Years ago on a Sunday morning, arriving in the parking lot of the Ohio church to which I was called, I remember being excited because that afternoon I would be ordained and installed as a pastor. Years of work had culminated in this event.
As I stepped out of my car, though, I began to see a billowing plume of smoke coming from a residential area a couple of blocks away. Everything reasonable in me said to just go inside, start Sunday School, and allow things to be business as usual. For some reason, though, I got back in my car.
I immediately drove to the vicinity of the site, trying to identify where the now heavy cloud of smoke was originating. As I ventured closer, I could hear the crackling of the fire, feel the heat from its flames. Just as I got on the scene, the fire department's ladder truck was arriving. As hoses were being attached, a courageous fireman started up the ladder as it simultaneously swung toward the upstairs window. Soon, he was inside.
At almost the same time, a young boy near me was crying. I asked him his name and through the veil of tears he proceeded to tell me that that was his house on fire and that his mother and sister were still inside. When he had realized the house was on fire he had run outside to safety, but his family had never come out.
I turned him away from the fire and asked if we could pray together. As the child agreed, held my hands and bowed his head, the fireman emerged with a child's body. My heart sank at the sight. In a moment like that, what does one say? What prayer could possibly suffice?
I don't remember specifically what words I prayed but I thanked God for the boy's safety, assured him that his mother and sister loved him, and asked for God's care over them. The next moment, the boy's mother was handed out of the window. It was clear that she and her daughter had both died of smoke inhalation. Stunned, I prayed the only thing I could think to say to the boy: "We thank you, God, because we know that no matter what you love us." The boy looked up with tears in his eyes and said, "Thank you." I hugged him and then local medical authorities whisked him away to be cared for.
Realizing that church was about to start, I drove back to the service where I led prayers of confession, dedication, petition and thanksgiving. All service the events from the morning reeled through my mind and the smell of smoke served as a present reminder of the horrors that I had just witnessed.
That afternoon at my ordination, things felt different from what I expected. My morning had somehow been an appropriate introduction to ministry. I was left struggling with the tragedy before me. Truth be told, I may never be able to shake the image of that little girl being carried out of that window.
But in the midst of such heartache I was also clearly made aware that, even when unthinkably bad things happen to people, God never abandons us. For in that day, illogical as it would seem, I had blindly been led toward the fires of hell in order to hold a little boy's hands, show him care and assure him that God loved him even when his entire world seemed to be falling apart. For that gift I am, and always will be, grateful to God.
The Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of family ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church. Read his blog at www.christopherbenek.com.