So we have arrived at “full containment” of the fires ravaging Northern California over the past two weeks. Keeping a close eye on the “containment” percentage has been but one of the obsessions affecting the local population through these days. Or at least those of us who had not lost our homes and were casting nervous eyes on the local hillsides to gauge the chances of it still happening.
Living not far from the oak and fir forests of Annadel State Park as I do, I used to look up at the nearby hills periodically and think that a fire would surely sweep through there someday. But I was just as sure that it would never jump down here to the flatlands, thick with residential neighborhoods, roads and schools.
It’s one thing for a fire to sweep up and across open canyons and ridges where only the wildlife and adjacent hillside homeowners need flee. But surely, by the time a large fire made its way down here or any other part of the city proper, firefighters would be in place to make their stand and repel it from entering neighborhoods.
That was before I saw what the fire on its very first night did to the Coffey Park neighborhood a few miles northwest of my home.
Natural catastrophe is God’s ‘free will’ visiting carnage upon his children, shrugging as nature always does, and saying, ‘Deal with it.’
Having seen photos and video footage of what was essentially a firestorm and then aerial photos in the aftermath showing vast neighborhoods in scenes that resembled Hiroshima or Dresden at the end of World War II, I will never be altogether confident again of what fire won’t do.
Now that I have seen first-hand what it can and has done, I bow down to fire as to a savage god.
I am shaken, chastened, joining with the ancients who first harnessed fire and quickly, intuitively, came to understand its glory, barbarity, and terrible destructive power.
According to the late mythologist Joseph Campbell in a series of lectures collected as Myths to Live By in 1964, fire may have been cultivated as long as 500,000 years ago, in the caves of Peking Man. This was long before modern homo-sapiens arrived on the scene some 40,000 years ago. Although Peking Man is known to have eaten his food raw, Campbell surmised that fire was more a source of fascination and fetishism than practicality. If so, then “Fire may well have been the first enshrined divinity of prehistoric man,” he wrote.
He then went on to add, “Fire is revered generally as a deity to this day.” This is easily attested to by the list of mythological fire gods in Wikipedia, which runs to 41 entries and does not claim to be comprehensive.
Over the past two weeks, those 41 fire gods aside, it has been the Hindu deity Shiva, God of Destruction, who strikes me as having most shown his face in the flames that engulfed Northern California.
As I write this, some 7,000-8,000 buildings have burned, almost 5,500 of those being homes where people used to live.
The death count stands at 32 and the property loss in excess of $1 billion.
All of that makes it by far the most destructive fire in California history, in a climate and topography not the least bit new to fire.
Burn baby, burn.
That’s what Shiva and Agni, Hinduism’s fire god, were roaring as they shot down the canyons and ravines of Mark West Springs Road on the fire’s first night and jumped six lanes of freeway to go on their murderous spree through densely populated residential neighborhoods. The fire also visited a mobile home park with the rather foreboding name of “Journey’s End,” as well as adjacent businesses and schools.
The speed and sprawl of the destruction was, even by the measure of lifelong fire professionals, astounding.
One of the ironies, of course, is that many people fleeing the flames and many more who love them began frantically praying, pleading with God to save them.
Exactly who do they think sent the fire raining down on them, ferocious as can be?
A few choice lines about the fire from my minister last Sunday in the pulpit:
“Nobody was punished. Nobody was saved. There was a fire.”
Facts. What actually happened (a fire…), without any of the superstition, post-facto rationales, and search for greater “meaning” we humans so dearly love and need to append to our life experiences.
Of course there is “meaning” in such a destructive, epic event. It is pregnant with meaning.
But that meaning has nothing to do with any God who scares up winds, knocks down power poles, gets a few sparks going and then decides to burn some homes while sparing others.
Whatever God is, the idea of a Supreme Being “allowing” events like this to happen, in which some people lose their homes and even lives while others are mysteriously spared and see fit to proclaim, “God was watching over me!” falls apart on a number of counts.
That God as an actor and prayer-answerer in the world has a dismal batting average when it comes to saving human beings from relentless pain, torture and catastrophe.
