From Spot to Flame


When I was a boy, one of my sets of grandparents had a large front porch. The whole house seemed to be made of rock and concrete and the porch was similarly constructed. There was a black wooden swing suspended from the ceiling and both children and adults could sit together. There were also other assorted chairs, some of which seemed reserved for adults. Lots of family visiting occurred there. The porch had a substantial partial wall around it like a low concrete fence; this barrier had a wide top on it and a person could sit there, like a bench. It was important not to lean back too far and fall into the bushes; I had personal experience with that.

Once my grandfather brought a hand-held magnifying glass from some drawer and accompanied it with a sheet of plain white paper. Laying the paper on the concrete wall/bench, he then used the glass to focus the general porch sunlight into a single small spot of light on the paper. Within just a minute it seemed, the paper began to smoke at that spot and then burst into flame. I had him repeat this trick several times and it was a good science lesson to me concerning the power of magnification. Sometimes something apparently small can be concentrated and multiplied into something great. 

Before our current technologic age, lighthouses played an important role alerting ships to the presence of land. In an early application of physics, the light of a single kerosene lamp was refracted by Fresnel lenses (named for their inventor) in such a way that the initial light was bounced back and forth with an amazing multiplication result. 

In those cases, we can see an immediate result of the concentration, but in much of life, small items are concentrated and the effects of them are not seen for a long time.

Another boyhood memory of mine concerns a gully that ran behind our house at the property line. No house in my neighborhood had fences so we children could walk into any yard we wished. (As an aside, I believe the abundance of fences around our houses these days says more negative than positive about us.) During a substantial rain, the gully was a main drainage ditch for the area and water flowed freely. Where was the water going? If we put a toy boat in the water four houses up, the boat would soon appear at our house and then continue its journey. At one point it entered a large boy-sized concrete culvert underneath a street. It was all quite fascinating to propose where that water would end up.

Mississippi River at Itasca

The Mississippi River is the second longest in North America. It ends in the Gulf of Mexico, 2,350 miles from its headwaters in northern Minnesota. This river origin is outflow from the modestly sized Lake Itaska. This initial beginning of a famous and powerful river is nearly obscure. Toward the northern edge of Lake Itaska there is a small break about 18 feet wide. The water is knee deep. Humans have placed rocks from one bank to the other in such a way as one can easily “walk across the Mississippi River.” From that point on, the water meanders as rivers do with additions from smaller tributaries. As happens, from this small beginning a majestic outcome is born.

It is not just in the physical world that such amplification occurs. Our lives are shaped often in hidden ways by incidents or words that, though seeming relatively insignificant at the time, manifest themselves in life-directing choices we make. Our parents did not tell us just once that we were special and loved by them. Our teachers did not identify just once where our academic gifts were. More than once a good friend has said or done something commending us; we may not remember the specific instance, but the multiplication of the praise plus time told us who we were.

We are not only recipients of these blessings from others, but we play an important role in offering the blessings. If you and I are living under God’s grace despite our failings, we must deal with others in such a way that we are adding positively to their lives. Kind, uplifting words are important. We each generate enough self-criticism and receive it from others; gentle and encouraging words plus time can be used like rivers and light to be magnified to make important contributions to life.  

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain


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