread. It means clearing out the trees, and the brush, and the overgrowth around a home so that if fire breaks out nearby, your home will be safe from the crowing trees that burst into flames, and from the embers that can touch off spot fires. It means allowing yourself and the fire crews room to work around your home to save it if it’s in the direct path of the fire. Our lives are like this. In such troubled times, it is wise to create defensible space around our home, our family, our very soul. As the forest fires of life rage around us daily, you don’t want tall and vulnerable trees standing next to your front door. You don’t want a bunch of brush in your backyard where your kids and dogs play. You want room in which falling embers won’t touch off a spot fire. You want room for God to work around you and within you.
Whether lightning in your life has already struck or you are viewing the overgrowth with concern, God is with you. He offers you the most amazing gift possible every day you wake up: the chance to begin anew. Regardless of whether you are standing among the charred and smoldering ruins of a life you once knew, or sitting on your front porch considering exactly which trees need to come down, God is with you. Let Him help you create that defensible space, whether it is setting better boundaries, accepting help from others, or giving up whatever is preventing you from living a full and happy life. Let Him help you push up those first defiant blades of grass the spring after a fire has hit. The new growth that announces to the world: you do not have me beat, I am coming back! Let him nourish the new seeds the fire has liberated. Let Him man your lookout tower, so that when lightning strikes again, He sees the very first signs of smoke, and sends His angles, His smokejumpers, to see you safely through.
Until next time, I’ll be praying for you to ponder how the concept of defensible space applies to your own life. We’ll cover it in more detail next time.