“Look!” My brother 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 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 for some ideas to help calm me, 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.
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 also reminded me of an experience I was familiar with where that approach of perceiving God’s presence despite an imminent threat had resulted in safety.
I went back to the concert, but I found it difficult to pray. The fire had already started, worsening by the minute. How could I see God’s face in any of this?
Then I thought of a Bible story of three young Hebrew men and a furnace they were thrown into (see Daniel 3:10-27). The men’s safety was not affected by the size or intensity of the fire.
I realized God was still there, and God was still governing. 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, the winds began to pick up, blowing new life into the fire and new fear into the crowd. But another thought occurred to me: God is not in this wind, and God, divine Truth, is not in this fire – God is in the still small voice of Truth (see I Kings 19:11, 12). The Bible says God holds the winds in His fists.
While all these spiritual ideas calmed me, I still didn’t feel I’d seen the face of God. 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 “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, 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” (p. 228).
For me, that was the face of God. I knew in that moment that no matter what else happened, I would not dishonor God by acknowledging another power.
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 untouched. There were four places near the cabin where the fire had jumped the road but had been controlled by fire crews. And there was one place six feet from my family’s cabin where a spot fire had begun, unseen by anyone, but had extinguished itself. 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.
Following the fires, the front page of our local paper, the Carbon County News, reported on the details of our “fortuitous circumstances during the 10-day ordeal of the Willie Fire,” additionally detailing a dramatic reversal in the direction of the wind. It concluded that Red Lodge “was incredibly lucky the flames didn’t jump to the east side of the Beartooth Highway and produce a second major fire front.”
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.
Adapted from an article published in the March 18, 2008, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.