For the two and a half years before I went back to school to get a masters degree, I rented a 100-year-old farmhouse on eight acres of land in the northeast Georgia mountains. That region is definitely my soul’s home, and I loved living there more than any other place I’ve lived. Many days I would sit on the front porch watching the local traffic go by, or the horses in one of the nearby pastures.
On one of those days, a small fire began when a tree fell and took a power line with it that then set the grass on fire. Because of a drought, everything was frighteningly dry and so it didn’t take much to get things smoking. Luckily, the fire was out and the power restored pretty quickly and aside from a scorched place in the pasture, everything turned out fine.
I’ve read that a fire in a forest can spark new growth; the combination of more sunlight getting to younger trees, more air and maybe needed nutrients getting into the ground seems to kick start the life force again.
I think that can happen with people too. We’ve all known periods in our lives that can only be described as fiery; those times when things get so hot and hurt so badly that we’re left as dark as scorched earth. Maybe those fires are sparked by loss, illness, or by changes that we just didn’t see coming. No matter the reason, when we’re in those furnace times, we usually just want to get out as quickly as possible.
Yet I’m always inspired by people who came out of their own fires with more courage, strength or wisdom then they had going in. Can’t we all name people that lived out the definition of “grace under pressure?”
I was amazed several years ago to learn the story of Thomas A. Dorsey (a Georgia native) and his writing of the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Dorsey had been a blues pianist, working in bars, until a spiritual healing after a nervous breakdown led him to commit his life to God. The result was the creation of modern gospel music. In 1932 he left behind his pregnant wife to perform at a revival in St. Louis, when he finished singing he was given a telegram saying she had died in childbirth. He rushed home to learn he had a son. Dorsey held that baby all night, but by morning the boy had died. He was bereft and withdrew from life, until a friend left him in a room containing only a piano. In those quiet moments, the notes to “Precious Lord” – one of the most beloved gospel songs ever written – came pouring out.
A while back, I was listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” (as a lifelong Lutheran, it seems kind of like a requirement) and Garrison Keillor led the audience in a singing of “It Is Well with My Soul.” Horatio Spafford, who penned the lyrics to the song, was also no stranger to fire. He was married with five children but lost his only son in 1871. Just a few months later, the Great Chicago Fire consumed his real estate investments and he lost all his savings. Then, in 1873, the family planned a vacation to Europe. Spafford sent his wife and daughters on ahead so he could tie up some loose ends before joining them a few days later.
The ship on which they sailed collided with another, and 226 people lost their lives. When she reached safety, his wife sent him this heartbreaking telegram: “Saved alone. What shall I do?” He left immediately to bring her home, and when his own ship crossed the waters where his daughters drowned, he wrote these words:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Out of the ashes; life. Out of the ashes; song. Listen, and you’ll hear the sound of faith.