It has been many years now since I was a pastor to three small churches in rural South Dakota. Some things you never forget, though, like the evening I was dozing on the sofa when I heard a knock on the door.
It was the youngest daughter of one of my parish members, who was part of the town's volunteer fire department, the only female member.
"My mom wants to know if you wanted to come and see the fire," she said. "It's almost out, but there's still something to look at."
The house closest to mine had been deserted for some time. The fire there was not an accident. The fire department itself set the house on fire. They did this sometimes, if they could get permission from whoever still owned the house. The fire department would burn down the house, and then come and make sure that it burned down safely. It was good practice.
You might wonder a little about the town I lived in. This was not the only deserted house in the neighborhood. It was a tiny town with a Lutheran church, a post office and a large grain elevator. There was a deserted gas station across the street from the parsonage. About a century ago, the town had been a lively place. Two trains passed through. There were four churches then. There were parties every Saturday night. The town had been declining for a long time, but they were not dead.
So, sometimes the fire department burned down one of the deserted houses in town. Tonight, I was being invited to see the fire. Always up for a little adventure, I said "sure," and went to get my coat.
By the time I got there, it wasn't much of a fire any more. A few of the firefighters were still there, my friend, her children, a couple of other children. My friend apologized and said she had tried to call earlier, when the fire was really roaring. Now it was almost done, but some bright embers still burned.
"So, you want to roast marshmallows?" she asked me. I did.
She had sticks, and they had marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars in the car. They were prepared.
So we stood over the ruins of this burning house, and roasted marshmallows, and ate s'mores. I am not sure if I remember correctly, but it is possible that we even sang some camp songs, too. Maybe we had a little "Pass it On" action.
Maybe that's how we survive, residents of dying towns, members of dying institutions, people in creaky old bodies. We are declining, but we are not dead, not yet, maybe not for a long time. There are still some bright embers left. So we use whatever fire we have, roast marshmallows, sing songs, invite the neighbors in, share what we have. We keep warm in the dark cold night.
We hold hope, and we taste its sweetness in our mouths.