They were caught out in the open when a sudden wind-shear reversed the course of the fire back towards them, overwhelming the team long before they could reach safety. Their personal emergency fire shelters proved ineffective and they either died from the overwhelming heat or asphyxiation.
The tragedy made national news.The Granite Mountain Hotshots were the firefighting counterparts of Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, a highly skilled, highly trained, highly motivated group of professionals who endured tremendous hardship to put out such fires with little or no public recognition. They were a national asset, on call to fight wildfires all over the US, so the whole country is worse-off for their loss. This team also represented a significant percentage — about half! — of the Prescott Fire Department’s personnel and the team’s leader was being groomed to be a future fire chief.
Six of these brave men were members of our church family. One of them, Clayton Whitted, had actually been on staff for a time as a youth pastor until he resigned to return to the team, having determined that firefighting was his true calling. From what I hear, most — if not all — of the team members were believers. One of my wife’s closest friends and coworkers is the mother of one of the deceased.The whole quad-city metro area of Arizona (Prescott, Prescott Valley, Chino Valley, and Dewey-Humboldt) is still reeling in shock. An inter-congregational memorial/prayer service for the families and local citizens was held on July 2 at the Prescott High School football field with the grandstands and much of the field itself packed solid with well over a thousand people mourning the loss of these men who had literally laid down their lives to save another town’s people and homes. The service was so moving that there wasn’t a dry eye in the bunch, including mine and I had never even met any of those who had been killed by the flames.
Fire departments from all over the region and well beyond sent representatives and even fire engines to attend the subsequent memorial service. There were so many in attendance, the service had to be held in a local hockey stadium. My pastor, Ron Merrell, officiated.
My first 10 articles in this blog are a refutation of the prevalent-throughout-Christendom idea that even after Jesus came on the scene, God visits disaster, death, destruction, and calamity upon His children to teach them something or upon the lost as a judgment. So why am I adding an 11th article long after I had considered the series to be completed?
Because such events as this disaster cause us to cry out the question,
We human beings hate unsolved mysteries and we are always looking for answers, especially when it comes to God. Finite and frail, we humans prefer our gods to be tame and predictable. We hate unanswered questions because we find security and control in their answers; the absence of answers leaves us feeling afraid, vulnerable, and insecure. Such situations cause us to question our faith at times and check our hole card as to what we really do believe as Christ-followers.
By now, I would expect many of you are hoping I am about to answer that question and indeed I am.
Here it is:
I. DON’T. KNOW.
And anyone who says they do know is trying to sell you something, almost certainly snake-oil.
The Blame Game
Whenever disaster strikes, our human tendency is to try to find fault because someone has to be to blame for it, somebody must be held accountable because our inherent sense of justice demands it. I overheard one woman at the prayer service say beforehand that there was some sort of cover-up, that the fire department leadership had not done its due diligence in getting people onto the blaze in a timely manner.
The extensive post-mortem of the events leading up to this tragic loss of life will ultimately reveal the truth, but personally right now, I don’t buy it. Why do I say this? Because the fire chiefs went around to each and every volunteer at that service, shook their hands, and, with tears welling in their eyes, thanked them. I didn’t observe any of the depraved indifference which would accompany a cover-up, so I think the woman was simply someone who desperately hungered for an answer to that question and conspiracy theories are a convenient and intellectually unchallenging means to meet that need.And if some human-based procedural or leadership error cannot be blamed, then people start in on who to blame spiritually, usually accusing the victims of some sort of sin that brought God’s judgment onto them (as in Job’s “comforters”). If not that, then they resort to blaming God somehow, flailing about doctrinally, trying to reconcile in their minds the idea of a loving God Who either caused or allowed such a tragedy to come to pass to serve some sort of divine purpose, the very concept this series is devoted to refuting. That bunch at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas have reached the ridiculous conclusion that such appalling loss of life is caused by our tolerance of homosexuality in the US, a conclusion I cannot buy in the slightest.
Bottom line? That is NOT the Jesus Who I love and serve.
But the truth of the matter is there are times when our theology is not up to the task of explaining such a situation to our satisfaction. It fails because we are flawed humans with very limited and cloudy perceptions of reality on this earth and an almost total ignorance of what transpires in the spirit realm. Therefore any systematic theology is going to have one or more holes in it, despite the wonderful revelation and illumination we receive from God’s Word.
