Friday, September 7, 2012

When The Light Goes Out

I first thought someone had burned dinner and was airing out their smoke-filled kitchen. I could only see the eves of the roof from behind the high privacy fence, but the coloration of the smoke wafting from the corners of the shingles informed me that this ominous cloud was not coming from any burnt meatloaf.

After calling in the location of the structure fire to 911 on my radio, I ran from my cruiser to the high privacy fence and vaulted over, breaking the tops off several fence planks in a less than glorious dismount. I pounded on the door with urgency and yelled “Police, is anyone in there?” over and over again in an attempt to wake any sleeping residents. It was 11:30pm and most of the townspeople were down for the night.

There was no response, just more smoke and now a flicker of flame coming from the back of the house. I kicked the door open and was greeted by a wall of exiting black soot. Squatting down low to avoid the rising eclipse, I could see an opening in the black cloud that led straight into the living room.

There is a certain sort of darkness to structure fire smoke—darkness that clouds out even the light of the dangerous fire that gives it birth. Most people that die in house fires are killed by inhalation and asphyxiation long before the flame ever touches their skin.

My flashlight broke through the pitch and to my horror, instantly revealed several small toys just inside the front door.

“There are kids in here!”

The smoke was so thick it blocked the view of most of the room, so I took the only path available and entered low and to the floor. From the center of the living room I frantically scanned the house with my flashlight, yelling between shallow breaths and gagging coughs. “Is there anyone in here?!”

The only reply was the increasing crackling of fire from the back of the residence.

Then it happened. My flashlight went out—and the darkness surrounded me in the room like an enemy ambush. I hit the light against my hand and clicked the end cap switch over and over. Nothing, but darkness and smoke.

Now, allow me to take a small interlude from the action to explain the difference between a firefighter and a police officer. A police officer running into a burning building is much like a firefighter stumbling onto a bank robbery. He might be forced to act out of sheer moral responsibility, but he is not trained or equipped to act with the same effectiveness.

I would even go as far to say that a firefighter would probably be better off handling a bank robbery than a police officer would be at handling a house fire.

Firefighters are trained to fight the flame as they rescue people from the fire. They wear special fire retardant clothing; have oxygen masks, special lights and even thermal imaging devices that can see through walls as well as through the smoke. And they have water, lots of fire extinguishing water. 

Police officers wear polyester uniforms (that incidentally melt to your skin in the heat of fire) and carry pepper spray, metal expandable batons and guns. To my knowledge, no one has ever effectively pulled a 45 caliber Glock on a fire and made it comply. Fire does not respect authority—it only respects superior equipment and training.

So there I squatted in the smoke filled living room, in complete darkness, as the fire spread towards me—and I thought to myself, “This is how I die.”

Just then, I saw a bright light. It was not the light at the end of a tunnel that people talk about when they have a near death experience, but it was just as attractive. The smoke had shifted away from the open front door exposing the streetlight, illuminating the exit to safety.

I crawled across the smoky room, out of the house and sprinted to the police department only one block away. I grabbed another (working) flashlight and sprinted back to the scene of the fire, only to find the house completely involved as flames licked the night sky through the top of the roof.

The feeling of helplessness was almost overwhelming. There was no possibility of survival now. I fell to my knees in the front yard sucking air and coughing up smoke. The sound of wailing sirens from the approaching fire trucks began to fill my ears. As the firefighters swarmed against the flame, I heard one of them say, “There is no one in the house. It belongs to one of our guys—he just dropped his kids off at the baby sitter’s and came to work.”

Instant relief was followed by slow regret.

“Thank God! Thank you Lord! No one is in that house!"

"But wait a minute, I had just crawled into a burning house for nothing? And what about that flashlight? What a piece of crap! I’m going to write the company a long nasty letter letting them know how their product’s defectiveness almost cost me my life.”

It’s amazing how our so-called “sacrifices” can lead so quickly to thoughts of self-preservation and entitlement.

A few days later, as I was recounting this story (and my ever lingering frustration with the defective flashlight) with a wiser man than myself, I was given some great insight. Perhaps it is far reaching, but it lends some perspective to that awful night. More importantly, it lends some perspective to life.

“Greg, (he paused contemplatively) Have you ever thought what might have happened if your flashlight didn’t go out? You would have stayed in that house, looking feverishly for lost souls that weren’t there. You probably would have died in that fire. Perhaps the smaller light went out so you could see the greater light.”

The insight to God’s complete sovereign intervention was sobering: The defective flashlight actually saved my life!

I still carry that broken flashlight in my police cruiser. I’ll never use it again, but it will always remind me of God’s goodness—even in the midst of pitch-black darkness.

"Perhaps the smaller light went out so you could see the greater light.”

We don’t always understand what the Lord is doing in our lives and we don’t have to fully understand in order to act. Still, we can trust His power even when we cannot see His plan. He is sovereign; He is good and full of grace. 

And sometimes the light goes out leaving us stumbling in the darkness panicked, frustrated and hopeless—even angry that the defectiveness of the light would thwart our mission. But the Lord is good to break our lights and cloud our vision during certain dark and difficult times. For only then can we see the true, life giving, hope saturated light of rescue and crawl victoriously to His door of refuge.


  1. What an amazing story, with a great lesson, powerfully presented. There are no mistakes when it comes to God's watch over his own! :)