During the era of flintlock muskets, gunpowder was ignited by a spark from a flint striking a plate. The gunpowder was held steady in a small “pan”, and the resulting explosion was supposed to propel the lead shot “ball” or bullet to its intended target. But often, the gunpowder would not explode; it would simply burn out in a brief flash of light, failing to result in a shot, and wasting the powder. This was known as a “flash in the pan.” It came to symbolize an impressive display that accomplished little or nothing of use.
Years later, prospectors in the California Gold Rush would see a “flash in the pan” as they looked for gold. They would take a shallow pan, dip it in a river, bring up water and silt, dirt, and rocks, and swirl it around. Sometimes, they would see the “flash” of a gold nugget or gold dust. More often, they would see a glint of something else– pyrite, or “fool’s gold” was more likely than a flash of real gold. And, as the water swirled, the tiny flash of gold could disappear amid the eddy of dirt and other dull rocks– remaining just a “flash in the pan.”
Early photographers, struggling to bring enough light into their studios, experimented with explosive powders, hoping to get a “flash” of light bright enough to create a better negative exposure, so that their subjects would not have to sit so long in the same position in order to get a clear image. They would mix powders, spread some of them on a shallow “pan,” and ignite them to create a brief, but brilliant, flash of light.
Our lives may sometimes seem like “a flash in the pan.” Our days are numbered, and our abilities limited. Even our brightest ideas and most explosive actions seem to be swallowed up in the larger scheme of things; our good deeds and noble intentions disappear in the swirling waters of time and the tides of injustice, disease, and evil around us.
But our lives, while brief, can be more than a “flash in the pan.” We are called to be the follow Jesus, the “Light of the World.” Jesus’s life on earth was brief, even by human life expectancy. But unlike a spark that burned itself out and ended in death and darkness, Jesus brought light and life that continues today. And He calls us to use our lives in ways that light the way for others.
Sometimes, our prayers can also seem like brief flashes, producing little of significance. But God hears each one, and it is in His power that our prayers become part of the larger “picture” of His plan.