TRUE STORY: The girl in the flames — Mark Roberts

Two pictures hang side by side in a museum in Delft, Holland

“The flames are too high, we need to get out of here,” she shrieked as the flames from the bush fire leaped two meters high. The flames seemed to jump and leap, dancing to an unheard rhythmic tune. Like surfers, they were caught in a tunnel while the flames attempted to unite from both sides of the little farm road.

Two young girls in search of their daddy had travelled down the farm road in the midst of a raging bushfire. “We can’t get through, it’s way too hot,” cried Cindy, the oldest of the two sisters. “We’ll have to go home,” said the little girl disheartened. “But what about daddy, ” cried the younger sister in desperation. “There’s nothing we can do” said Cindy with resignation. 

In South Africa, bushfires can be terrible and dangerous events and when a fire breaks out on a neighbour’s farm, all surrounding neighbours jump in to help. The two little girls pedalled furiously through the pending danger, back to the farmhouse, and sat waiting on the porch with their mother and other siblings for further news. The expanse of the farm covered in a thick consuming smoke. It was one of those days that the little children would never forget as their future would forever be changed by the horrid event.

Just an hour earlier, the siblings stood huddled together, clutching each other’s hands with fervour and anxiety as the old farm worker approached them, a look of consternation on his face. “The boss is dead,” he said in the best broken English he could muster. Then started the screaming and wailing of the five children that would last through the years to come and set a path in motion, the reason for which only God Himself could see and understand. The two little girls had grabbed their bikes and headed off to find their daddy, after all, the farmhand wasn’t a doctor. If they could just reach him, then maybe he would wake up.

The little girl on the bicycle was none other than my wife Tracy, who came from a typical farm life. She had been in boarding school from the age of five, just a little girl who couldn’t understand why she couldn’t stay on the farm with her daddy. A little girl who couldn’t understand why she had to hide under the bed during bomb threats during Zimbabwe’s civil war. As I type this story, I am certain that I can hear Tracy crying under the bed, whispering silently: “If only daddy was here”. But daddy couldn’t be there, he was a farmer and it was far too dangerous for the little children on the farm. Now at the age of 11, her daddy was forever removed, never again would they see his smiling face with its handsome dimples. Never again.

Many years later I met this amazing girl when she was just 17 years old. She turned my emotions upside down and for many years Tracy dealt subconsciously with her insecurities around her father’s death. Neither of us were very religious when we met, but Tracy always sat with one question, ‘WHY?’ In her mind lay the ultimate question: “If God is love and God is my daddy, then why would He allow this to happen?” They lost their farm, moved to a small municipal home in another town, and struggled for years to survive. Where was God indeed? 

No matter what she tried, as the years passed, no man could fill the space of the void left by her father. No one could ever answer the question of why it happened. There was always the fear and insecurity of the man in her life missing the mark and not meeting her needs. 

Then came the tragic crash, when on a bright summer day, her world collapsed; when both our lives collapsed. Broken and hurting beyond human comprehension, we clawed our way from the darkness of our broken relationship, trying desperately to find any semblance of light and reason. Then one day, heading out of church, seeking answers to the burning questions of her life, it hit her like a giant thunderclap. She found grace in the face of a man: Jesus Christ. “Marky, for the first time in my life, everything looks different; the colours seem brighter — everything seems clearer to me,” she said with a smile that reminded me of the day that I had fallen in love with her.

The Delft thunderclap happened on the 12th of October 1654. In the little town of Delft, 40 tonnes of dynamite that was stored in a little convent suddenly exploded and destroyed a quarter of the city, killing between 100 and 1 000. To give you an idea, the amount of dynamite was equal to 22 tonnes of TNT. Egbert van den Poel captured a grim view of the devastation in his painting that is today regarded as a masterpiece. The Delft thunderclap is encased in time, frozen for the world to be forever and continuously reminded of that tragic day. Never can it be forgotten.

Egbert van der Poel’s grim painting of Delft after the thunderclap of October 12 1654

It is suspected by some that one of his children died in the explosion, resulting in him being imprisoned by the memory of that day. So much so that he painted approximately 20 versions of this painting. Every one of those paintings bear the precise date of the incident, 12th October 1654.

