Speeches from the Land

In July of 1987, an old English lady drove me around the Oxford countryside. While we curved through the greenest hills I’d ever seen, she told me stories about the region, spinning the elegant sentences that come from a lifetime of hearing Shakespeare. I was 16 and serving on a team at her thriving church in Didcot. She slowed between hedgerows and bumped across a stone bridge over a creek, interrupting her story to say, “That was the Thames.”

She enjoyed my shocked expression. She knew that the Thames in my mind was the mighty river flowing by Parliament in London, not the brook we’d just crossed.

Landscape talks to us—sometimes even making jokes.

I asked her about World War II, when she had been a child in this valley. Though London was more than fifty miles away, she said that the German bombs pounding the city at night rattled the window panes of her bedroom. Imagine falling asleep to the vibrations of bombs. Her own home would have spoken about violence ever after with each rattle of glass.

The English landscape has reminders of the war everywhere. I stood in the ruin of Coventry Cathedral later that summer, preserved in its shattered state as a memorial to the German air raids. Tall shards of stone with grass growing in their midst are all that remain of a house of worship. It is a new holy place, where a crowd of people will not make any noise. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX, where John Kennedy was shot, is another place shrouded in silence, even though life goes on around it.

Paradise, CA, devastated by the Camp Fire on November 8th, is often compared to a war zone. When my wife and I finally drove through it a month ago, the abandoned, burned out cars had been removed, the power lines repaired, and litter from the flight of 20,000 people replaced with signs saying, “Paradise Strong.” But the impact remained searing.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by  Cal OES -NC 2.0.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by Cal OES-NC 2.0.

The buildings were carved open, their insides lying in tangled heaps. Metal pipes, awnings, and gutters were twisted like broken limbs. Surprising views across the hills had been blasted through walls and trees. Those trees had created the town’s feeling of shelter as if covering the inhabitants with hands, but the place now feels exposed. Off the streets where our friends had been trapped amid flames by traffic, there were neat rows of flattened mobile homes, looking like beds in a ward.

The very dirt speaks as it rides away from town in hundreds of trucks every day. Six inches of topsoil will be scraped off the ridge because it is contaminated by burned pollutants. There are deeper problems too. The entire town was on septic systems. I recently heard about a septic tank made of plastic that melted underground, its toxic contents seeping out. The business that owns it still stands, and might be open if it weren’t for the contamination. There are questions about reservoirs and aquifers. What do they say about this fire?

The land of America’s west has always talked about possibilities. It has never been like the land in Europe, or even the eastern U.S., which holds ruins and battlefields and graves to tell us about tragedies that overwhelmed human achievements. In our part of California, the land is teaching us a moral reality that is older than climate change, and more pertinent. All that we attain in this world is temporary.

But there is another message from the land. Grass appeared when much-needed rain came after the fire—in doses somewhat too large. Driving south only weeks after the hills were charred, I was amazed to see them green. In Paradise itself, the grass covers the burn scar, as if holding a balm on the soil, the pipes, and the blackened bricks. Life grows inside the ruin, and overflows beyond it.

The land will preach to us for many years that the world is fallen, groaning with expectation for a permanent life. And so the land will also preach hope.

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.