Opinion by John S. Dickerson, special to CNN
Prescott, Arizona (CNN) - If you stood next to one in a grocery store line, you could smell the smoke on his fire pants.
They were known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but to us they were sturdy, sweaty, smoke-stained neighbors, fathers, friends, husbands, sons and uncles.
They were the strong shoulders and backs who ran into danger to protect us. Just two weeks ago they ran toward the 200-footl flames of the Doce Fire northwest of Prescott, diverting it away from my neighborhood.
On June 30, while battling a fierce wildfire in Yarnell, 19 of these elite Prescott firefighters died. It was the deadliest day for firefighters since September 11, 2001, and it had a devastating effect on our small community.
I’m a pastor, and like many in Prescott, for me the past week has been a chaotic rush of emotion, effort and helplessness. I’ve focused on helping firefighters’ families from my own congregation and counseling others directly involved. I’m doing my best to help our community grieve and support the surviving families.
I went to my church office in Prescott on July 4 hoping for some quiet. I knew nobody would be there on a holiday afternoon. As I pulled into the empty parking lot, I realized that we hadn’t dropped our flag to half-staff. We’d been too busy trying to pick people up.
I set my briefcase on the concrete and made my way over to the flagpole. It was emotional to feel the raw, weathered rope threading between my hands. I watched the gigantic flag stoop lower and lower, until it found a posture befitting the broken heart of our community.
A kaleidoscope of memories rushed through my mind:
The eerie silence as families, firefighters, police, friends and pastors gathered at Mile High Middle School to learn the names of the 19 who perished.
The police officer who had the unimaginable job of knocking on the door of each young wife and fiancée to tell her that her man didn’t make it.
The lone surviving firefighter, Brendan McDonough, still smelling of smoke, anguished by grief, surrounded in a huddle of compassion in a middle school classroom.
The young wife, Stephanie Turbyfill, who came to me for prayer – moments after learning that her husband, Travis, was among the 19.
Chief Darrell Willis, who climbed the mountain in the dark and spent the night next to the deceased men, protecting them, being with them – demonstrating the undying loyalty of a true firefighter.
Jen Lucas, the wife whose husband would have been with the 19 had he not been hiking the Grand Canyon.
The community gathering of 6,000 Prescott folks, giving the grieving families standing ovations, love, words of affirmation and police escorts to protect them from prying reporters.
The 19 purple balloons we released into the heavens, acknowledging our heroes' departure from this life to the next.
In situations like these, we sometimes wonder, “If there’s a God who is good, then why do tragedies like this happen?”
I wondered that in December, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The thought returned on the night of July 2, when I stood before thousands of Prescott residents, attempting to comfort them .
I locked eyes with the families of the fallen firefighters. The shell-shocked young widows. The middle-aged moms who had cuddled and cared for these heroes as growing boys. The little boys and girls who don’t understand that they will never see their daddies again – at least not in this life.
It’s not comforting to me in moments like these to simply declare, “God is in control.” That might be comforting if you’re a spiritual giant or less touched by tragedy. But when you’re at the very center of the storm, it sure doesn’t feel like God is in control, or even watching.
“At times like this,” I told the families, “we might wonder: Is God mad at me? Did God do this because I did something wrong?” That’s a question some have asked me in private. It’s a question we all ask at some point in our lives. And it’s a question that I can answer for you, just as I did for those grieving in Prescott. “God is not mad at you, and He is not punishing you.”
For those of us who believe in a Creator God, Scripture says that He does not make or perpetrate evil. He is not the author of death, but of life. In the end, he will defeat evil and death. Until then, we live in a world infected with evil. The result is tornadoes, hurricanes and, in Prescott, lightning-ignited wildfires that destroy and kill.
When God saw us agonizing in the fallout of evil, He “so loved the world, that He sent His only son,” Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in Him will be delivered out of the brokenness of this world.
It was Jesus, walking among us, who said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
He was referring to his death on the cross for us, but his words declare a universal truth: There is no greater love than to sacrifice your life. The people of Prescott will be forever loyal to these firefighters and their families because they laid down their lives for us.
Hotshot crews are taught to always keep one foot in “the black” (the area that has already burned) and another foot in “the green” (the unburnt forest).
Our community will always have one foot in the “black” of our grief. We will also, in time, have another foot in the “green,” the new life and healing that will follow. We will grieve, and we will rebuild.
John S. Dickerson is senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Prescott, Arizona, and author of the book,“The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that Will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare.” The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dickerson.
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