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Mother Goose and the Mountain Fire

(a Steve Orr scripture reflection)


I have long been infatuated by the stories behind songs. I will go to almost any lengths to find out just how a lyric was crafted, and, more importantly, why. That’s what happened when I started looking for the meaning behind, ”Fire on the mountain, run boys run!” 


If that sounds familiar, it’s because you likely heard it in the chorus of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as performed by Charlie Daniels and his band. They belt it out each time they play the winning side of the fiddle war between Johnny and the Devil.*


I loved it. But I didn’t understand it. Those chorus lyrics don’t seem to connect in any meaningful way. Turns out each line of that chorus is an homage to a different well-known Bluegrass tune; those tunes hardest to play, the ones fiddlers must try to play as fast as possible. 


Eventually, my investigation led me to Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys for their rendition of “Fire on the Mountain.” It’s just what you would expect after hearing Charlie Daniels fire off a snippet: rollicking, hand-clapping, boot-stomping fast. You can just see the dancers whirling about the floor. ***


But the search wasn’t over.


I tracked the origin of that phrase to 1825 Boston, Massachusetts. I was shocked to learn those words were first written on paper by none other than Mother Goose.


Hogs in the garden, catch ‘em Towser;

Cows in the corn-field, run boys run;

Cats in the cream-pot, run girls, run girls;

Fire on the mountains, run boys run.”


That’s where I considered stopping my search. Who knows where it might end? Maybe we’ve had that image with us for millennia. I was beginning to think I might never stop finding people running from fiery mountains. And speaking of millennia, in this week’s Deuteronomy passage, there is at least one instance of real people experiencing a real fire on a real mountain.  


Try to imagine what it was like to stand at the foot of Mount Horeb, hearing the thundering voice of God, experiencing the overwhelming intensity of His fire. How big was it? How bright was it? How hot was it? I'm guessing it was way, way up on some kind of scale, well above volcano level. Who knows, maybe there is no scale. If mere angels are beings of light so bright they have to open with "Fear not!"—Well, no wonder God's people wanted no more exposure to "this great fire."


And that's how we got prophets.


Here's the thing about fire: we like it. But we like...a certain distance. Same, it turns out, with God. We humans can only take just so much direct exposure to God. God's solution to this was to send Prophets who would speak in His name. 


We must never make the mistake of believing we worship a teddy bear god. God is not snuggly. Our God is loud, and hot, and very, very bright. He is the "stuff" of the universe, the fuel that fires the stars; volcanoes are but a tiny part of Him. He is not just "powerful." He is where power comes from.


The descendants of Jacob got that, and wisely chose to put some distance between themselves and God. 


Today, it’s different. "This great fire" chose to loose His claim on heaven and, instead, inhabit the body of a human. He once again speaks with humans directly; up close and personal, like in the days of the first Adam. Knowing this, we appreciate, anew, the sacrifice Jesus made for us and the intermediary He continues to be for us. 


“Fire on the mountain, run boy run” takes on a whole new meaning. Now, unlike God's people who drew back from that fire on that mountain, we can draw near. We can run toward it. 



PHOTO (and a fascinating little article explaining how Pentecost is connected to that “fire on the mountain” when God came down to speak the law to the Israelites): 


* Listen to the Charlie Daniels Band perform “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” 


*** Hear Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys perform “Fire on the Mountain” - 


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