He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.” Psalm 104:4
The story, in Chadron, Nebraska, that summer, was what the fire didn’t take. It didn’t take the town, even though it consumed huge tracks of land just south. It didn’t take a life, although hundreds of firefighters, many of them volunteers, battled it through 60,000 acres of pine forests and grasslands. It didn’t take the spirit of the place, even though it blackened and charred some of the most beautiful landscape of northwest Nebraska.
To call it “the fire” is something of a misnomer, because “the fire” was really five separate blazes, each of them ignited by lightning in a Wednesday night storm. No careless smokers, no untended campfire, no looney pyromaniac, no tipsy camper—all five started by lightning in a tinder box of hundred degree temps, bone-dry air, and robust winds. For a time, the largest, the Spotted Tail fire, was roaring along towards town at thirty feet per second.
By Friday night and Saturday, it had nearly half the city of Chadron evacuated, and everyone frightened. It took three houses, but miraculously sidestepped several others before stopping on a dime behind the football field of Chadron State College—but after consuming the landmark “C” hill that overlooks the town.
The fires moved so quickly and so voraciously that the curator of the town’s Fur Trade Museum could do little but watch as firefighters stood guard. It was impossible for her to gather all the one-of-a-kind artifacts, but she was fortunate—as was the town itself, when the raging fire spared the place.
Three families—and three families only—looked at charred remains of their country homes, nothing but foundations. I’m sure those families found little comfort in a verse like this—praise to God for messenger winds and servant fires.
Others, hundreds, I’m sure, offered thanks that more wasn’t destroyed. Half a town, evacuated, probably bowed their heads in joy and relief when the raging flames backed off at the football field. For almost 72 hours in Chadron, Nebraska, who was on the Lord’s side seemed clear—it was the firefighters, battalions of them, including dozens of local construction units manning bulldozers. Nobody prayed for the fire; nobody sided with the flames. No one saw those five fires as servants of the Most High.
That’s the toughest question of all. Does God author our calamity?
I know this. The near catastrophe drew the people of Chadron together as loving neighbors, humbled them, and made them thankful; signs around town still sing the praises of the firefighters. For three days in Chadron everything stopped and people prayed. The next year, in June, the “C” hill was emerald, brimming with blooming new life. I can make a case for the fire as servant.
But I won’t because three families have lost everything. There is a time for everything, the preacher says, a time for silence too. No one would have put up a banner downtown Chadron that broadcasts this particular proud verse of praise.
It is amazing how broad and wide the Bible is, how unending, how amazing, even how mysterious—not unlike the yawning Great Plains landscapes all around Chadron, Nebraska.
Only bigger. Much bigger. The Bible broadcasts all of our voices--and His. It’s that big.