“Look!” My brother put his arm around my shoulder and pointed beyond the outdoor arena. Willie Nelson had just arrived on stage at the 2000 Mountain Music Fest in Red Lodge, Montana, but the unmistakable plume of a mountain wildfire burst up behind him. A motorcycle had skidded on gravel at high speed and crashed, exploding the gas tank and quickly spreading flames in the tinder-dry grasses and trees at the side of the road (the cyclist survived and mended).
It was late August in a summer plagued by wildfires. Our family’s summer cabin was in the exact spot where the smoke was visible. I raced to a quieter place outside the arena to phone a Christian Science practitioner, since I felt as out of control as the fire appeared to be. I remember saying to him how I couldn’t look at this horrible scene unfolding in front of everyone. Every time I looked at the stage, I was only aware of the fire, which I assumed might be consuming our cabin right then.
The practitioner met my distress with rock solid vehemence, “Don’t you turn away. Look right into that smoke until you can see the face of God.” To me, seeing the face of God meant being able to perceive that God, good was present, right where the evidence of destruction seemed to be. The practitioner reminded me of the time Mary Baker Eddy saw a cyclone coming right toward her home and with amazing firmness and conviction asked everyone in her household to look right at it and realize that there are no destructive elements in God’s creation (We Knew Mary Baker Eddy, Clara Knox McKee, p. 193). The cyclone changed course and headed toward the mountains, doing hardly any damage.
I went back to the concert, but the sight of the raging fire was so overwhelming, I found it difficult to pray. I had been taught to always start with God, so I thought, God is All, which seemed ridiculous in the face of this destructive fire, so opposite to goodness.
Wasn’t it just too late for prayer to change the scene? The fire had already started, worsening by the minute, there was nothing to stop it. How could I see God’s face in any of this? I wondered.
Then I thought of the three young Hebrew men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace they were thrown into. According to the Bible, the fire was heated seven times more than usual, yet the men’s safety was not dependant on the size, shape, placement, or intensity of the fire.
I realized the safety of my cabin and other properties in the area was not dependant on those factors either. God was still there, God was still All, and God was still governing this situation, regardless of its appearance, just as He had for those three Hebrew men. As I continued to insist in prayer that God’s presence and power alone were in control, I began to grasp that if it was possible to be unaffected in the middle of flames in one instance, it was possible in all instances.
Around this time, however, the winds began to pick up from an incoming weather front, blowing new life into the fire and new fear into the crowd. But another thought occurred to me, a variation of the Bible verse from I Kings 19:11: God is not in this wind and God is not in this fire–God IS in the still small voice of Truth. I knew, too, that the Bible says God holds the winds in His fists. I decided I could trust God to control the wind, and not see it as some capricious act of nature with power to destroy.
While all these spiritual ideas calmed me, I still didn’t feel I’d seen the face of God in that fire yet. I began to wonder, if God was not in the wind or fire, but in the still small voice, what was that voice saying to me? These words from the textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, immediately came to mind, “There is no power apart from God. Omnipotence has all power and to acknowledge any other power is to dishonor God.” For me, that was the face of God. I knew in that moment that no matter what else happened or what the results of the fire were, I would not dishonor God by acknowledging another power.
Within hours, what became known as the “Willie Fire” was the top priority among fires in the United States. Throughout that night and for the next several days my conviction of God’s power and presence held. Several days later, when we were allowed to check on our property, we saw an amazing sight. Everything on the west side of the highway was completely destroyed (no homes were on this side, only trees and vegetation). Everything on the east side, where our cabin was located, along with 70 other threatened properties, remained green and untouched. There were four places near the cabin where the fire had jumped the road but been controlled by fire crews. And there was one place six feet from the cabin where a spot fire had begun, unseen by anyone, but had extinguished itself.
The most delightful discovery was that even though the fire had engulfed all the forest area 100 yards away, there was no smell of smoke on anything in the cabin. And the fire was contained without the loss of any structure. My greatest joy, though, was realizing I had the ability to see the presence of God right in the middle of all evidence to the contrary.
The following are excerpts from the front page of our local paper, the Carbon County News, on September 13, 2000: “Although unlucky to have to host a major blaze, Red Lodge, by most accounts, met with nothing but fortuitous circumstances during the 10-day ordeal of the Willie Fire…It was lucky the fire started in the Main Fork of Rock Creek canyon and not the West Fork and that the blaze never spread to the West Fork (it tried). It was incredibly lucky the flames didn’t jump to the east side of the Beartooth Highway and produce a second major fire front… And last but not least, townspeople may thank their lucky stars the wind totally reversed direction (from south to north) hours after the blaze began. Officials say they were about ready to order an evacuation of Red Lodge when they learned the wind had changed.”
I feel certain in my heart, though, that the safety of the area had nothing to do with “luck” and everything to do with the prayers of many, I’m sure.
Safe in apparent disaster:
Science and Health
Patti Waddell lives in Billings, Montana, United States.
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