Tracy similarly had been held captive by the events of that day, the day her daddy died in the fire. Time froze and over the years whenever she looked at moments in her life, it always subconsciously bore the date of her father’s death. Like van den Poel, Tracy could not forget, forgive or erase the date stamp imprinted so earnestly in her mind. That is, until she met the man whose dimples smiled at her as He reached out to her with nail-scarred hands. In His face shone understanding and compassion for her broken heart and from the holes in His hands shone the blinding light of His love. He not only understood and loved, was not only compassionate and caring — He was one with her in her pain and brokenness — He was God and He was her Daddy.

Sometimes the things we experience are so tragic and horrific that like the Delft thunderclap, they burn memories into our minds, and like a crazy movie, it plays over and over until it influences every course of our lives — holding us captive with invisible hands.

Life is about moving forward, realising that we are not alone in this broken world, that we are loved and comforted through these episodes and we, over time, can choose what to hold onto, a beautiful memory — or a living nightmare. It really depends on our view and what part of the “city” of life we choose to face.

Jan Vermeer, one of the greatest artists in history suffered personal loss in the Delft thunderclap. Several years after the blast, the damage and devastation were still evident, yet Vermeer decided to paint Delft from the northern side, resulting in a masterpiece that showed no trace of the tragedy. The same city — from a fresh angle. In his painting, he shows Delft the way you would want it to be like, the kind of city you would want to live in. The painting exudes an enchanted stillness. 

Jan Vermeer’s hopeful view of Delft painted several years after the blast

Meeting her Saviour that day in the church changed her life. What Jesus did was lead Tracy by the hand, from the western side of the city of life where there was devastation, destruction, and brokenness, to the northern side where there was an enchanting stillness. The kind of place any girl dreamed of being. Courting her with nothing but scarred hands and a rugged cross, Tracy fell in love with the God-man who boasted dimples in His cheeks and a smile that drove the shadows of bitter memories from her heart. Tracy was restored to the woman God had intended her to be, more than she could be.

In the Delft town museum hang two paintings side by side. One shows the devastation and destruction, while the other shows the city after it is repaired — in its new splendour and beauty. One day Tracy and I will visit that museum and we will face those paintings. I am certain that for a very brief moment Tracy will look at the painting that portrays the destruction of Delft and she will smile as she looks at the city in its glory and splendour and says: “I get the feeling that these paintings are about me.”

My friends, you can choose from which side you would like to view the “city” of your life. You can choose where you’d prefer to stand and what you’d prefer to see, but if you are stuck and captured on the wrong side of town, why not allow the author of life to paint the picture of your city from the right angle. It makes such a difference and all it takes is a simple choice. Oh yes, the words “Oh Daddy”, cried from a broken heart can lead Him to paint the most awesome views of life on the canvas of a little girl like Tracy’s heart. 

For a moment I can see little Tracy on her bicycle, pedalling furiously along that road. She is laughing and acting a little silly, as little girls sometimes do. At the end of the road Jesus is smiling — dimples in His cheeks and as He reaches His scarred hand toward her she takes His hands and stares at them. “What happened to your hands!” exclaims the little girl, “there are holes in Your hands and they look burnt”. She stares in silence with concern written on her face and asks: “Did it hurt?” With a beaming and sincere smile, He considers the little girl’s question. “Not as much as it would have hurt me if you were burned in that fire. I just had to keep the flames of life away from you.”

6 Comments

  1. So very true in my life too! Thank goodness we have a scarred handed daddy to carry our burdens to. I live in complete awe of Him! Thanks Mark for reminding us of these most valuable moments and angles of life!

  2. I love reading Mark’s stories. They remind me that there is always Hope!

  3. Such an incredible and encouraging story. We sometimes forget to look at the brighter side and this is such a inspiration to start looking at the brighter side that God gives us. Thanks Uncle Mark for another heart warming article.

    • Your stories are always so inspiring Mark. May we all take from them what we should and move forward knowing we serve an awesome God who is always there for us. He never fails us. Blessings to you and your beautiful family.

  4. Thanks again for sharing such a personal and beautiful story pops. Sometimes we forget of the beautiful “side of town”… And it’s so good to be reminded that it is there…

  5. Thanks my brother for this amazing story l was so wanting to ask my little sisters and one lost brother all about that very sad day. This has brought many tears to my eyes and has answered my questions about that day
    Love
    Rita