Where I live in Northern California fall brings warm weather and sunny days. The summertime fog disappears for a few months and we can finally shed our sweaters and jackets. It’s a perfect time for picnics and walks. Sadly, it’s also fire season. This week I watched in horror as fire consumed many homes and businesses in the Wine Country, about an hour away from me. Friends and relatives had to evacuate their homes. Many are still waiting for news about whether their homes survived. The fires still are not contained. I find myself in continual prayer for them.
Even though fire seems to be a constant threat in our area, it’s hard to believe that this level of destruction happened so quickly. It makes me realize that all of life is so fleeting, so impermanent. I look around my house at all my possessions, gathered over a lifetime–some passed down from my parents and grandparents–and I know that it could happen to me too. It could all disappear in a moment. This fire happened so fast that many people had no time to grab their belongings. They had to run for their lives.
I wonder in the wake of this tragedy: Do I have a right relationship with material things? Am I, like the rich young ruler, too attached to my possessions? How much time do I spend maintaining my house and my car versus investing in people or cultivating time with God? I’m especially aware of these questions as the Christmas season approaches. How do I balance the emphasis on material things with spiritual matters? I believe God wants us to wrestle with these questions. Sometimes these questions can be uncomfortable.
Another response to the fire that is a bit easier is to give thanks for the ways that God sustains life. I find hope in some of the amazing displays of nature around me that have survived for millennia. Just a couple of weeks ago my husband and I joined some friends to hike in a cool Redwood grove in the Oakland hills. Unbelievably, these trees have stood for hundreds of years, through changing seasons, the development of nearby cities, and even the fire that destroyed much of Oakland in 1991. The trees are majestic, as they grow to tremendous heights to reach the light. Some people compare these groves to a church cathedral and the connection is easy to see. The trees are like spires and the forest below is quiet and dark. I have the impression that if someone dropped something on the soft forest floor it wouldn’t make a sound.
I found myself in awe of that forest, of the improbability of such fierce survival and beauty. I wasn’t just impressed by the trees. It was also in the smallest forest dwellers. At one point we came to an area filled with thousands, maybe millions of ladybugs. They were piled on each other in large clumps along a fence rail and several trees. They migrate here every year between October and April. The cool forest provides the perfect place for them to eat aphids and conserve energy during the winter. I know that image of those teeming ladybugs will stay with me in those moments when I doubt God’s provision.
I know too that if I believe in a God who cares for ladybugs I must believe all the more in a God who cares for people. I pray that even in this horrible fire, those who lost so much will find a God who cares about them and will help them rebuild their lives.
As I look out my window today, heavy smoke obscures my view of the nearby hills. Even though I live an hour away from the fire, the smoke and smell of ash penetrate the air. Am I called to do more than meditate and pray? What actions am I being called to on a daily level? Who will come across my path today that needs love and compassion? My heart feels more open. It may not be a fire victim, but maybe my friend whose daughter has cancer or the lonely woman at church. Or maybe I am supposed to respond directly. I was touched that a friend of mine who lives two hours away in Sacramento offered up her house as shelter for those who had lost their homes. Even though she lives so far away she wanted to help.
We live in precarious times full of much tragedy, both natural and human. Yet we also are witnesses to great love in the midst of tragedy. This is a great paradox that gives me hope. Given the state of our world, the pace of tragedy won’t ease up anytime soon. Yet God’s sustaining care is ever evident. The ability He gives us to help one another through a crisis is remarkable. Last week, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, I was amazed to hear of the lines of people circling the block to give blood.
I think again about the ladybugs. To survive the winter, they mass together in big clumps. This provides protection and warmth. We are not so different. We were created to be in community and dependent on one another. Sometimes we live like we don’t need each other or God. We can for a short time—but these disasters show us we need each other.
God have mercy on those who lost loved ones and homes to fire.
I mourn for the destruction of precious people and possessions.
May you restore and rebuild what was lost.
May you protect the vulnerable.
May you stir our hearts to love our neighbors, close and far.
May you keep our hearts focused on what is important in your eyes.
Thank you for your steadfast love and provision through the ages.
Thank you for giving us community in hard times.