In late spring two years ago, I took to the woods behind my house to rid the trees of the nests of tent worms. Tree after tree had their branches loaded with the unsightly, web-like sacs containing wriggling caterpillars. Seeing these cottony blobs loaded with worms out our window made my wife shudder, and knowing they would soon march out and start stripping the branches of leaves made her determined that I needed to do something about it.
Desiring to be her shining knight and rescue her from these little dragons, I dutifully followed her suggestion to rid the trees of these pests. She had seen her sister’s husband burn them out of his trees by tying a gas-soaked rag on the end of a pole, lighting it on fire, then burning the nests. So on an exceptionally warm Saturday in May that year, I did likewise. I must admit it was rather satisfying seeing the tents melt under the heat and watching all those little tree terrorists get their just reward. Everything was working according to plan…until I decided to get one last nest down further in the woods.
For as I reached up to scorch the last bastion of those buggers, the rag on the end of the pole, which had been burning for some time now, disintegrated and fell to the ground. Though the dry leaves began to ignite in a few places, at first I was not too alarmed and more annoyed that I had not finished off that last nest. Thinking it would be the work of a moment to put the fire out, I started stomping. However, I was not calculating that those rag pieces had been drenched with gas and were not easily extinguished. As I hopped up and down on one part of the small but growing circle, the other side I had just left smoking and smoldering would suddenly ignite again. All around the circle I went, with one foot then the other thumping out the fire only to see it start again.
About this time I realized there was a slight but steady breeze, causing the heat and circle of fire to grow faster. Images of acres of forest of burning trees came to mind, causing me to panic. I began yelling and crying out for help. Yet I was too far down the hill in the woods for anyone to hear me, and the windows of our house closed up with the air conditioning running meant my family was oblivious to the growing drama.
Eventually, the idea of creating a trench with a branch I picked up came to me, and I ran around the circle digging my own fire line and moving leaves away from the circle. Thankfully, the idea worked and the fire burned itself out. I ran up to the house, unrolled our 150 feet of garden hose, and was just able to reach the blackened patch with a stream of water to insure the fire was out for good. I almost burned down the forest to save the trees.
When I entered the house and stood at the door panting, my wife and children stared at me in astonishment then broke out into laughter. Sweat was pouring down my head and face, leaving streaks in the black soot that covered it. Caterpillars were wriggling around on my shirt. Out there in tennis shoes and shorts, my shins and calves were beet-red and the hairs on my legs were singed and curled up like, well, burnt tent worms. All I could do in response was just make sure to remind them of whose idea this had been in the first place.
I share this story – that I can laugh at now – as a reminder. Often we see a problem in the church or society, and with a word think we can correct it or satisfy our frustration over it. So we gossip to a friend, tweet out a quick remark, or post a comment online. Before we know it, a firestorm has ensued. And the hurt and pain it can bring is no laughing matter. How quickly things can get out of control!
For such is the power of the tongue. As James said, “[T]he tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).
We best pause and think before we light that match.