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Four Guns, A Fire, and a Mudslide

January 19, 2018 by Scott Lisea

 

Recently, my wife, Jamie, was clearing unwanted clothing from her side of our closet and she uncovered four guns. Yes, guns. No, Jamie is not a hunter, nor is she a gun enthusiast. No NRA stickers on her Toyota. Jamie is the mother of three boys, and over the years if she didn’t like how the guys were playing with their BB, pellet, or airsoft guns, or if she found them lying about, she confiscated them and hid them in her closet. Over time the boys forgot about these guns, and then, this month they were rediscovered, to the delight and humorous response of the guys (now 19, 22, and 24), and to the chagrin of their mother. (By the way, the airsoft shotgun was mine. What the heck?!)

Even though Jamie tolerates the guns (because the boys and I still like shooting them together), she has never been “into them,” because she has wanted to protect her sons from danger. That’s an understandable sentiment from a mother—and she’s a great mom. 

Protection

That’s what great parents do:  we try to protect our children. The sad reality of the broken world we live in is that there are real dangers from which to protect our children. Real accidents. Real enemies. Real disasters. Real terror. Our children need our protection. Perhaps our greatest fear is that we will not be able to protect them.

Preparation

Parents’ other role is to prepare our children. We prepare them to leave the nest and fly on their own (and then we cry when they leave). We prepare them to become self-sufficient. We teach them how to brush their teeth and then hope they will when they are on their own. We work hard to prepare them for whatever they will face. 

Pain

I once asked an elderly friend what advice he would give someone in his or her forties. His responded: “Prepare yourself for loss.” This life holds real loss, and part of what we prepare our children for is the disappointments life will inevitably deliver. Loss is not optional. It will happen.

Access to worldwide news makes us aware of daily tragedies around the globe. This year in our own country we have seen footage of mass shootings and disastrous hurricanes, fires, and floods. My community has just endured tragic loss from the largest wildfire in California history followed by a 200-year rainstorm that hit that fire-charred land, causing unprecedented mudslides and debris flows. At least 20 people have lost their lives and hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged. The thing that is just now coming to light is that the water and mud did not just soil the town, they reshaped the very landscape as the mountains fell into the sea. 

The stories of loss are horrific. Some of the most painful are those of the children who either lost their lives or lost their parents. We were unable to protect them from the searing pain this world can deliver. The stark reality of this disappointment tortures us. No one can explain why this happened like it happened. Why does a 200-year storm drop its intense load of rain exactly on the most vulnerable spot of charred earth in the one part of the state still in a drought? Why did one family member survive while another was taken? Answers, even if they existed, would bring no comfort, nor would they raise those lost.

We want to protect our children. We make them wear helmets and seat belts. Perhaps our greatest contribution is on the other side of the equation—on preparing them to live in a world with a certain faith that has to accept mystery and acknowledge disappointment, and developing a worldview that leads with love even in a world that will break their hearts.

Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.” In his parable about the firm foundation in Matthew 7, he promises that the rain and wind will come. The waters will rise. The storms are inevitable. The difference is His presence.

Promises

Jesus promises, over and over, that he will be with us in every situation. 

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

    Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

    and the light about me be night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

    the night is bright as the day,

    for darkness is as light with you.

Psalm 139:8-12

What is Psalm 23 but a declaration that in the “valley of the shadow of death” the Lord is with us. He does not remove us from catastrophes nor make us immune to pain. He promises us his availability, presence, and love in the midst of the storm. 

Psalm 62 reminds us that God is our refuge. When a storm came up while Jamie and I were hiking in England, we ran to a church called Bolton Abbey, pulled back the huge wooden doors, and found refuge. Outside, the storm raged. Inside, we found quiet, candles, incense, and calm. 

Jesus is our refuge. He said:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” —Matthew 11:28–30

“No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. . . . Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous….” —Joshua 1:5-6

I think the way we prepare ourselves and our children is to make room in our hearts for the God who is bigger than any circumstance—whether good or bad. Teresa of Avila says this, “Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing. He who has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.” Her words do not discourage experiencing human emotion, but rather are a call up and beyond to a greater finality. This world with all of its troubles is not the end of the story. Sometimes that is our only lifeline of hope. How is it that “God alone” can suffice? Because he promises his presence with us in all circumstances. He won’t take a day off that assignment. No condition, no failure, no tragedy can move God off his post. 

