The terrible fires in California made me think of fires in the autumn of 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. As part of his plan to win the Civil War, Union General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the destruction of the food and food-making potential in the Valley, a breadbasket of Virginia. General Phillip Sheridan commenced a twelve-day campaign called “the Burning.” Grant later wrote about his thoughts at the time, “if the war is to continue another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”
As Linda Wheeler put it in the Washington Post in September of 2011: “Between …Sept. 26 and…Oct. 8, residents and soldiers reported seeing as many as 100 fires burning at one time, filling the sky with smoke. At night, the fires created a lurid red light along the horizon. Amanda Moore watched the inferno and later wrote, ‘I shall never forget ...all the Mills and barns ten miles up the creek were burning at once and the flames seemed to reach the skies it was awful to watch.’ A Union soldier wrote in his diary, ‘The whole country around is wrapped in flames, the heavens are aglow with the light thereof.’”
The Union Army burned fields with the wheat still in them. They burned mills for grinding the wheat into flour. They burned barns and killed farm animals. Sometimes the flames spread from barns to houses. (The purpose of recounting this is not to excoriate the Union side. Union General William T. General Sherman said, “War is hell,” and both sides in the war committed very questionable acts. And if we think we have gotten beyond war being hell, a recent study from Brown University asserts that almost 500,000 people, a majority of them civilians, have died in the Afghan and Iraq wars and in Pakistan, and millions of people have been displaced.)
Back to the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. At Union Theological Seminary in Virginia in the late 1970’s, I learned more about the destruction there and its aftermath. Our beloved homiletics professor, Wellford Hobby, talked about a Presbyterian pastor in the Shenandoah Valley at that time who was preparing his Sunday sermon. In agricultural areas for people of faith, harvest time has traditionally been a time for giving thanks. Yet in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, with horrible and total destruction all around him, what scripture about thanksgiving could this pastor possibly choose? What message of thanks could he give?
His congregation waited to see. The pastor stood up and read from the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. He read, probably from the King James translation, these words:
“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no food; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18.)
The prophet Habakkuk, at a similar moment in Israel’s history (when there was destruction of food and the ability to make food), said, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
He was saying that for the followers of the Living God, the heart of thanksgiving is more than giving thanks for material things. Essential thanksgiving is to rejoice in the Lord. Material things can be destroyed and taken away, but the Living God is from everlasting to everlasting, and once we have a personal relationship with Him as the “God of our Salvation” that relationship cannot be destroyed. For Christians, we know the “God of our Salvation” supremely in his self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. (John 3:16). Jesus died for us. Jesus rose for us. Jesus is our Savior. As he put it, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) When we put our trust in Jesus and accept his offer of the unearned forgiveness of our sins, he is “the God of our Salvation.”
Even if, God forbid, our homes were destroyed, even if our bank accounts vanished...even if there were no food on our tables, our determination should be: “still we will rejoice in the Living God. We will joy in the God of Our Salvation!"
Winfield Casey Jones is a retired pastor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column first appeared in the Pearland and Friendswood Reporter News.