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Choosing love in a dumpster fire

"But love – real love that speaks truth, works collectively for change, sacrifices while simultaneously honoring our own integrity – that’s life-changing; it offers clarity and stability."

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

Whenever I want to engage the crowd at a karaoke party, my go-to song is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The song’s Bob-Dylan-esc stream of consciousness combined with its 80s bombast can be polarizing, but as a sing-along with friends (and drinks), it becomes a rousing anthem of Jeopardy-level trivia recitation. Sample line for the unfamiliar:

“Birth control, Ho Chi Minh / Richard Nixon back again / Moonshot, Woodstock / Watergate, punk rock.”

Apparently, the song was inspired by a conversation Billy Joel was having with a friend who had just turned 21 and lamented how crazy it was to be living in the 80s era. Joel, who had just turned 40, wanted to show that every era feels crazy to live through. Starting from 1949, when he was born, Joel started writing the events in his lifetime onto paper.

The hook seals the feeling that crazy times seem to always surround us: “We didn’t start the fire/ It was always burning/ Since the world’s been turning/ We didn’t start the fire/ No, we didn’t light it/ But we tried to fight it.”

I suspect for most of us, living through our times may feel like everything is on fire around us. It is as if someone decided to compress all the historical insanity of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in under 3 years: “Trump years, quarantine/ COVID fears, delayed dreams/ Vax debates/ Gas is up/ White supremacists won’t stop…”

People are tired. Tired of expensive groceries, tired of feeling no control over horrific bloodshed in Ukraine, tired of not knowing how to move forward together on racial reckoning, tired of the looming existential threat of climate change, tired of the increased visibility of our housing emergency, tired of fears over gun violence, tired of fights over vaccines and masks and school curricula and basic facts over elections and January 6, tired of still dealing with an unprecedented pandemic that has collectively traumatized all of us. The feeling of experiencing all these events at once is what the Internet calls living through a “dumpster fire.”

So, what does it look like to be a Christian in the middle of a dumpster fire?

If you asked me a decade ago, I probably would have called prophetic books like Ezekiel or Revelation dramatic. Now, I totally get it. Sometimes, the only truthful way of fully communicating the essence of the moment is to say things like the sky is falling or that multiple animal heads are coming together, and yeah, you do need to eat a scroll to take it all in.

And amid fire-from-the-sky proclamations, the Bible presents a surprisingly consistent message throughout: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Love God. Love your neighbor.

Somehow, someway, love and truth get us through the fire. It’s unfortunate that modern interpretations of the biblical image of fire reduce its meaning to a hell–y afterlife. Because the Bible often talks about fire as part of our trials, as a part of our refining. Fire shapes us to be different when we come out the other side. But we must hold on to love and truth, otherwise the fires can consume us.

Despite everything, I still believe in the basic call for us to love, even during our 21st-century dumpster fire. I have no illusions that love will extinguish the fires around us. But love – real love that speaks truth, works collectively for change, sacrifices while simultaneously honoring our own integrity – that’s life-changing; it offers clarity and stability.

And honestly, to echo Billy Joel, even if we didn’t light it, we have to try “to fight it” — the fires, that is. Maybe love is the way.