(Note: Nearly eight months have passed since our home burned. Now, just a couple of weeks away from moving into our new home, I’ve been thinking back to the night of the fire and the thoughts that swirled around in my head the night I stood in the yard on a cold night and watched it burn. The post below is adapted from my Signs of a Struggle post that ran in December 2010, a few days after the fire.)
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. — 11 Cor. 5:1
I have at times in the past skated on very thin ice, life-speaking. I have also been tested by fire and occasionally found lacking. I have been cold and I have been warm and I have been luke . . . as in lukewarm, somewhere in the sad and unsatisfying middle. But this past year, as Christmas closed in, I was at peace, almost overwhelmed by the incredible undeniable truth that wherever and whenever, I am never alone. And never will be.
On a peaceful Saturday night, one week before Christmas, around 10:30 p.m., our house went up in flames. Five hours later, with smoke still rising from the ashes of a few glowing spots set against the dark horizon, we viewed from our rear-view mirror — as we drove down our street — the grey piles of decades of memories being sifted by the night’s cold wind . . . and we took them with us. Memories.
The charred rafters poked into the night toward the stars like ribs from a skeleton, having surrendered the contents of an attic filled with the scrapbooks and collected “stuff,” of college, courtship, marriage, the raising of five children, all the good things sifted and saved from the ups-and-downs of life lived together . . . in a house that is no more. Star Wars toys and baby dolls, baseball cards and baby books, all the “mines” that became one big “ours.” The first-owners of the precious things grew up and moved on to other precious things, leaving behind little monuments to the pieces of days that form a history of a family, not completely-told. We have a tendency to bar from the attic the times of heartache and let them dwell more personally in our minds. Attics, while always portrayed as foreboding and frightening, are usually filled with the better things of life, the fragments we hold on to for the peace they bring us when we picture them there or dig through to hold them briefly once again.
In the unrelenting and indiscriminating fire, colorful plastics and bright fabrics become grey; photos curl and blacken and turn to dust. Oft-used and carefully-preserved baby furniture turns crisp and crumbles into a wind-sifted mix with everyday un-notables like ironing boards and end-tables. And finally, the “things” of life are matted into the melted carpet by gallons and gallons of water until the precious mixes with the priceless and the pointless to make a porridge, a gooey, sticky paste upon the floor.
Forever in the rear-view mirror, no matter how many circles we make to try to come in around before the fire.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I miss the stuff, but I miss greater things. We lost a lot, but we have endured greater loss before. I would like some of the stuff back into my life, but not as much as I want something else — someone else — back. Make that plural. People away long before the fire.
I guess I fear that a new attic on a new house may remain too empty.
Three days passed and the house did not rise, proving once again that if we worship stuff, we ourselves may someday just be more of the mix of grey. No, the house did not rise . . . but the sun did, right there where it always does, just to the east of the piece of land on which the house stood.
What good is a fire — or any seemingly-destructive moment in our lives — if we don’t try to see in it how God is able? Able to take those ashes that look like “the end” to us and work His endless beginnings again? What good is searing heat without eye-opening light? What good is a look into the rear-view mirror if it is not to safely change lanes and proceed? What good is it to lose all that old stuff if we forget that He is always making all things new?
At night, when there is nothing more to do, I think through the why and come up with . . . whatever? Mental flexing won’t re-mix mortar and re-frame walls that aren’t there anymore no more than it will take down walls still there that you wish were not. But still, you can’t help but wonder and though God is the God of all Wonders, the devil of doubt likes to use them too.
Such as . . .
— Maybe this is somehow my fault? Not, fault as in, did I leave a burner on (I didn’t), or put something too close to a heater (nope) or . . . whatever . . . nada. In fact, I was simply watching a less-than-a-barn-burner basketball game on TV and smelled something burning. That simple. The “fault” questions plague the mind at midnight because, no matter how fully aware we are of forgiveness, we sometimes think we deserve every bad thing that happens to us, as if God sits with a scorecard and realizes all of a sudden we need a holy zap. I’m not talking about the natural consequences that arise from our sins, but just the general late-night idea that, because we failed and turned away in the past, we are doomed to encounter all kinds of dreadful things in the future, as if, somehow past bad judgment and temptation-succumbing should just naturally lead to a house-fire. “I deserve this.” Nope. I deserved lots of things that were specifically-connected to my sins, but the towering inferno is not one of those things. God doesn’t work that way. Our lives may seemingly go up in smoke because of sexual sin, but our house is not predestined to flash into flames. Bad things and good things happen to good people and bad. They just do. There’s no reason to fan the flames.The devil likes to fill our minds with doleful tales of doubts about what we’ve done and who we are and what we’ve brought upon ourselves to bring us down to the putrid depths of the distant dark in which he dwells. No doubt about it; the devil hates us. God works to restore us, reserving mansions because He loves us.
— Maybe God will work a miracle. Maybe. Maybe not. Miracle-musing at midnightfades in the brightness of the realistic dawn. God can do anything. He could use this tragedy to fulfill a wish list or answer a prayer. He could. These moments work in movies and books to round out the tragedy of the plot and bring everyone home in a group-hug moment of awakening, forgiveness and a furious re-building of relationships. The important thing in real life for the Christian — no matter how terribly checkered or how nearly flawless the life lived so far — is to trust and obey. Expectations built on that foundation are always met. “Trust and Obey” are not lyrics or simple inspiring words, they are God’s Word, strong and mighty. He just naturally likes us to do what He knows is best for us.
— Maybe I’m just cursed. If so, a quick read of the morning paper puts me in good company. If all the afflicted are cursed, the crowd is approaching a point beyond control. The pain some people bear these days before Christmas makes my “stuff,” seem less than minimal and my focus on it purely dismal and dumb. In a world full pf people who pant thirstily for peace, chaos too often reigns.
Maybe . . . maybe I should just drop all the maybes altogether and celebrate the blessings I have because they are too many to count.
No maybe about this: I have a wonderful wife — Lisa — who truly does see beauty rising from ashes and is patient enough to wait for others to clue in to the view.
No maybe about this: I have friends. I have neighbors. I have family. Good and loving people, whether they’re in Norman, Oklahoma or Faridpur, Bangladesh, Cincinnati or Columbia, Seattle or OKC, Texas or Tennessee, Alaska or Australia. God’s house is really big, and it stands. And encourages. And helps. And loves.
Which leads me back to the blessings. And peace. For some reason, I have a feeling this past Christmas will rank a bit higher in my memory even than the year I got the hamster . . . and, at that time of life, I could not see how that could ever be topped.
Thank you for your prayers. You helped me see that God was with me, not in the attic. He was not framed in by the flaming walls. He does not drift away on clouds of smoke into the night and His brightness does not fade no matter how blazing the rising or setting of the sun, just one of His many handiworks.
God has a way of taking away doubts and maybes and replacing them with truths.
Sometimes you have to be taken back down to the foundation so everything can become new. Refurnished, fresh, the old removed, the walls strong, the clutter turned to ashes.
Sometimes I just feel like a house.
God Bless. Enjoy the summer; Christmas is coming again.
(Note: Please visit my author page on Amazon.com. My books are available there, including Surviving Sexual Brokenness: What Grace Can Do . . . Pro-Gay Culture: The Mouse that Keeps on Roaring . . . Sex and the Church: Less than Amazing Grace . . . Those Not-So-Still Small Voices . . . and Why was my Voice so Small?