God is with us. He is Emmanuel. Christ in us. The hope of glory.

Purpose

In times of tragedy and sadness we often race to wrap up the experience with a tidy bow and reach to identify the meaning or purpose behind suffering. In wisdom, we learn only that God wastes nothing—which is not to say that all suffering is his will. It’s not so tidy as that. So we must prepare our children to love, worship, and trust a bigger God, who does not promise us explanations, but who does pledge himself and his presence.

Meaning flows out of suffering as a byproduct, but not obviously, and not directly. Chaim Potok writes in his novel My Name Is Asher Lev about young Asher and his father returning one Sabbath day from the synagogue and seeing a bird lying on its side against the curb near their house. The young boy is full of questions:

“Is it dead, Papa?” I asked. I was sick at heart and could not bring myself to look at it. 

“Yes,” I heard him say in a sad and distant way. 

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die.”

“Everything?”

“Yes.”

“You, too, Papa? And Mama?”

“Yes.”

“And me?”

“Yes,” he said. Then he added in Yiddish: “But may it be only after you live a long and good life, my Asher.”

I couldn’t grasp it. I forced myself to look at the bird. Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

“Why?” I asked.

“That’s the way the Ribonno Shel Olom made His world, Asher.”

“Why?”

“So life would be precious, Asher. Something that is yours forever is never precious.”

Asher’s papa demonstrates good parenting. He could have coyly lied that the bird was asleep. He did not. He is preparing Asher for life and for loss. He does not attempt to provide a pat answer for why death occurs. He describes a byproduct—the preciousness of life— for those who choose to look up and beyond the pain with gratitude and a sense of God’s presence. 

Pangs of grief

When the community of Montecito went to sleep the other night, those neighbors did so fully intending to wake the next day and to live their normal lives. In a moment 20 of them were gone, and those of us left behind are left to wonder, grieve, and cherish those we love, and hold them a little bit tighter.

For those who are left behind in grief, loss, and disappointment, there are a few simple practices to help us work through the grief. (Doug Ranck gets the credit for these helpful thoughts.)

  1. Recognize the ways that you have experienced loss. It’s important to allow this awareness. Consider its effect on you: sadness, impatience, loss of appetite, anger, guilt, etc. I dropped my keys the other day and cursed eight times before I knew what happened. I’m angry.
  2. Identify ways the impact of this trauma is being experienced by those around you—your family, co-workers, etc. Recognize that everyone, including yourself, requires more grace and patience right now. Instead of calling out one another’s shortcomings and outbursts right now, it might be better to respond with hugs and reassurances.
  3. Tell your story. Our healing begins as we share our stories. “Where were you when you heard?” “What did you see?” 
  4. Understand “the body keeps score.” A lack of response to trauma will have consequences for the body physically, mentally, socially, or emotionally at some time in the future. Count on it. Being strong in a crisis does not mean ignoring the trauma and its toll. This is an important time to take care of our bodies. Rest. Eat well. Exercise. Get the serotonin flowing.
  5. Seek community. Many of us tend to be like dogs who get hit by a car. We run under the deck to suffer alone. What better time to be with people you love than after a disaster or tragedy. For those in the church, the loving family of God provides a convenient and helpful place to just be with others. Listening to stories, giving a hug, and being ready to help is vital to traveling this road together.

As much as we endeavor to protect ourselves and our children, we cannot ultimately protect those we love from loss. And yet, God protects us, though it does not always look like it on this side of the veil. When my friend’s daughter died after a protracted illness, I cried out to God, accusing him of not keeping his word. In faith, I sensed the Lord gently answer, “I did heal her. She is whole in my presence.”

We work hard to prepare our children to thrive. Part of that means preparing them to learn who to turn to in a storm. 

“I lift my eyes up. Up to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made the heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2.

I cling to these words from a song by Matt Maher:

Lord, I need you, Oh, I need you.

Every hour I need you.

My one defense. My righteousness

Oh God, how I need you.

 

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