Stars were beginning to poke through the darkening southern Mexico sky.Crickets chirped and the high-pitched trill of the cicadas grated painfully on our ears. My husband Dennis and I —as well as most of the other missionary trainees—were settling down for the night.
It had been another busy day. We started our day at 6 A.M. with mile run on the airstrip, observed the national culture around us, cooked for a group of 50 people with a limited variety of food (black beans, tortillas, and bananas were staples at most meals) and tangled our tongues on phrases of the local Tzeltal language which we were finding difficult to learn. There was almost no difference to our ears between the phrases for “Do you have a bed?” And “Do you have fleas?”
I opened my notebook on the table and lit the candle in its makeshift tuna can holder. Suddenly the acrid smell of smoke drifted into our dirt-floored, thatched-roof adobe house. Smoke from cooking fires wasn’t all that unusual, but this was overpowering. Where was it coming from?
I ran to the open doorway and stared. “Dennis, come quick!” I yelled to my husband. “The whole mountain is on fire!”
The entire western sky glowed red and I could see the flames leaping in the distance. Terror gripped my heart. Only a narrow river separated us from the raging blaze less than a mile away. How could we escape if it came in our direction? We certainly couldn’t outrun it.
“Let’s find someone who knows what’s going on,” shouted Dennis, racing down the path between the adobe houses as I panted to keep up with him. My knees were weak as I breathed a silent prayer for God’s protection. My heart was beating wildly in my chest.
We soon found Frank, one of our training supervisors. “What’s happening?” Dennis demanded. He was nearly as upset as I was.
“They burn the mountain every year at this time,” Frank said, his face showing little concern. Then, seeing how frightened we were, he grew serious. “I’m sorry, I thought we had warned everyone that this is the week the Tzeltal people start their spring burning. Apparently we missed telling you.”
“Why do they burn the mountain? What purpose could it possibly serve?” My knees were still shaking and my breath was coming in gasps.
“The people in this area practice slash and burn farming,” Frank explained. “It’s controlled burning. We’re not in any danger, but the air will be filled with smoke for the next two weeks.”
“Isn’t there any other way to farm?” I asked, thinking back to our family farm in Minnesota where my dad plowed straight furrows in the dark soil early each spring at planting time.
“If you look at the slope of the mountain, you’ll notice it’s much too steep to plow,” Frank continued. “The people plant corn by hand along the slope and harvest the ears by hand as well. Corn stalks don’t compost well, so burning gets rid of them. The burning also kills the insects living in the soil which would eat the tender corn seedlings as they emerge.”
I was incredulous. “You mean it’s necessary?”
“Absolutely. Without the fire, these people wouldn’t be able to raise their corn. That’s the way they’ve been doing it for centuries.”
Extreme measures—that’s what God sometimes uses in our lives. When it seems like the He is using His version of “slash and burn,” I want to cry out, “Please stop! I can’t take any more.” The Bible says we are tested and refined: “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver” (Psalm 66:10 NIV). It speaks of disciplining in Hebrews 12:10 NIV: “but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” We are also likened to branches which He prunes: “. . .every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2 b NIV).
Each of these processes is painful, yet God allows each to come into our lives for a purpose.
Are these things necessary? Absolutely. It is only through pruning, refining and disciplining that we can be fruitful in serving Him. God’s methods may seem like extreme measures—just like the slash and burn farming— but I, for one, am glad He doesn’t leave us where He finds us.
© 2003 Janet Seever firstname.lastname@example.org
The mother of two adult children, Janet Seever lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with her husband, Dennis. She writes for Word Alive magazine, a publication of Wycliffe Canada.