While I have a pretty solid grasp of what we should and do believe as Christ-followers (and believe in that grasp strongly or I wouldn’t bother writing these articles), I certainly have no pretensions of perfection for the theological views I present here.
The Secret Things of God
Another factor is this: God reserves a great deal of knowledge for Himself that we are not permitted to see, plain and simple:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever…Deuteronomy 29:29a
So while we just cannot fathom why such tragedies happen to men who love Jesus, who were devoted to their families, and selflessly served the public by placing their lives on the line fighting wildfires all over the US, we are called upon as believers to trust and obey a loving God Who remains silent on the topic. And that ain’t easy, especially if you are one of those directly affected by this tragedy.
I faced a similar challenge when I was diagnosed with a cancerous kidney tumor last December. From Day 1 of the diagnosis, my trust was fully in Jesus’ finished work of the Cross and the promises of God for healing found in both testaments. I had no doubts, no fears, an act of God’s grace I am still grateful to God for.
The only moment of fear took place when I heard of the death by cancer of Rochelle Nieman. She and her husband Charles have pastored a church in El Paso since the 1970s, believing and preaching the healing power of God all along the way.
And the devil came to me, saying: “If it didn’t work for her, why should it work for you?”, a variant of his question to Eve in Eden: “Has God said?”
I thought long and hard about it for an hour or so and finally concluded it was not my purview to try to analyze or judge why it didn’t work for my sister in Christ, but that it was my job to believe God’s Word concerning healing my body, even if everyone else on the planet who were believing God for their healings died without receiving them. Once I settled the issue in my heart, the fear left and, after surgery last February, I am now officially cancer-free, having just completed my 3-month follow-up examination.
So, despite the death of my brothers in Christ on the fire line, my faith in God for His protection and deliverance from evil remains resolute because that faith is not based upon the circumstances I see around me, but in His Word, the only safe Rock upon which we can stand.
So should your faith be, as well.
The Rest of the Story
So we’ve now covered what we don’t know. Here’s what we do know:
- The god of this world is a hate-filled psychopath bent upon our destruction. He steals, kills and destroys by any means at his disposal and his means are considerable. In my opinion, fire is one of his favorite tools because eternal flames are his own ultimate destiny. I firmly believe that Satan was the prime mover behind 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the tornados in Alabama, Oklahoma, and elsewhere, the tsunami in the Far East a few years back, and a host of other natural disasters which have taken place around the world.
- God doesn’t steal, kill, or destroy, especially His children for whom Christ paid such a horrendous price to redeem, so no blame can be attached to Him.
- Just as those believers who were killed on 9/11, God was present in all those men as they succumbed to the flames. “…Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27b)
- This tragedy was not even remotely due to God’s judgement being executed upon any sins of the team members, of the fire department or city they worked for, of the state of Arizona, of the United States, or of mankind in general. God severely rebuked Job’s non-comforters for their judgment of Job and made them offer sacrifices to Him in Job’s presence for their sins of repeatedly blaming him for his trials. God is beyond jealous of His position as judge of mankind because He is the only Person in the universe who knows the hearts and minds of men — no one else is even remotely qualified.
This is concept is borne out of another set of verses which state:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye;’ and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.Matthew 7:1-5
Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.Luke 6:37
Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.Romans 14:4a
None of us is in a position to take the moral high ground on any issue because such a high ground is non-existent:
The ground is always level at the foot of the cross!
- God knew this event was going to occur from the foundations of the world, so He didn’t fall off His throne in surprise when it happened. From that time forward, He has had a plan in place to heal the hearts broken by this horrible evil visited upon us by the enemy and to transform the aftermath of this tragic event into miracles for our good and His glory.
- His grace was more than enough for all those men who died and is equally so for those who survive them and grieve.
- God loves those men and they are now in His bosom, never to feel pain or tears again forever. While they were here, they saw their God through a dim glass, but now they are face to face with their Creator. They now fully know the God Whom they served on this earth and they are absolutely certain of God’s willingness and ability to care for their loved ones left behind.
So that about wraps it up for me.
Thanks for reading!