Seeing God through the Smoke
Montana has been on fire now for months. Smoke has filled our skies while several of our neighbors around the state have had to flee their homes for safety. A heavy darkness covers our land when we should still be soaking up the sun before our long run with the dark clouds of winter. The ominous skies overhead almost make one think of Christ speaking of his return in Matthew when he said, “after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light” (Matthew 24:29, NRSV). Yet, as this arduous, drought-laden fire season drags on, I imagine more of us are thinking like the Psalmist who cried, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1, NRSV). In Montana, we know that the fires in our forests will die out eventually, and we trust that the smoke in our skies will clear. Most of our evacuated will likely be able to return to their homes, and peace from this turmoil will return to the land. It is just a question of when. The question of when has loomed larger and larger with each passing week of continued burning and absent rainfall. Though the smoke from the fires around us usually leaves after a week or two, this extended darkness and burning has left us like the Psalmist crying out to God saying, “How long, O Lord?”
It is in moments like this that both our reason and our faith can be tested. Our reason relies upon what we have seen, observed, analyzed and experienced from the past, expecting that things in the world will behave more or less like they have before. However, the severity of this fire season goes beyond what most people have ever witnessed. Montanans that I have spoken with shared that they have never lived through a fire-season as bad as what we are enduring right now. In addition to our knowledge of the past being challenged, reason is also tested when thinking about how to defend against these kinds of circumstances in the future. I have heard arguments that climate change is the biggest culprit in the situation since it has made for abnormally dry drought conditions, while others argue that a lack of logging and grazing in forest lands over the last few decades has left copious amounts of deadfall and underbrush which have been itching to go up in flames. Our reason is challenged because these circumstances are worse than we have seen before, and because there is no quick and easy solution going forward. If climate change is the culprit, we can at best slow the change, but little else. If more logging were allowed and grazing encouraged, it would still take years, if not decades to reduce the wild fire fuel laying on our forest floors.
If it weren’t bad enough that our reason is woefully tested, our faith is tested even more. When will you deliver us from this, O Lord? How long will you let the world burn? When will you provide for our well-being? Why have you hidden your face, and the face of the heavens from us, O God? Prayerful questions that arise from hearts in distress. As people of faith beneath smoke-filled skies, we gaze longingly through the haze, hoping to see signs of the God who loves us.
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou are with me" - Psalm 23:4
Yet, the test of our faith is not to trust that we are being punished, but to trust that we are being delivered. Our world is broken. In many ways, since humanity’s descent into sin, our world has always been on fire. Some of these fires have been literal, like those that are burning all around Montana and other parts of the west. Many more of these fires have been metaphorical – the fires of violence, greed, addiction, disease, despair, lust, poverty, war, etc. – and have tested the faith of all generations throughout time. God promises to provide for us through all sorts of adversity that we face, desiring for us to trust that the ills of this world do not define us. We are defined by God’s redemption. Times like these bring us not only to share in the cries of the writer of Psalm 13, but also the reassurance of Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou are with me” (Psalm 23:4, RSV).
Rev. Seth Nelson is a pastor and the author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He lives in western Montana with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.