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 Hidden Debate: Privacy and the End of Life

by Matthew Raley

For the second time this year, California legislators aretrying to legalize assisted suicide. After the bill failed in June, Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) reintroduced it in a special session devoted to healthcare financing.

The bill was originally framed as a response to the suicide of Brittany Maynard, who moved to Oregon after her terminal cancer diagnosis because assisted suicide is illegal in California. An individual, supporters say, has the right to determine when his or her life ends as a purely private matter.

A debate is hidden behind this issue. What is privacy? Is there really a zone where your actions affect no one but yourself, and where no one has a right to “interfere?”

Advocates for the elderly and the disabled argue that assisted suicide is not a private matter. Legalizing it would create an incentive to promote suicide for the weakest patients, whose care is most expensive. They point to the sinister track record of Belgium, where the law first recognized a suicide right for adults under narrow circumstances, but now allows doctors to euthanize children. Not assist in their suicide. Euthanize. With their “consent,” of course.

What starts as an adult’s right to make “private” decisions morphs into something horrific.

The reason is that this supposed zone of privacy doesn’t exist. First, if I take my own life, I am not the only person affected. Suicide affects families, friends, colleagues, entire communities.

Second, this fraudulent privacy merely creates a space around the end of life in which probing questions are silenced. The elderly patient “requested” suicide. Done. Prescribe the pills. We will not question the role of a financially interested adult son, or a callous social worker, or an activist nurse pushing an agenda. We won’t consider those factors even though we know that medical decisions involve many participants, that patients can and do get manipulated, and that healthcare financing plays an increasingly powerful role in care.

Draw the curtain of “privacy” over that discussion, and you have euthanasia in Belgium. The same curtain hides families and boyfriends who bully pregnant women into having abortions. Until recently, it shielded Planned Parenthood’s sale of body parts.

Eggman’s bill will likely stall again. Resistance to fake privacy in California signals that we may still have the courage to defy the culture of death.

Art and Devastation: A Tour of German Post-War Expressionism #2

Lovis Corinth, Death and the Artist, 1921. Etching and drypoint. MoMA.

In post-war Germany, death became a dominant theme in the art world. Corinth was near the end of his prolific life when he made this etching for the portfolio, Dance of Death. Academically trained in Munich and Paris, he made over 1200 prints, in addition to paintings that interacted with both Impressionism and Expressionism. This self-portrait comes after a stroke had paralyzed his left hand, leaving his right hand with tremors. Corinth is dressed formally in winged collar and tie, his eye fixed on the viewer, and his watch prominent on his left wrist. The hatching in his face and jacket points toward the skull beyond his right shoulder. Ever the shape of Corinth’s head seems distorted, as if it’s being sucked toward death.

Art could warn of impending death. Art could dramatize death. It just couldn’t stop it.