It was a clichéd night: dark and stormy and all that stuff. Rain poured all around us, lightning lit up the sky, and thunder roared in our ears.
An hour before midnight, chaos unleashed itself in our home. Having just watched Ken Burns’ World War II documentary, I assumed a German bomb had exploded next door. The Lady Fullman rose quickly to check on the kids, and within seconds the smoke detectors screamed throughout the house. Running through the hallways and bedrooms and finding nothing, the smoke seeping from the AC vents drove us up in the attic. Sure enough, directly above the kids’ bedroom, we saw flames licking the walls and reaching up toward the roof. Maternal instincts in overdrive, she flew down the ladder and evacuated the boys, ignoring the water pouring in from their bedroom ceiling. I called 911 and happily greeted the fire department minutes later.
They were to discover that lightning tore through our roof, ripped through an air duct, struck the interior wall of the attic, and started a fire. But because the attic was unvented and we sprung for spray-foam insulation four months before, the fire had no real fuel and burned itself out. The water that poured in from the softball-sized hole in the roof and drained down the AC vent was arrested in buckets and totes—both in the attic and downstairs in the bedroom, quickly mitigating any damage to the drywall or to the carpets. And what was anticipated to be a night changing out buckets every hour turned out to be a night of quiet rest as the rain unexpectedly passed. In short, what could have been a complete disaster for our family turned out to be a miraculous display of God’s protection and providence.
There were plenty of repairs to be done, no doubt, but each of those was rapidly taken care of in turn. A night without AC isn’t so bad, even in Alabama, on a cool summer evening after a storm. A morning without electricity is fine when none of the fuses have fried. Two days without internet waiting for a new modem is a small price to pay for the safety of one’s family and the stability of one’s house. And even if those outcomes had been worse, we had so many offers from our church family of meals, clothes, places to sleep, and prayers to be prayed.
People continually asked us how we were doing. I wished I could have answered in a way that was meaningful. But I struggled expressing our emotional state beyond the clichés.
“We were so blessed.”
“It really was a best-case scenario.”
“God is good.”
These statements are all true, and I do not mean to minimize their significance. Ours is a story to be told wherein only God can claim glory. But these responses fail to capture the gratitude of a near-miss nor the intensity of our relief. Sometimes even poets, professors, and pathologists lack the necessary words and the requisite hindsight to understand the magnitude of a terrifying event like a house fire. Sometimes silence is a far better answer than words. Job speaks for a long time while God remains still.
But there was another lightning bolt that descended from the skies that night. And ever since, the poker that has stoked the embers in my mind has been the whispered words of a nine-year-old. Before he went to bed (for the second time) that night, our oldest son asked us why God allowed the lightning to strike our house. I didn’t think one in the morning a fit time for a theology lesson, and I wanted him to think about the immense blessing we’d been given—not the inconvenience of being rudely wakened or sitting outside in a storm. But I quietly asked myself why He didn’t let it burn to the ground.
A family goes to sleep at night and dies in a choking blaze. Another family escapes death but loses their house and belongings to the fire. Ours is physically, psychically, and fiscally unscathed. We bless God for his protection and providence, yet someone else curses him for their destitution. And if we were in their position, might we not do the same thing?
We are slow to bless and we are quick to curse. But I remember that God is slow to anger, and though his justice seems slow he has a plan. He has no interest in condemnation, and he is intensely moved by the suffering of people. It is we who rush to judgment: of others, of ourselves, of God. James and John ask Jesus if they should not call fire from the sky and destroy some Samaritans, but the Christ doesn’t work that way. I cannot claim to fathom the divine mysteries, but I do believe this: if God is not directly responsible for suffering, then suffering exists because we live in a fallen world. But we can take confidence because he is there to walk us through it. Conversely, if God is directly responsible for suffering, then we can still have confidence because he is using suffering for his own higher purposes—and he is still there to walk us through it.
My mind has slipped further from that night. The emotions fade and the vibrancy of the moment atrophies into memory. The ecstasy of waking up in the morning with my family all in the same room has been replaced with the return to normalcy. The joy of taking a check from the insurance adjuster within two hours of surveying the damage is an important moment, to be sure, but not an emotion one can live on in perpetuity. They are now embedded as part of history, as flashes of a life lived, and reminders of His starring role in my story.
I wonder sometimes what I would have done if the outcome had changed. Were things just a little different, or if the events had altered slightly, I hope I would still have the courage to know that it is well with my soul. For even if we had lost it all, God would still be God and He would still be Good.
Sometimes, all you can say is, “God.”