I have driven by the sign for almost my entire life. "Hinckley Fire Museum," it reads.
We stop for gas and a bite to eat on our way up to the resort and retreat areas of the North Shore. Again, I see the sign. But I don't go into the museum. After all, Hinckley is a small town. What kind of a museum could it be?
One of my college classmates was from Hinckley. He talked about the Fire Museum some. He talked about the fire a little too, but it didn't make much of an impression on me. So every year we see the sign and we don't go into the museum.
This year, though, I was reading the book "Under a Flaming Sky" for my church's book club. I wasn't at the meeting where we chose it, so I don't know the reasoning. But I decided to bring the book along on vacation and read it while we were away.
I ended up finishing it on the drive home, as we were driving past Hinckley again.
"Under a Flaming Sky" is a harrowing book. Brown sets the scene for the tragedy, describing life in the booming little town of Hinckley, describing the weather conditions and the logging practices of the day and the lives of several of the families whose lives would be irretrievably changed on the day. He describes in detail the harrowing journeys of the two trains that left Hinckley that afternoon: the northbound to Duluth, and the Southbound train bound for Pine City. The northbound train with its bedraggled passengers stopped in Sandstone and in Partridge, and those aboard urged the townspeople to flee, but almost no one got on the train. They just didn't believe that the fire would come there, even with witnesses attesting to its power. The Southbound train left later and did not fare as well; even so, there were people on that train who survived the fire because of the dangerous journey it made.
One of those families included the author's great-grandmother, grandfather and his two sisters. Brown's great-grandfather died in the fire; his great-grandmother Marie never got over it. This book is, in part, borne out of Brown's desire to understand as much as he could about his own family, his own history, forged in the fire.
Logging practices and fire-fighting practices have changed, at least in part because of the Hinckley fire, and others like it. While some fires are necessary and are a part of the natural order for the forest, so much of what was happening at the time had to do with a lethal combination of weather and carelessness. I suppose there is some comfort in that, although I can't erase the thought of all of the children who were lost, who could not escape. And it haunts me to think that, even after Hinckley and Peshtigo and Sandstone and a few other places, it still took several years to convince the logging interests that it was in their best interests to find safer logging practices.
So after reading the book, I am preparing a sermon for this Sunday. This Sunday's readings contain difficult pronouncements by Jesus of division rather than peace, the fire that he longs to bring to the earth, the 'signs of the times' that it seems that no one is heeding. This Sunday's readings contain warnings by Jeremiah about false prophets and their dreams, lists of bedraggled patriarchs and prophets who live by faith in a world that mostly doesn't listen to them. This Sunday's readings are all about suffering and struggle and division, and it appears that there is very little good news, just as there is very little good news in the book about the flaming sky.
I'm thinking about the sign that I never pay attention to as I drive past Hinckley. What will make me stop and listen now? I'm thinking about the people in Sandstone who would not take the train to safety, even with all of the voices urging them, the clouds of witnesses. I'm thinking about how we can tell the false prophets from the true ones. I'm thinking that it isn't easy, never hast been easy, to tell. But one thing I can think about: false prophets will tell me what I want to hear, whatever that is. A true prophet will tell the truth, even if it's difficult to bear.
In his time, the people thought the prophet Jeremiah was a traitor. But he loved Jerusalem as much as everyone else. It's just that he saw the signs: the signs of judgment, the signs of destruction. He saw that the people were on a collision course with their own greed and idolatry.
I've always thought about the clouds of witnesses in Hebrews as those inspiring people from our past who trusted God and lived grace-filled lives. "Keep going," they are saying. "Keep running." But now I have added another image: the people on the train from Hinckley. They are witnesses too, prophets of a sort, telling me that the life of a disciple of Jesus is hard, and fraught with danger.