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Starting Fires

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously told a story about the affable, well-liked fire chief of a small town. He was polite and agreeable, and he got along well with just about everyone else in the village he served. That was, until one day when the town had an actual fire.

When the alarm went up, the fire chief and his team of fire fighters sprang into action. They raced to the scene, but they found that they couldn’t get near enough to the conflagration to address the flames. The building, you see, was surrounded by local citizens who all had sped there at the sound of the alarm, hoping to help out their good friend the fire chief. They had no hoses or buckets or helmets or axes or any other special equipment. Most of them were just standing around, while trying to maintain a careful distance from the actual heat of the blaze. Someone had thought to bring several squirt guns with them, so the crowd was taking turns squirting tiny streams of water into the fire.

Bewildered and desperate to do his crucial job, the fire chief lost his temper and shouted uncharacteristically at the mob, “Go home! A fire is no time for well-meaning, half-hearted action. Your token effort is worth nothing at all! A real fire requires people who are ready to risk their lives!”

Kierkegaard told this story as a metaphor for faith and religious community. You can hear it quoted with some regularity to lambast the casual church-goer and proclaim that true religion demands of us costly and decisive action. Which would be all well and good, if the intersection between faith and the world we inhabit were like a fire in need of putting out. That metaphor seems wildly misplaced to me, however. If anything, I would say the opposite seems closer to the truth: the place where life and meaning intersect is a fire in need of being lit.

Under this reformed metaphor, you can imagine, perhaps, that larger and smaller contributions to the effort must still matter. More fuel is greater than less, and a match more useful than a lump of flint – at least in the short term. But if the aim is to build a fire – to tend it, to keep it burning, to help it grow – then every person who adds to it really does add something, no matter their amount. We can all be inspired – and ought to be – by those who give more of themselves than we do, who are ready to take greater risks or show greater courage than we have. But the little we can each do now – the first step, perhaps, towards such eventual greatness – is not some hollow gesture or callous obstruction of the real work being done by the true practitioners of our faith.

In truth, we are all equal participants in what it means to be Unitarian Universalists, and in our case a part of the First Parish Church in Beverly. It is to each of us to attempt what the truth of our hearts calls us towards, and not to try to sort our efforts into those of the squirt gun or the fire hose set. In the coming days, you may expect to receive a letter outlining the goals of this year’s annual canvass campaign. We have chosen to dream big this year because we are a congregation with a big mission in its community and in the hearts of its members and friends. Over the course of the next month, I hope that you and your households will discern together how much of yourself you see – or wish to see – in that mission, and join me in making a financial pledge for the coming year. During the service on March 1st, we’ll gather these pledges together with gratitude.

We are tending a fire together, and every last bit we add to it makes the flame brighter and warmer. I encourage you to give as you can, and to increase your contribution from last year, if you are able. The letter you’ll receive includes guidance in making your contribution based on your income and commitment level – my family and I aim to contribute 5% of our income each year, and I hope that many of you will join me in setting that as your goal. But I also remind us all that the difference between the heroic and the easy contribution is not knowable from the outside. Only you know for yourself what might test the limits of your generosity, and what only skims the surface of your abundance.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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