The tragic loss of nine firefighters in a burning furniture store in Charleston, S.C., earlier this week is a reminder that each year thousands of men and women are willing to put their lives on the line in order to help and save those who are in distress or danger. And sometimes that effort exacts the ultimate price.
Much has been said and written about these firefighters and others in the past who lost their lives in the line of duty. One's heart goes out to the city and the families who are affected, as well as to the employees of the store and its owners.
I found a helpful thought in something Mary Baker Eddy said in an address she gave in Concord, N.H., in 1899. She grew up in a farming community and would certainly have been familiar with accidents that injured people and took their lives. In those days the social safety net was nowhere near as extensive as it is now, and the impact on families could be as devastating as the loss of the loved one.
Yet her conviction of God's ever-presence and man's indestructibility as God's spiritual idea was unshakable. She said, "Remember, thou canst be brought into no condition, be it ever so severe, where Love has not been before thee and where its tender lesson is not awaiting thee. Therefore despair not nor murmur, for that which seeketh to save, to heal, and to deliver, will guide thee, if thou seekest this guidance" ("The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany," pp. 149-150).
Certainly divine Love with its wisdom and intelligence provides resources for the families and also for the investigators who are trying to understand and learn from the fire so that future tragedies can be prevented. And because God is infinite, that Love was also present with the firefighters in the burning building. That might be hard to accept, but today as I was praying about them and their families, I recalled an experience of three men in the Bible that came to life for me in a way it never had before.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three Hebrews who dared to defy the king who had taken them captive by refusing to worship in the way that he had decreed. He threatened them with death in a burning, fiery furnace, but they were unmoved. In his anger, he had the furnace heated even hotter than usual, and they were thrown into it – bound, so they couldn't escape.
What happened then was astonishing then and still is today. The king observed, "Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt" (Dan. 3:25). There's been a lot of theological thought given to who the "fourth man" might have been. For me, that "man" represents the saving presence of Christ, the representative of God's love for His children that comes to all who are in distress.
In this biblical account, the men were released from the furnace. And sometimes, in amazing situations, people are saved from such danger even today. But that isn't always the outcome – as shown by the situation in Charleston and whenever rescue workers put their lives on the line and don't come back to us.
Does that mean God doesn't care about them or that prayer is useless? I don't think so. We don't know what happened next for them – but one of the news reports indicated that those outside could hear on their radios that at least one man was praying aloud. He, and maybe the others, were turning to the highest power they knew to help them in their time of distress.
That power is with them now, just as it is for anyone who leaves this life. And it is also with their families, guiding them and loving them.
I will not leave you comfortless.
I will come to you.