“It was a pleasure to burn”
That perfect opening to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 ran through my mind as I watched the last twenty years of my life consumed by lapping red and yellow flames.
My friend Alan had agreed to help me burn up business and financial records I needed to discard and a fire on the backside of his property would save the cost of professional shredding. On a beautiful sunny, and pleasantly warm January morning I backed my pickup to the edge of a small trench on his back property, just inside the tree line he shared with his neighbor and just off the alfalfa field used for cattle feed.
My pickup bed was full, stem to stern, and top to bottom. I also had a trash bag and a plastic file holder in the back seat area because they wouldn’t fit under my bed cover. Driving the laden truck was a bit like steering a loaded ship through the water- slow and gently rocking.
The fuel for the fire was the manila folder bound records of thousands of customers going back eight years and personal financial records dating back twenty years. These had languished in the basement, collected for disposal but collecting dust- until today.
We pushed and pulled the manila folders in the back of the truck, they, sliding out the back of the truck like water over a small fall, and landing in the sea of folders already fallen.
It took less time than I thought it would to unload the truck, maybe 10 minutes. It was at least an hour to load the folders, two rows high, stacked perpendicular to each other to minimize shifting.
Dousing the folders with gasoline and waste oil, then striking a butane grill lighter and watching as the consummation of my life suddenly began.
It didn’t take long to realize that the folders- compact and laid up deep in the pit, would take more time and effort to burn than I’d thought; the burning mass needing to be turned over again and again so the oxygen hungry flames could do their work. Maybe that’s to be expected- it’s harder to lose our past than we may think.
Alan drove his Ditch Witch down to help stir the fire- this orange piece of machinery looking a bit like a bug with a small extendable bucket on one end and a trenching fixture on the back.
Alan parks on the edge of the pit and moves the bucket with the skill of a surgeon. The large steel bucket nudged the smoldering pile as gently as a bitch nuzzling her pups. With each nuzzle the red flames blazed high, mixed with streaks of black smoke.
Nudging and stirring and the flames leaping high each time, and gray ghosts of paper, print still visible, fluttering butterflies out of the pit, falling gently to earth; the vestiges of my life consigned to the earth, the air, the sky.
Standing near the edge of the pit I’m thinking of the years, and the people and the difficulties and the blessings those burning files represent: clients whose names and faces I didn’t remember. Other Clients I’d worked with multiple times and remembered with fondness. People I was glad to remember and those I was glad to forget.
There were personal financial records: hospital bills and utility bills; income and expenses; taxes and our giving.
Our lives were burning before me; bills and receipts, clients and invoices, all being consumed in the flames. And I’m wondering- were they good years? Did I give my best in the time represented by those files and those flames?
My mind turned to the Jewish sacrifices- animals, large and small, grains soaked in oil and incense, all offered on an altar, in fire; the fire consuming the first and the best of the crops and the animals, the first and the best of all the increase because YHWH was claiming all as His own.
I know that my life in its entirety is meant to be a “living sacrifice”- a thing thoughtfully, fearfully, with a will, laid down and offered to God, no less than a carcass consumed on the altar.
Seeing the flames consume the files; knowing the files represent my life, and the life of my wife and my children, and my Church and my friends, the burning process required a kind of thoughtfulness, a retrospective I hadn’t been prepared for. The burning wasn’t pleasure, but it was helpful.
Lord, how do you see those years? In your piercing, fire hot eyes, how do the years of my life stack up?
God grant us the wisdom necessary to present to you years, and hearts, of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).