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When fires rage without and within

Sometimes we are not quite as smart as we think we are. We can out smart ourselves more easily than we like to admit. In 1900, we got smart enough to control wildfires. Beginning with President Teddy Roosevelt’s commendable desire to set aside National parks, forests and preserves, we began to suppress fires. We were smart. Smart enough to control the wildfires. But we were not as smart as we thought.

By the 1920s, there were bigger wildfires blazing in the western United States than ever. Why? Because we had held back the fuel load for two decades. When a fire did hit, that wasn’t quickly brought under control, flames would rage though that fuel load—the underbrush and downed trees—creating ever larger fires.

Southern California has, for recorded history, experienced dry winds called the Santa Anas. The Santa Ana Winds form when a high pressure system forms over the Great Basin and a low pressure system hangs over the Pacific. The air over the Great Basin then crosses mountain ranges and drops rapidly. Temperature goes up as the humidity of the wind drops, creating the hot, dry Santa Ana which charge through canyons at rates that can match hurricane force. This process was in place long before humans decided to build homes along the California coast.

In the natural process, a large number of small fires keeps the underbrush cleared and aids in the decomposition of the litter on the forest floor. In neighboring Mexico, the same wind effects produce only small fires as a century of letting small, natural fires burn has left a radically reduced fuel load not far to the south of San Diego. Recent burns serve as natural fire breaks in Mexico, halting the spread of wildfires as they have since the landscape was formed.

We know all this, but it may be too late to wizen up. After all, the main reason why we have a zero tolerance for wildfires is that people and property are at stake. Prior to the people settling the areas in large numbers, California’s landscape tended to itself with a natural system built into the ecology. Lightning and the fires that followed played a vital role in that system which was self-perpetuating. Once the people and homes are in place, it is hard to pass any policy that will put either at risk. California with its millions of homes built alongside wild lands will be sorting out this natural phenomenon for decades to come.

I say all this as fires once again threatened homes in California this week and whenever a large-scale natural disaster happens God takes some blame. After all, these sorts of problems are often termed acts of God. Yet, I know that God did not decide thousands of people needed to spend time in a shelter this past week. To the degree that this was an act of God, it was one because of natural processes God hard wired into creation long ago. Our desire to live out of synch with those natural processes created the problem we now face. I think God gets a bum rap in times like this.

However, we do like to give God the credit for the good side of nature, the blessings we get from the natural order. This is what is happening with the Prophet Jeremiah who said, “Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.”

The prophet praises God for bringing the rain which feeds the crops that feed the farmers and the rest of us. For the prophet, it is wrong to set our hope on idols, or even to count on the heavens themselves, but we are to count on the God who created the world in this self-regenerating way.

The reason Jeremiah brings this up at all is because the people have sinned. Israel has abandoned the one true God for the God’s worshipped by those around them like the fertility God Asherah. There are those who still want to go sacrifice to Asherah and perform the rituals needed so that the crops will succeed. Other put their trust in Baal or in other gods and rituals of the surrounding nations. Jeremiah instead says that the thing to do is to set our hope on the Lord our God.

Israel had not abandoned God all at once. They had little by little accommodated themselves to letting practices of others peoples slip into Israel. Some of this happened as persons from other places came to live alongside them. More happened when the people of Israel intermarried with others and added the religion of their spouses to their own. Little by little things added up until they no longer set their hope on the one true God.

For those who faced the flames in California this past week, there will have been those who placed their hope on firefighters, or insurance coverage, or luck, or whatever else it is they trust to bring them through the flames. There will be others who set their hope on God and then whether they kept their possessions or had their house consumed with everything inside, they could not have everything taken from them. For to set your hope in God is to say, “Whether I live or die, I am the Lords.”

But sometimes we get too smart for God. We know what is needed. We have all the answers. “My will be done,” we pray. Yet, we are not that smart. We don’t have all the answers to any of the tough issues we face in our jobs, in our marriages, with our children. Of course, we can’t control the Santa Ana winds. We can’t even control our own hearts. The answer is to stop trying to look for answers that are fleeting and look to the answer that lasts.

Place your trust in God so that whether fires rage within or without, your hope will be on the eternal. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. Admit that you aren’t quit as clever as you would have to be to solve all your own problems. Set your hope on God, and trust in Him.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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