Australia's Wildfires: It Is Well?

By Nathan Brown 2-13-2009

It has been described as the worst disaster in Victoria's history. Saturday was the hottest day ever recorded in the Melbourne region, following years of drought and weeks of heat wave conditions. Driven by gale-force hot winds, wildfires tore through the surrounding mountains, obliterating whole communities, leaving more than 100 people dead-and still counting, more in hospitals and thousands homeless.

A billow of smoke had blacked out our sun on Saturday afternoon, showering us with ash, leaves, and bark, and filling our homes, clothes, and valley with the biting smell of smoke. We felt the same winds and shuddered at the thought of what that might do to stoke a fire. But our fears are not large enough.

A weather change comes and the winds begin to ease. But a late evening sprinkle of rain is more mocking than useful and the few raindrops fall as mud.

With major devastation less than an hour's drive in a couple of directions, we have our nervous moments, listening intently to emergency radio broadcasts late into the night. And we almost feel kind of guilty about being so close but so unaffected.

The next morning, the wind has died away, allowing our valley to fill with smoke and an almost eerie quiet. The smell and the emerging stories of loss fill our day. It is one thing to speak of people's dreams being turned to ash; it is another thing to hear of the people themselves being incinerated. We feel helpless in the face of the enormity of what has happened and continues to happen. Little wonder people are giving-food, clothes, accommodation, household items, time, money, blood-so generously; it is the only way to feel like we're regaining a measure of control, the only way to respond to numbing tragedy.

And so we arrived early on Monday morning in our cars stained with the sky's ashen tears, crossed the car park littered with the charred leaves and other debris dropped from the billowing pall that had shadowed the weekend, but under a sky that was almost clear.

Not just another Monday morning. A couple of our staff are still away as volunteer members of the country fire brigade.

By accident of rostering, I am the worship speaker and whatever I say feels like the inappropriate mumbling it probably is. Fumbling to find hope, even amid life stained with death. Any "answers" are too neat; any questions are too raw.

In accord with the worship practice, I had selected a hymn to be sung. It had seemed like it might fit-at least, the rolling "sorrows like sea-billows"-but the chorus' assertion that "it is well with my soul" just doesn't flow. Yes, I can say it. I can probably even believe it. But I don't feel it. Not here, not now.

I stumble through a closing prayer and shuffle out of the worship room behind the rest of the staff, escaping to the solitude of my upstairs office. I sit and look out to the mountains above me. Today their usual beauty seems menacing, with just a few wisps of smoke clinging to the distant treetops.

It just doesn't seem the day for "It is well with my soul." And I would venture to suggest that "those who mourn" feel neither "blessed" nor "comforted" (Matthew 5:4). Other promises seem to tear at the wounds. When walking "through the dark valley of death" (Psalm 23:4) is so obviously filled with terror and tragedy, how can we glibly say, "I will not be afraid"?

Despite the office phones not working for the morning, the day assumes a measure of everydayness, punctuated by sombre conversations about the weekend's tragedies and checking on further fire reports.

Later in the day, I watch the spectacular smoky sunset at the end of the valley. But even the red-gilt edges on the clouds look like another fire turning the clouds to ash and another day to blackness, yet another smoking ruin. As well as the tragedies that have been, there are still fires and fears.

Tonight, "It is well" is definitely a statement of faith, rather than feeling. And the hope-filled, God-present conclusion is no less real-but will need to be written another day.

Nathan Brown is an editor for Signs Publishing Company based in Waburton, Victoria, Australia.

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