Sunday, October 3, 2021

SMOKEY BEAR SAYS, 'LET IT BURN!' - Isaiah 61 Devotional #9

 
"... The LORD has anointed Me ... To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes ..."
– Isaiah 61:1b-3b
 
SMOKEY BEAR. More American than Thanksgiving turkey or Casey at the Bat, at 77 years and counting, Smokey Bear is the longest-running PSA (public service announcement).

Some SMOKEY Trivia ...

- MOST RECOGNIZABLE MUG: According to the American Ad Council, the source of PSAs, Smokey Bear's image was correctly identified, and the ad campaign messages recognized, by 80% of "outdoor recreationists."

- NO MIDDLE NAME: By solemn act of Congress (The Smokey Bear Act of 1952), his name was established as "Smokey Bear" -- NOT "Smokey The Bear."

- ALIVE BEFORE HE WAS BORN: We've all heard how Smokey Bear (as a cub) was rescued from a forest fire and came to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. -- where he became the living mascot for fire safety. The truth, however, is that the U.S. Forest Service's first Smokey Bear campaign poster was issued in 1944 -- fully six years before our little cub was rescued from the Capitan Gap Fire in New Mexico.

- HIS FAMILY: While living at the National Zoo, Smokey Bear had a wife named Goldie Bear and an adopted son (because they were childless) whose name was Little Smokey.

- HIS OWN ZIP CODE: That's right! By 1964, Smokey Bear was receiving so much fan mail -- over 1800 pieces per day -- that the U.S. Postal Service had to assign him his own ZIP Code: 20252.

- BUT SADDEST OF ALL: During his 26 long years on Earth, Smokey Bear only learned to say one thing: "Remember ... only YOU can prevent forest fires." And HE WAS WRONG! Read on and find out why....

On our last Isaiah 61 visit, we met a new breed -- the "Blessed Mournful" -- who are so appalled by the ravishes of sin on the people, the nation, and the world they love that they are moved to weeping, prayer, and decisive action. Jesus came, not only to comfort these Mourners, but to shape them into a new world order -- His Kingdom order. And, in fact, the rest of the chapter is a playbook for how He makes that happen.

But verse 3 is all about how He COMFORTS them. And where does this comfort begin? "Beauty for ashes."

"Ah, yes! A pleasant thought," you say? No. Read it again. "Beauty for ashes. Beauty FOR ASHES." It's a trade: to get His beauty requires our ASHES FIRST.

This "ASHES FIRST" thing is an eternal truth. A Kingdom law with no exceptions and no shortcuts. If I sincerely desire life in abundance -- in all its fullness, shimmering with all the BEAUTY of His purposes made perfect in me -- then I must be ready for the part where my own schemes and dreams get reduced to ASHES.

Which leads to an uncomfortable thought!... Just as, "Where there's smoke, there's fire" ... "Where there's ASHES, there has surely been FIRE!" And FIRE means DEATH. Death of, not only my schemes and dreams, but -- get this! -- death, even, of my human efforts toward becoming the person God needs me to be. It must all be tried by fire, leading to death, leading to ASHES. And yet, ashes now is better than ashes later!

"Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire." (I Corinthians 3:13-15, NKJV)

So, I have a choice: submit to God's plan of FIRE, DEATH, ASHES during my lifetime ... resulting in His true BEAUTY blossoming forth in my life; or else skip all that uncomfortable stuff and muddle through on my own efforts. In the latter case, sure, I may still pass "the [Judgment] Day's" fire test, but I'll be left standing there naked and ashamed. So what it really comes down to is "ashes now (with an abundant life of God's BEAUTY) or ashes later (with nothing to show for it but REGRETS)."

All of which brings us back to the gospel according to Smokey Bear: "Remember ... only YOU can prevent forest fires." Interestingly, the Ad Council realized that Smokey's message was misfiring, and they quietly amended it in 2001 to be: "Remember ... only YOU can prevent WILDFIRES." See, ever since the 1940s, Smokey and his friends -- especially Bambi, who was another Forest Service spokesman -- had burned into our consciousness the images of FOREST FIRES, set by MAN, destroying innocent woodlands and the creatures that live there. Evil, evil, EVIL!

However, modern forest conservation science was quickly learning that forest fires can be beneficial. No, not the wildfires set by arsonists or accidentally kindled by careless campers. But controlled burns, whether initiated by nature or by human hands, are both helpful and essential to maintain healthy woodlands. Take Yellowstone National Park, for example. NPS.gov tells the story:

"Fire suppression in Yellowstone began with the arrival of the US Army, which was placed in charge of protecting the park in 1886. The Army, which was in Yellowstone until 1918, successfully extinguished some fires in the belief that suppression would help save the forests.... Records indicate fire was almost completely excluded (suppressed) from the Douglas-fir, sagebrush steppe, and aspen communities on the northern range from 1886 until 1987.

"By the 1940s, ecologists recognized fire was a natural and unavoidable change agent in many ecosystems... In the 1950s and 1960s, other parks and forests began to experiment with controlled burns. In 1972 ... two backcountry areas in [Yellowstone] park totaling 340,000 acres ... were designated as locations where natural fires could burn. After three years, during which 10 fires burned a total of 831 acres in the two natural fire zones, the non-suppression area was expanded to include most of the park.... From 1972 to 1987, 235 fires were allowed to burn 33,759 acres in Yellowstone."

But the average Joe and Jane American were left scratching their heads. How could the U.S. Forest Service be flouting the advice of their very own expert, Smokey Bear?

All of us must be open to new learning, even Smokey Bear, whose message finally changed in 2001 (posthumously, it would seem) to focus on wildfires, rather than forest fires in general. He learned that nature's law of forestry includes periodic forest fires, either set by lightning or intentionally by man, for a number of very good reasons:
- Clearing dead trees, underbrush, and leaves from the forest floor so new vegetation can emerge
- Allowing more sunlight through
- Returning nutrients (as ashes) to the forest topsoil
- Aiding certain trees that actually REQUIRE FIRE in order to release their seeds, for example, the lodgepole pine.

Scripture gives us numerous examples of heroes of faith whose prophetic vision of God's plan for them first had to be reduced to ashes before it could emerge in its full beauty. Think of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. Or, how about Joseph? Remember those splendid dreams, where his brothers were falling prostrate before him? Actually, they DID bow to him later, but not before he had been roughed up, cast into a pit and left for dead, sold as a slave to an alien land, falsely accused of a crime and locked up in prison. Talk about ashes! But -- on close examination -- each account reveals a deeply flawed human who had to run the gauntlet of adversity, seeing all his dreams and schemes reduced to ashes, before God could use him.

Hear Jesus' call today: "O Blessed Mourner! I treasure your heart of prayer and zeal for the Kingdom. Come join My army. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me. I'll make a man (or woman) out of you! Come experience DEATH ... ASHES ... and finally My BEAUTY as rivers of living water flow from you to a thirsty world!"

Why not pray ...  

"Dear Father, help me live each day in perspective of "that Day." I don't want to enter Heaven with my tail between my legs, having relied on my own plans and efforts, only to see them burnt to ash at the last Judgment. Please bring on the fire, death, and ashes NOW, so Your beauty can burst forth as the seed of the lodgepole pine -- a tree of righteousness in your Kingdom's fine woodland!'
In Jesus' name. Amen"

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Originally published as a “Bradstix” devotional on the National Minute of Prayer Facebook page 10/3/2021.