Down the halls, descending into the stairwells, one by one, floor by floor, couple by couple, family by family, newlyweds and children filed in line through the doorways and down the stairs, bridal parties and NASCAR Sprint Cup fans, groups of friends, business travelers and vacationers all dutifully followed the fire escape signs until everyone was outside the hotel. Two large weddings had been there the night before and tired spectators of the Bank of America 500 had checked in hours earlier. Before the alarm summoned us all that early morning, every room had been filled. Now, every guest in the hotel was up at the same time and washing their faces in unison, in the rain.
There was, however, a sense of relief to be outside. Better to be standing there, a fair distance from the high pitched buzzing of the fire alarms. We waited. One man ran outside in his pants but without a shirt. He saw someone across the parking lot he recognized and hollered, “Well, at least I’m not in my underwear!”
Four fire trucks and 20 firefighters arrived. They ran into the building. Rumors ran through the crowd. Someone said, “I just heard a little boy might have pulled the alarm.” Another rumor spread, “Someone said they think it is a wedding party prank.” The first rumor was correct. A six year old boy on the 4th floor had pulled the red handle.
The fire chief gave everyone the OK to reenter the lobby. When I entered I stood next to him. He was about to talk to that little boy. I heard it all. The fireman was calm, and tender. That surprised me. I thought surely he would do his best to scare the boy for his own good. But he didn’t. He just pulled him aside, and pulled up two stools for them to sit and talk eye to eye. He leaned in, “Did you pull the red handle?” The boy nodded, yes. “Do you know what happens when you do that? Do you? It is a serious thing, people could have been hurt.” The chief proceeded to share a bit more about what fire alarms do and how they are in every building and what happens when they are pulled. When the fire fighter seemed to be satisfied with the conversation he asked, “Will you ever pull one of these again?” Thinking the right answer was, “no,” the boy shook his head sideways. Looking in the boy’s eyes, and asking him to look into his, he leaned closer and corrected him softly. He said, “Well, if you ever do see a fire you should pull it, but even better try to find a big person to pull it for you. OK? Thank you, and have a good day.”
The boy did not seem to get what he deserved. He had inconvenienced hundreds of people. The Bible says God is a lot like that. The psalmist says of him, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:8-10).
Many of us do not see God this way because we read the Old Testament superficially, probably, in part, because we do not read the OT very closely or perhaps we read the OT impressionistically, keying on those passages where the Lord threatens judgment. We are left with a bitter taste and the smell of sulfur.
But God most often delays judgment which may be postponed for years or even decades. God has what the Bible calls a “long nose.” Hebrew men’s faces were covered with beards so the easiest way to see if a man was angry was to notice a red-hot nose. God having “a long nose” is just a Hebrew way to say that it takes a long time for the fire of his anger to get out to the tip. Jesus tells us that we should all be just like God in that respect, slow to anger, but quick to show mercy.
Had I heard the fiery speech I expected to hear the fire chief give that child I think I might quickly forget it. Instead, I shall likely always remember that man who, like God, extended mercy and did not treat someone’s son as his sins might have deserved.
Oh, did I mention, the boy is my son? He had been waiting down the 4th floor hallway outside our room as the remaining 5 of us were about to leave the room for breakfast. When we heard the sound of the fire alarm, we looked at each other and as if on que all shouted, “Ethan!”
Well, hundreds of people walked back into the building and crowded into the breakfast room. My family shared a long table with race fans and others who were talking about the big event of the morning. One man said, “You know, I think a little boy who pulls a fire alarm just thinks outside the box.” NASCAR fans across the table agreed. I wanted to blurt out, “Yeah, that’s my boy, he does think outside the box!” Instead, with my son standing next to me, I said, “My daughter, Acacia, when she was 2 pulled a fire alarm and now she is a cadet at West Point.” Our new breakfast group talked openly and tenderly about raising children. Even so I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Would you like to meet the boy who pulled it this morning?” Unlike the fire chief, unlike the NASCAR fans at the table, and I am quite sure unlike God himself that morning, I alone was a little ashamed of my son as I sat there with my short nose.
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
Now that’s something to Celebrate!