I stood this afternoon watching a family's possessions go up in flames. I don't know how the fire started, but by the time I arrived at the inferno, the blaze was out of control.
It's a helpless feeling, watching a fire burn. Even the firefighters weren't fast enough to be able to save much of the house. On the back porch, a metal swing set slowly melted into a pile of charred, twisted metal. A child's plastic slide turned into a jumble of melted plastic in primary colors. The destruction was incredible, and I found myself and many other onlookers had little more to say than, "Wow."
I spent a little time with the people who lived in that house. The parents had left two teenage boys in the house while they ran an errand a few blocks away. The boys smelled smoke and went to investigate only to find that a wall in the rear of the home was engulfed in flames. They got out unharmed, but were afraid that their father would be mad at them... as if they had done something wrong. Mostly, I think, they felt bad that something like that could start without their notice.
The family had no insurance. They were renting the house, but everything inside was theirs including an envelope of cash by the back door which was to be applied for rent and utilities. A newer car was parked in the driveway beside the garage. It caught fire and is a total loss. The father was in the process of switching transmissions and had let the insurance expire two days ago. Gone are the computer, the camera, and the "stuff", but also gone are family pictures and presents made by the boys "for Daddy" from years gone by. Like the father told me, "I never would have thought it could be gone so quickly."
The pastor in me was immediately reminded of the biblical teachings about the temporary nature of earthly possessions. But this was no time for preaching. Besides, the parents seemed to understand that lesson anyway.
Still what struck me as I watched the flames dance along the roof of the home was the word picture Jesus used to describe hell -- the flame that never goes out. At times it appeared that the firefighters had extinguished all the flames, then suddenly I would see a different patch of fire breaking out. It never seemed to be ready to go out. My studies have shown me that Jesus was using Gehenna, or basically the city dump as an illustration of what hell is like. In Gehenna, the suffering never ceases. The flames never go out.
Standing in the yard behind that burning home, I could feel the intense heat coming from the flames. It was a hot day anyway. Muggy. Sticky. Firefighters had to take breaks from the flames to cool off for a bit. I can not imagine suffering that doesn't end. Like fighting a fire that never goes out and having no moment of cool respite from the heat, the suffering of everlasting life without God's presence is beyond me.
One other thing I noticed as I watched the dancing tongues of fire... the blaze had an effect on much more than one house. All the neighbors were out watching the residence burn. Seeing something like that will remind them of the need for smoke detectors and care in handling fire hazards.
Smoke filled the air in that residential neighborhood contaminating the houses across the street. Those people will be airing out their homes for a couple of weeks, at least. Some items will always smell like smoke. When I made it back into the office, I smelled like smoke and I was only on the scene for 90 minutes.
Next door to the burning house was another home. That home was damaged on the side nearest the fire. The vinyl siding was melted and even the insulation beneath was exposed. Then on the other side of the house which was on fire was another house -- this one untouched by the heat and flames. Sometimes we can be affected by the disasters around us to the point where we become part of the damage. Other times we are left untouched.
Tonight, the family is in the hands of the Red Cross. Immediate needs are being met. Certainly there are many who will step up in the next couple of months to help get these people back on their feet. After all, it's easy to see the need when a family has lost everything. But when a person has no relationship with his Creator, too many people refuse to see a need and too many who are lost refuse to accept it.
So many lessons in one fire.