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After the fires

My father-in-law outside the remains of his home. (Mary Jackson)


After the fires

Singing songs of praise amid raw reality

SANTA ROSA, Calif.—As newly married and newly saved hippies, my in-laws once lost their few possessions in a flood that submerged the tree house they built and lived in on an Oregon communal property. They have mostly laughed about this, only wishing sometimes they had retrieved more than one washed-out wedding photo.

But two weeks ago, early Monday morning, a fire consumed more than four decades of my in-laws’ possessions. Their house, built with their own hands, was one of nearly 7,700 homes and buildings that burned in Northern California’s unprecedented wildfires. Like many others, they had minutes to grab important documents and photo albums. They drove to our house as a towering blaze jumped Highway 101 and swept through their Coffey Park neighborhood.

A day later, my mother-in-law spent the afternoon searching through rubble. She returned weary but eager to show me one find: her mother’s porcelain Christmas ornaments, faded and still dusted in ash.

Mary Jackson

The damaged Christmas ornaments. (Mary Jackson)

This struck me as a picture of grace. At Christmas most of us decorate trees. As Christians, we do this not randomly but in celebration of God’s merciful plan for redemption—a Son come to earth to die for sinners, the just for the unjust, making good the destruction sin has wrought. Yet, how often do I sing “Amazing Grace” without amazement, blinded by earthly comforts and my perceived self-sufficiency. This is why author Iain Murray calls trials, afflictions, and illnesses “medicinal,” for that is often what it takes to lead us to God.

For most in Sonoma and Napa counties, that fiery October week meant multiple evacuations and close calls as the blazes neared many of our homes and neighborhoods, scorching some and sparing others. At one point, our family went to the ocean, the direction that seemed safe. I watched my in-laws walk along the smoky beach as my 2-year-old sought to keep up. I thought of the psalmist’s view of trials: “Before I was afflicted, I went astray,” “In my distress, I called upon the Lord,” and “It was good for me that I was afflicted.” Even as I felt my own uncertainty and the weight of loss, a song of praise came to my lips.

For now, we and our kids will miss the stories by my in-laws’ wood stove, canning fruit in their kitchen, science and art projects at their table—also the setting for Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving dinner spreads. My daughter will miss dancing in my mother-in-law’s garage, converted into a ballet studio that served many young dancers. They do plan to rebuild.

In flood and now in fire, though, my in-laws point to God’s merciful goodness and the promise of eternal blessings. The fire consumed a temporal “earthly dwelling,” but as the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Indeed, we have this legacy from my in-laws and as believers. It is worth much more than material possessions.

In the weeks after the fires, we drove down familiar Santa Rosa roads, now cryptic and strangely unfamiliar, with piles of debris where homes once stood. The fires consumed my son’s Catholic school, many friends’ houses, and parks, stores, businesses, and restaurants we frequented. Many of the golden hills we usually admire are now charred.

Jeff Chiu/AP

An aerial view of Santa Rosa. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Soon these black landscapes will sprout anew, and burnt rubble will be bulldozed away—another picture of grace. For now, they still confront us with raw reality. In our home, this has sparked conversations, like how this experience has revealed our complacency. It is easy to sing hymns but hard to see our great need, our wretched hearts.

In our area, the earth groaned, and fires consumed many of our comforts. Last Sunday my father-in-law stood before our small congregation, still wearing the same pants and shoes he wore the morning of the fire and sifting through his house’s ashen remains. I couldn’t help but think the flood prepared them for fire. Another psalm came to mind: “We went through fire and through water; yet you brought us out into a place of abundance.”


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  • VT
    Posted: Mon, 11/13/2017 05:28 pm

    Very nice article. My prayers and thoughts are with those who have lost their possessions or family members. It is interesting that when tragedy strikes, Psalms, and the words of the Lord come to mind, hymns pass through people's lips. And how current events often repeat what the Bible either says will happen, or has happened. Thank you for this article.