john davies
notes from a small curate

    Sparks fly upward

    Holy Trinity Healing Service 13/7/03

    Job 4.1, 5.6-27

    Have you ever noticed how the bible is full of well-known quotes: you know them but you don't know where they come from until someone reads them out in a service like this.

    "Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward." [1] - that's one of them, spoken by one of Job's comforters, a familiar phrase, a fantastic image, one which I'd like us to spend a few minutes with tonight.

    "Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward." - that appeals to me because - you may or may not know this, but - I am a welder. I spent the first four years of my working life learning how to make sparks fly, using intense heat and concentrated flame to mould pieces of heavy metal together, creating pieces of machinery for various kinds of industry. An artist with a welding torch and fireproof gloves. A heavily-masked man.

    And no-one knows better than welders that "sparks fly upward." - there is no welder in the world who has not been caught out by this force of anti-gravity. So many times in my engineering days I flinched as sparks hit my neck or my face; so many times I went home with far fewer hairs on my arms than I'd had before, sizzled away by sparks; so many times I was castigated by my mother (who I still lived with then) for turning a perfectly good working shirt or sweater into something full of holes, looking as if I'd been attacked by a swarm of hungry moths, where in fact all I'd done was some arc-welding without wearing protective overalls.

    The worst spark-flying incident in my life led to half a day at St Paul's Eye Hospital where staff carefully plucked out a tiny piece of molten metal which had burned itself into the surface of my left eye. I have a microscopic scar there to show for it.

    "Sparks fly upward." They're small, but unstoppable, beautiful to look at but brutal on impact, they hurt, they're dangerous, they're inevitable, we create them.

    And equally inevitable is the other half of that famous phrase: "Man is born to trouble." All of us are deeply aware of the hurtfulness and the danger inherent in human relationships.

    We welders knew all about that, too. Working in a hot, sticky environment, doing heavy, tiring work under strict orders and tight schedules, it wasn't unusual for tempers to fray, for people to lash out in self-defence or attack others verbally, when they felt got-at.

    In an environment which relied heavily on teamwork and cooperation sparks flew when people stepped out of line, did their own thing, let the side down.

    And, just like in any other human community, among the welders the inevitable cliques formed, scapegoats were created, people became the object of others jokes, you were either in or out, tensions mounted, misunderstandings happened,
    gossip grew, sparks eventually flew.

    There's a lot of theological discussion to be had about the pros and cons of what Job's comforters said to him. Too much for this short talk. For now, I'd like to affirm what Eliphaz the Temanite said in that phrase which became so famous, because it's true to my experience, and I suspect yours too.

    And I'd like to affirm what he said next, essentially telling Job to take his troubles to God because God is the only one who ultimately has the power to receive those troubles and transform them:

    "For he wounds but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal." [2]

    Think on this: When sparks fly upward, where do they go?

    The welder will tell you, when sparks fly upwards, that many of them land on him. And he takes them, tolerates them, because that's part of his work. The welder's calling is to soak up the sparks as they fly, the welder's creative task is only possible because he accepts the tiny burns and sizzles as a sacrifice worth making for the greater good. He may lose a few hairs in the process, but he creates a fine object, a useful, powerful, valuable thing with his welding. And that's what counts.

    And so it is with God. When sparks fly in human society, when people like us break up, bomb, rape, lash out, exclude, we know where those sparks go - we know who they hit. They hit him. And we know that he takes them, tolerates them, because that's part of his work.

    We know because we've seen it in Jesus, that he will soak up the sparks as they fly. We know that God's creative task is only possible because he accepts the burns and sizzles which come from us as sacrifices worth making for the greater good.

    As we pray tonight I invite you to think about the sparks flying in human society, among people like us, in our own lives. As we light candles tonight and perhaps the odd spark will fly from a flickering flame let us picture God, like a holy welder, flinching, sizzling, allowing his best work shirt to become mottled with tiny burn holes, taking the sparks from us regardless of the pain it causes him, while all the time working on something beautiful, something solid and whole, something which involves us and enriches us, something which ultimately he will give to us as a loving gift.


    [1] Job 5.7
    [2] Job 5.18