That God didn’t save the the 123 million people who died in 20th century wars, despite a no-doubt huge number of them and their families offering up fervent prayers that they be spared. Adding insult here is that only 37 million of those deaths were military; the rest truly “innocent,” if you will, civilians felled by collateral damage, genocide and war-related famine.
That God cannot be let off the hook by claiming human “free will” is responsible for all the conflict and savagery we visit upon one another. Whose “free will” is involved in the fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes that exact such a devastating toll on our happiness and well-being?
Natural catastrophe is God’s “free will” visiting carnage upon his children, shrugging as nature always does, and saying, “Deal with it.” That’s essentially what God said to Job in one of the seminal and most deeply troubling books of the Bible.
But the reality is that that kind of God doesn’t exist, plain and simple. Nor does the case for prayers we offer up seeking her intervention to save us or our loved ones from harm.
Consider this: What kind of God would grant favors based upon how many prayers are being uttered on someone’s behalf? So hundreds of thousands of people pray ceaselessly for some celebrity, compelling God to heal his cancer, while a child with leukemia in some rural Asian hovel has only three people praying on her behalf and is thus shunned by God?
Isn’t this exactly backwards, in that those who have few people caring and praying for them on this earth are most in need of God’s compassionate intervention? And why doesn’t God just go ahead and heal both the celebrity and the poor child, given how precious life is and how merciful God is supposed to be?
Oh, I know: “Mysterious are the ways of the Lord.”
And: Nothing noted above means that we should not pray, and that there is no God.
Prayer as a way of holding someone in your thoughts, of wishing them well and expressing your caring concern and love, has inestimable value for them. All of us ache to know we are cared for, that others understand and can commiserate with our pain.
So go ahead, say you’re “praying” or “thinking” of them, or “holding a good thought.” The exact language doesn’t matter, so get over yourself and don’t get hung up. If your friend is religious and you’re not, use the language that is meaningful for them and say you’re praying. It all comes to the same: you are expressing empathy and compassion for their plight.
No, your prayer will not prevent fire from roaring down a hill and consuming their home if the conditions dictate. But it will offer them comfort and consolation in their grief. Without people willing and anxious to do that for us, how would we find any happiness and purpose at all in this life?
And now to the question: “Where was God in these fires?”
God was inside that man and his wife of 50-some years who spent hours submerged in a swimming pool together until her lungs failed and she died in his arms, peaceful as a sleeping kitten.
God was your neighbor who pounded on your door yelling and then dashed off to warn others, saving who knows how many people with whom he or she may have had only the most basic acquaintance.
God was in the Huntington Beach Fire Department, the Fremont Police, the National Guard, Cal-Fire, all of whose vehicles I espied at one time or other in recent days and got me to thinking, “Driving their truck up Highway 5 all the way from Huntington Beach to come fight our fires: how cool and caring is that?”
God was—and will long remain—in the huge relief effort coordinated by multiple agencies across the country, along with the church collection plates, bake sales, and lemonade stands that will be devoted to fire relief efforts in the near future.
God was in the hymns we sang and hugs we gave and the collection we took up for the dozen families in our church who lost their homes—but not their lives nor faith in the goodness of humanity— to the fire.
God was in my friend Mary this morning, who sent out a photo of her family standing in front of the rubble of what used to be their home and appended the caption, “We made it through and are ready to rebuild! Thx for your kind thoughts along the way.”
And finally but not least: God was in the awe that every observer of this event felt as the fire did what it didn’t seem possible it could do. That awe, that fear, that submission we have no choice but to feel at the raw power of nature, is one of the roots of religious sensibility.
It lets us know that there are forces far more powerful than ourselves at work in this awe-full and beautiful world.
That the only way to deal with them in their destructive mode—and even in their joyous and beautiful mode—is by banding together and sharing, in our extended families, our friendship circles, our community groups, our churches, our governmental agencies, in an effort to ease each other’s suffering, add to each other’s joy, and care for each other’s souls. To offer each other comfort, restoration, commiseration, and a calm port in the storms that assail us.
The love therein—that’s where God is.
Where else could he or she possibly reside?
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Candle photo by Shinichiro Hamazaki, Tokyo, Japan
Photos of vineyard and Coffey Park destruction by the National Guard