When Your Life Is on Fire (Erik Kolbell) -- Review

WHEN YOUR LIFE IS ON FIRE: Thirteen Extraordinary People Answer One Simple Question.  By Erik Kolbell.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiii + 212 pages.

I’m sure you’ve thought about it.  In case of fire, what would you save?  Would it be family pictures?   Your computer hard drive (unless you’ve loaded everything to the cloud)?  Your stocks and bonds (best to keep them with the broker)?  What you choose to rescue probably says something about who you are as an individual.

Erik Kolbell, a psychotherapist and former minister of social justice at Riverside Church in New York, asked a similar question to a range of people, some of whom are well known, others not quite as well known.  All have interesting stories to tell – often inspiring ones.  He poses the question in such a way that the answer needn’t be a tangible item.  It could be something tangible, like Regina Carter’s violin, but this pioneering jazz violinists spoke of her violin, not because of its inherent value (she refers to it as a K-Mart special), but because of the sound it makes.  Alan Alda, on the other hand, chose “reality.”  That’s not something you grab when you run out of a burning building, but it is a concept that defines a life.  Reality for Alda, whom many of us know from the years he spent as Hawkeye Pierce on Mash, “is both the acceptance of what we know and a spirited inquiry into the world we don’t know yet know” (p. 44). 
The book contains thirteen stories, based on interviews that Kolbell engaged in.  These chapters are arranged into four categories – seekers, artists, iconoclasts, and survivors.  As with any book like this one, different stories will speak differently to a person.  For the pastor in me, the story of Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for he moved from a commitment to social justice to the rabbinate, seeing it as a way toward pursuing the repairing of the world (tikkun olam).  There is the story of Don Lange, one of Kolbell’s survivors.  He served as a Marine Gunnery Sergeant in Afghanistan, suffering a traumatic brain injury due to an RPG explosion.  He survived, but without an intact memory.  When asked what he would save from the fire, he responds that he feels as if he got to the fire too late.  Like others with similar injuries, therefore, he has had to start life over – constructing a new life that is different from the one that preceded the injury.  There is nothing to save, except the present and future.  Then there is the story of Brenda Berkman, the first woman to serve on the New York Fire Department and though facing considerable obstacles rose to the rank of captain – serving with distinction on 9-11.  She chose the beatitudes, even though she started out living outside the Christian community, but over time being drawn in to the community of faith because it served the community.  As to why she chose the Beatitudes, she responds:  “I’d rather see the world as it could be than as it is, and if I’m reading them right, so did Jesus” (p. 185).  It is this understanding of the Beatitudes that undergirds her determination to change the reality that faced her and so many like her.  She was determined to change the pathway for other women, and thus she is disappointed – at this point – that few women have joined her in the fire department. 

The responses to the question don’t all lead to explicitly religious responses, but there still remains this spiritual foundation or connection.  The stories remind us of the importance of tapping into our core values so that we can engage each other and the world with a sense that we have something of importance to contribute to the world in which we live. 

Erik Kolbell offers us a book that fits into the inspirational genre.  It’s full of stories told well.  They’re compelling and encouraging.  They might touch your heart.  Preachers likely will find illustrative stories here.  But, most importantly, Kolbell invites us to consider what is most important to our lives.  


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