The fierce firestorms that have devoured our beautiful North Bay counties and blanketed the Bay Area with smoke remind us of our helplessness in the face of the natural world.
Since man first discovered fire by rubbing stones together, he has tried to tame the wildebeest called nature. We are a part of nature, yet somehow apart. We think, reason, argue, debate. We create and we protect others with our creations. We are masters of nature, if not the universe, or so we believe, at least until hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and fire remind us of our helplessness, and our huge hubris.
Why did this happen? we ask. Indeed, the fires in the North Bay feasted on forest, protected open space. Unlike the East Bay, where a few oaks survive the parched grassy hills, the North Bay has many trees, protected, as though saved to feed the next firestorm. Because we loved the natural world – its beauty, its tranquility, even its so-called spirituality – we safeguarded it from humans, but could not safeguard nature from nature.
We are reminded that the world is a wilderness, tamed in places by human civilization, by communities of people banded together to safeguard one another from the wilds. But if we let down our guard, we are no longer safe. We are not as powerful as we think.
So we seek meaning in the face of natural disasters, asking, Why? Is this the end of the world?
All week I was reminded of the prophet Elijah and the “still small voice” of God. Elijah had retreated to a cave for safety:
“And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice… And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:11-13, KJV)
We are still, small creatures with a few tools, some shelter, and smartphones. Yet we do listen to God’s voice of love.
For it is love that makes us different from this violent natural world surrounding us. And it is freedom, the freedom to choose love, that breathes into us that divine spark. The voice of God is not in the redwoods or the vineyards, so beautiful at harvest. The voice of God is in his words to us, his words to us in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer. We hear the voice of God when we see how small we are, and from this place of humility, confession, and repentance, we learn to love one another better.
While there is no God in the firestorm or in the hurricanes or in the floods, we hear his voice and see his love in the many who care for one another in these times of crisis. They knock on doors. They carry the elderly to safety. They feed, clothe, and shelter.
They fight these fires that rage according to nature’s rules, not ours. As they quench the torched earth with water, they show they are different from nature. Creatures spurred by love, they hear the still, small voice within.
We bury our dead. We rebuild. We make a wider firebreak around our homes. We restore civilization and civility. Do we remember what we have learned? If we do, if we have learned a lesson, we turn to God, to his still, small voice in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer. We follow his law of love – the Ten Commandments – and know he will drench the wildfires in our hearts. Only then can his own fire be lit within, his own controlled burning of love. Two of the disciples knew this divine fire as they walked to Emmaus with Christ. “Did not your heart burn within you?” they later asked one another.
We tame our own fires, until we burn with the love of God. God’s fire gives life; it doesn’t consume. God’s fire clears the air of smoke and debris. We can see and we can breathe deeply. We no longer feel quite so helpless in the wilderness of this world.