What I Learned from Final Phone Calls

 Photo by  Joanne Francis  on  Unsplash

In a few minutes on the morning of November 8th, a black arch reached from the Sierra Nevada ridge into the Sacramento Valley over Chico. One minute it was a sunny morning, the next it was dark and cold. It was the fire Paradise, CA had been fearing.

Ten households from Living Hope Fellowship lived on the ridge until that morning. Now they were on the roads fleeing for their lives. My job as pastor was to make sure we knew where our families were.

I hit the phone, texting and calling. Here’s what I learned from those conversations.

  1. God gave us family and community to save our lives.

Paradise was full of people who lived alone, often but not always the elderly. With her husband driving down the road, flames behind them, Sheryl told me that their elderly neighbor had been standing helpless outside. She had never used her cell phone, and never drove. Her car wouldn’t start. With propane tanks exploding around them, they gave the woman a quick phone tutorial, got her car started, and fled together.

My associate pastor Heath was only blocks away from Sheryl. Heath had pounded on doors and windows to awaken his neighbors, and with me on the phone was bellowing at his neighbor to leave. She wouldn’t. Heath’s baby was in his car, and his wife had already fled with their two other children. My baby can’t help himself, but my neighbor can. We hung up, Heath got in his car, and drove off.

Dave drove a school bus. His wife Irene, at work in Chico, kept me posted as he loaded elderly people onto the bus, and then physically carried them off when they had to abandon it. They crowded into other cars nearby, and he rode on a guy’s tailgate all the way to Chico. Hayley and I were texting as she drove four patients stop-and-go through the flames. She called when they got to Chico, her account of their escape interspersed with reassurances to the four older people, scared and perplexed in dementia.

It is not good for us to live alone.

2. God gives us strength when we face death.

On the phone with Beth, she described flames towering over the road. The road was jammed, traffic at a standstill. It was dark as midnight. Beth had seen a 90-year-old lady plodding through the flames with her walker, and the lady was now in her car. Beth’s voice was profoundly frightened, but she was calm, even joking about forgetting to grab her toothbrush. I prayed with her, then called Louise, her roommate one car ahead.

One of our young mothers was driving with her children. Her voice shook as she described how flames had leaped over their car. Her husband was ahead of them, and they had already doubled back after their first route was consumed by fire. Inching toward the main road, she had to hang up because her husband was calling. Authorities would tell them to abandon their cars and run, then to get back in their cars and drive. An hour later, the mother mistakenly called me, unaware that I was on the line. She was talking with her children calmly about their home as they inched through the flames, the wind howling outside the car.

All these told me later that prayer with them in the middle of the crisis was crucial to remaining calm.

3. When there is no hope, God gives us his presence.

At 11:47 AM, my brother texted me that Lou was at the church office. Lou had gone to Chico early in the morning, and his wife Rita was stuck in Paradise without a car. When I arrived at the church, Lou’s grandson had returned from trying to get to her. Authorities turned him back.

Then Rita called the church, her cell phone battery nearly dead. The flames were three houses away. Lou told her to get into the shower, turn the water on, and stay there. He told her he loved her. The battery gave out.

After Lou called 911 to report her situation, several of us gathered around him to pray. When we were finished, Lou told us that he felt the Lord’s presence and peace in a way that he had not before. Weeping, he started to call their adult kids.

At 5:55 PM, my brother texted me again. Rita was safe and reunited with Lou in Chico. While in the shower, she had seen sunlight through the bathroom window. She changed into dry clothes and left the house. Two minutes after she started down the street, the windows blew out. Someone had then picked her up and taken her to the authorities. She told Lou that the Lord had been present with her through the whole ordeal.

With this news, we knew that all of our households had escaped Paradise with their lives. Praise God, none of these phone calls were in fact final.

4. When we face death, there is only time for what we know. There is no time for opinion, speculation, or positive thinking. We either know the one who triumphed over death or we don’t.

The Conflicted 500th Year

October will mark the fifth century since Martin Luther started a debate about the pope’s authority. Luther split Europe by questioning Rome’s power over a person’s spiritual life, control of information, and misuse of money. Limiting Rome’s authority helped remove the institution from the relationship between the individual and Jesus Christ.

Yet as I observe this anniversary, several ironies intrude.

American evangelicals often miss how similar our current situation is to Rome’s then. Like Rome, evangelicals have well-funded lobbyists with political agendas. We also have hucksters like Rome’s, but instead of selling early release from purgatory ours sell prayer-cloths, “healings,” and positive thinking.

The most striking parallel between Luther’s day and ours is skepticism. Rome, marinated in privilege, had lost credibility with the average European, and assumed that the loss didn’t matter. But the skepticism of commoners was powerful.

Today the average American rejects evangelicals’ consumeristic attempts to make spiritual life easy, and their obsession with creating a parallel pop culture where they won’t be offended. Many think evangelicals’ public smile is hiding greed and bigotry. Fair or unfair, this is the skepticism evangelicals face.

The loss of credibility is stark. Too many people have gone forward to “get saved” at mass meetings — only to be abandoned when the hard spiritual work started. Too many have trusted “faith healers” to restore their health, authoritarians to shape their conscience, or politicians to save their culture. And too many, when the gimmicks fail, have been told that it was their own fault.

500 years after Luther, we need another reformation. There are questions we can’t duck. Should pastors “prophesy” that Donald Trump is God’s choice? Are 20-minute TED talk imitations on Sundays really opening the Bible — or obscuring it? Is it right to sell “training” on how to control the Holy Spirit? With practices like these, institutional pragmatism has overwhelmed biblical principle.

Many pastors in our region are grieved by our decline from the Reformation. We are determined to recover that heritage. We are willing to debate these questions candidly. Our goal should be to reset the Bible’s boundaries around the institutional interests of churches, and return to the core of evangelical teaching: the direct relationship between the individual and Christ.

The Churched and the Dechurched

The Barna Group reports that the Chico-Redding area is the 11th most “dechurched” region in the nation. Dechurched people used to attend church but have not in the last six months. In crucial ways, dechurched people are right.

In our region, about 41% of people have dropped out of church. 2 out of 5. Our churches not only fail to gain the “unchurched.” (We’re the seventh most unchurched region nationally.) We alienate our own attenders.

I spend a lot of time with people who stopped attending church, but decide to try again. Here’s what they say to me:

  1. Churches should go deep. Quit with the banners, cliches, and Christianish activities. There’s more to God than sentimentality and cheerleading. Talk to me about things that matter.
  2. Churches should be above politics. Christians can’t keep disrespecting each other when they have different views. If the church doesn’t believe in a power above politics, there’s no point in going. (I hear this from Iraq veterans shunned by progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters shunned by conservatives.)
  3. Churches should be safe. In the shallow, self-absorbed social worlds of churches, backbiting is incessant. Favoritism toward the rich and good-looking is rampant. If you are not secure in a clique, you are ignored. Why should I have to conform to someone’s Instagram fantasy in order to be accepted?

People may have poor reasons for dropping out of church. But these are the three convictions that I hear most from the dechurched who are trying again. And they are right.

Solving these problems will require a change of heart from everyone.

If church-goers continue to see themselves as consumers of programs, then even more people will conclude that churches lack integrity. If, by contrast, the followers of Christ see themselves as citizens of a new Kingdom, they will see different results. They will yearn for more depth in their knowledge of God. Because of that depth, their eyes will lift to the power beyond politics. In the fear of God, they will begin to love one another more than themselves.

This change is not only possible. I see it happening quietly. The alienation of church-goers can stop. But we urgently need to recognize that this problem cannot be solved by marketing, only by integrity.