Fire goes before the Lord, and consumes God’s adversaries on every side. The lightnings of the Lord light up the world… The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. – Psalm 97:3-5 (NRSV, adapted)
As I write this reflection in late April, 20 fires are burning throughout New Mexico. Two merged fires near Santa Fe have burned 56,000 acres and are only minimally contained. Nine hundred people statewide have been evacuated and more are on alert, including members of the congregation I serve. Wildfires also rage in Arizona and Nebraska.
Fire season in the West used to begin in June, not April. Now it’s year-round. Last December, a wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in Boulder County, Colorado, a few weeks after ski season started.
The specter of fire makes it difficult for me to engage Psalm 97. Some fires have been caused by dry lightning, just as the psalm describes. Some of the mountains seem like they are melting like wax.
But I disagree with attributing such destruction to God’s will. According to verse 3, raging fires are God’s way to consume all enemies. I’m not sure that all the communities, families, animals, and creation ravaged by these wildfires are God’s adversaries nor deserving of such punishment.
Yet we humans do have a role in these megafires. Decades of fire suppression and poor management resulted in sickly matchbox forests, and numerous studies have demonstrated our role in climate change, which lengthened the fire season and contributed to a 20-year drought. Perhaps along with prayers for rain, Psalm 97’s call to repentance should be part of our response to such fires.
Your earth is burning, O God. We pray for all creation–and for the commitment to change our lives to protect your world. Amen.