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My father’s whole career was with the U.S. Forest Service and he loved it–almost as much as he loved the Presbyterian Church. That he was a follower of Jesus Christ was clear to me though he never said much about his personal faith. He served as an elder and Clerk of the Session in the small church we belonged to in Crockett, Texas, where we lived till I was eighteen. As my high school Sunday school teacher, my dad taught me the Bible. The class was mostly boys, and I was mortified when the voice we were listening to would begin to break. Some detail of the lesson had moved my dad almost to tears. One Sunday, he was delighted to tell my mother and me that he could name of the kings of Israel. Having been through that exercise myself in a later academic context, I now appreciate what a challenge it was. My dad was justified in feeling a sense accomplishment.
My mother called him “a man of few words” and she was right. He didn’t talk much about his personal views or feelings, but every night at supper, he would report to my mother what he did that day out in the Davey Crockett National Forest. I was listening too, and these suppertime conversations are still with me. Once he described a forest fire that raged through the treetops, even crossing a highway. I couldn’t image what it was like.
As I grew older, I became aware of my father’s rock-solid integrity–honesty, truthfulness, dependability. He was a good man, and etched in my memory are his occasional descriptions of divine help in some problem.
One Sunday morning, as usual, my mother, father, and I were sitting with the choir, doing our bit to keep the soprano, tenor, and alto sections going. The service was well underway when the telephone in the pastor’s study down the hall began ringing and ringing. It was ignored at first, but the persistent sound finally had to be dealt with. Someone went to the telephone then made his way back to the worship service–to the choir loft first. My dad was the person who was wanted. The woods were on fire, and the situation was serious enough to call the ranger out of Sunday morning worship. The fact that the desperate person on the phone knew he’d find my father in church speaks volumes to me about his faith. My dad’s relationship with the Lord was public knowledge, so clearly understood that this fire fighter knew exactly where to find Ranger Hanson at that hour on a Sunday.
I don’t remember what my mother and I did, but someone would have taken us home after the service. My dad had already left for the house–to put aside his Sunday clothes, get into fire-fighting gear, start his Forest Service pickup, and head out toward the crisis. He could anticipate a half-hour drive, maybe more, and unfortunately, he also knew what to expect when he reached his destination.
We didn’t see my father for several days. When he came home, the smell of wood smoke came in with him.
We surmised that no one was hurt, that the fire had been dealt with. When he told us about it, my dad was characteristically brief, but I remember sensing his desperation in the face of a deteriorating situation. That detail of his story has stayed with me. Somehow he conveyed to us in a few syllables, no more than a sentence or two, that everything was spinning out of control. Things were beyond desperation.
What he did was pray, and that was the moment things changed.
Perhaps my dad’s succinctness gave the account more weight. The drama and seriousness of the situation were already clear to me. That persistent telephone might still have been jangling in my ears, and the smell of wood smoke engaged my mother and me on yet another level. But the inescapable takeaway was my dad’s conviction that the Lord had answered him when he prayed. From that moment, the crisis began to abate, he insisted.
I never knew exactly how it happened. Did rain come? Did the wind die down? Did his men suddenly think of more effective ways to battle the fire? I don’t know. What I’m sure of even now is that when he described the moment, my father was absolute. The Lord had answered, he had helped him.
To be present, to hear this story and the outcome still seems to me a kind of gift, a sense of that firm foundation the old hymn celebrates.
When he was fighting the fire, did my father think about King David and his moments of desperation? Perhaps. In fact, King David would add to the Psalter more high praise for deliverance in trouble, more celebration of the Lord, than anyone else, and David wasn’t a man of few words! Often the “sweet singer of Israel” cried out to the LORD: “Hear my cry, O God; / Attend to my prayer. / From the ends of the earth I will cry to you, / When my heart is overwhelmed; / Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. / For you have been a shelter for me, / A strong tower from the enemy. / I will abide in your tabernacle forever; / I will trust in the shadow of your wings / For you, O God, have heard my vows. / You have given me the heritage of those who fear your name” (Ps 61: 1-5 NKJV and below). Again, “In God is my salvation and my glory; The rock of my strength, / And my refuge is in God. / Trust in him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps 62: 7-7). My dad didn’t say anything about David–or Isaiah, but maybe he remembered these words: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; / I have called you by your name; / You are mine. / When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; / And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. / When you walk through the fire, / you shall not be burned. / Nor shall the flame scorch you. / For I am the LORD your God, / The Holy One of Israel your Savior” (Isa 43:1b-3a).