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Saturday, November 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

We must tend the fire to keep sparks of hope from dying out

Special to The Seattle Times

From time to time, The Seattle Times hosts guest columnists on The Faith & Values Page. Today, we introduce Liz Budd Ellmann, M.Div., a spiritual director who helps people tell their sacred stories every day.

One summer at canoe camp, my fellow campers nominated me for the Guardien du Feu award. To receive the award, I would have to prove myself worthy of the French voyageur title by keeping a fire alive through the night, alone on an island in one of the thousands of lakes in northern Minnesota.

Over the years, many campers had been nominated, but only a handful carried the title. The camp counselor paddled me to the island, coaching me to collect wood in the twilight, before it got too dark. I stepped out of the canoe, and she gave me three matches; a bucket for water to put out any fire that got out of control; a whistle for emergencies; and a message of encouragement that has stuck with me to this day: "Trust your ability to keep the fire alive. Listen for the guidance that is all around you."

I lit the fire at the edge of the lake and settled into singing songs to myself to keep my mind off the creepy sounds and shadowy shapes of the night forest. Sparks rose from my blazing fire to join the heavenly stars. I felt confident and proud. It was a beautiful night.

And then the stars disappeared.

Soon a light rain hushed some of the scary night sounds. It threatened to dampen the pile of twigs and branches I had carefully collected to fuel the fire.

The drizzle became a downpour, and my fire began to suffer. I knelt with my ear to the wet ground and blew on the embers.

Voices in my head competed for attention: "How dare the rain come on my special night!" "Why did I build this fire so close to the lake's edge, without any protection?" and "Oh, who cares if the rain puts out the fire; this is only a silly exercise anyway. If it goes out, I could get some sleep."

But I couldn't really imagine getting sleep in the pouring rain, so I kept tending the fire, sure that it was going to go out anyway.

After some time, the voices in my mind grew strangely silent. Deeply silent. I heard nothing but the eerie sizzle of the rain as it hit the fire. And then I became keenly aware of what was happening.

I was being invited to participate in something much bigger than earning an award. I awakened to the fire's desire to live and the rain's desire to pour down. I felt the fire and the rain could hear my deep desire to keep the fire alive. I listened with new ears. I listened for the guidance that was all around me. I listened deeply, trying to be present to both fire and rain.

A phrase from Søren Kierkegaard, that I read much later, captured the type of listening I learned that night: "To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking. Prayer involves becoming silent, and being silent, and waiting until God is heard."

Lately, I have been listening to the stories of the Rev. Patty Baker, vicar at St. Clare's Episcopal Church in the Snoqualmie Valley, about ways the recent record rainfall has ruined homes, churches, businesses, and farms in the Snoqualmie Valley. Her parish can no longer meet at St. Clare's because flooded floors, mildew and mold have made it unusable.

One parishioner noticed that even though the church building was ruined, and the rain was still coming down, the community prevailed. Their spirit of hope was kindled by e-mail from a sister parish in New Orleans, one that St. Clare's had assisted after Hurricane Katrina. Now the New Orleans priest is sending e-mails of encouragement to the Snoqualmie congregation.

Yes, there is grief and loss; however, a revelation that the fire of hope is bigger than the washed-out buildings has emerged. Hope has ignited the St. Clare community. They are reaching out, neighbor to neighbor, throughout the valley to keep the fire of hope alive.

In the ministry of spiritual direction, we help each other listen for the spirit of guidance that is always available, everywhere, even in the most devastating downpours of our lives.

I am thankful for the spiritual guidance I received from my camp counselor. I am also awake to the sense of exile some people feel during this season because of illness, homelessness or discord in communities that used to feel like home. Yet my experience in the dark of a very rainy night taught me to stay present to both the fire that wants to live and the rain that will fall relentlessly.

The fire stayed alive on that long-ago rainy night. Guidance and courage did emerge. On these and future rainy nights, I pray that all of us continue to listen deeply, continue to tend the fires of hope and always respond with a courageous heart to the guidance that is all around us.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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