The summer of 1988 was one of the most important in my life. I graduated from high school and, with a friend, moved 2,625 miles from my hometown of Fairport, New York to sunny San Diego, California. It was my first real step of independence – a mountaintop time of my life.
But while I was learning to surf and play beach volleyball, over a thousand miles to the north a collection of individual wildfires gathered to form one of the largest wildfire complexes in North American history. The Yellowstone fires of 1988 resulted from a confluence of dangerous conditions, the perfect storm. Decades of fire suppression practices had built the fuel supply to explosive levels. Striking fear in everyone’s hearts, extreme drought was accompanied by high winds and dry lightning storms that brought sparks with no water. By late July, dozens of fires were burning in and around Yellowstone National Park, well out of control of the tens of thousands of firefighters and military personnel brought on site.
In the end, nearly 800,000 acres – over one-third of the park’s lands – were lost to the flames, leaving a treasured national park looking like a patchwork of destruction. When my family and I first visited YNP in 2002, some stretches along the west road still looked like a warzone, almost fourteen years later.
But God’s design for nature has always included restoration following destruction. Within days of one of the fires laying down, firefighters reported seeing wildflowers like the fireweed blooming among the ashes. Sometimes entire meadows would ignite with flames of colorful wildflowers, happy to have sunlight all to themselves, finally free from the oppressive shadows of their older cousins, the lodgepole pines.
The lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta, is an amazing study in God’s plan for life. Said to be serotinous, the cones not only tolerate wildfire, they actually require it to release their seeds. Without the scorching flames of fire, lodgepole pines couldn’t survive.
Last year, a wildfire started in my life that burned white-hot for two months without relief. Today, seven months later, autumn snows are falling, laying a blanket over the burning landscape, allowing me to recover. At its worst, like Yellowstone’s Black Saturday when 150,000 acres were scorched in a single day, I was so beaten by my illness that I was too weak to even walk from the bed to the bathroom without my wife’s help. It felt hopeless at times.
But also like the Yellowstone fires, I began seeing the first signs of wildflowers springing up from the ashes only a short time after the flames had passed.
Possibly the greatest beauty to emerge from my trial was a re-sorting of my priorities. When you are too sick to work, too sick to watch football on TV, too sick to make repairs to the house, you remember what really matters in life. For me, it all comes back to relationships: with God, with Ann, with my children, with my friends. Before the illness, I would have told you that these things were at the top of my priority list. But a quick glance at where I spent my time and treasure would tell you otherwise. I had let the urgent things in life push aside the important things. I promised, to myself, to God, and to my family, that I would never let that happen again.
Sometimes, when we talk to someone who has gone through or is going through a significant trial in life, we dismiss their intensity, their passion, their message to us as mere sentimentalism. “Life is pretty hard for them right now,” we say. “It makes sense that they are feeling this way.” We believe that their circumstances have clouded their vision, and that we who are not hurting so badly are the ones who see most clearly.
But the exact opposite is true. You see, it is actually we who are comfortable, we whose needs are all satisfied, we who are not in the midst of crisis whose vision has been clouded. When our grandest prayer is that the noise coming from under the hood of the car is not going to cost us too much, then we know that we are not thinking clearly.
It is rather when we are immersed in trial, in sorrow, in loss, that the fog is lifted and we can see most clearly what is true and right and good. It is here that God’s message to us is heard most clearly.
Take-home point: Do not allow the urgent things to push aside the important things.
Take-home verse: … to give to them beauty for ashes… Isaiah 61:3
Questions for thought
Can you recall a time of trial or grief when it seemed that you finally understood what really mattered in life?
Have you ever spoken with a friend who is going through hard times and found that it was difficult to relate to them?
Have you ever been too much in a hurry to get past the trial that you miss what God is trying to show you?
Holy Father, help us to slow down in the midst of trials so that we may hear your voice. When we grieve or struggle, lift the fog from our eyes that we may be able to see the truth. And may we always remember that truth, may we always remember what you showed us in the light, when life is easy again and our hearts stop listening. “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)