Ashes of Lent
A familiar Bible story reminded me that God is with us even in the tragedy of California’s wildfires.
by Scott Peterson | March 12, 2018
Mike Nunley of Redwood Covenant Church (left, with back to camera) hugs his neighbor Brian White, a Santa Rosa firefighter whose house was destroyed while he was battling fires in another neighborhood. Nunley’s home was also destroyed.
Photography by: Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat
This story is Part two of the Disaster Relief series. Click here to view additional stories.
Late in the evening of October 8, 2017, a fire started near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, California. Fueled by years of drought and extremely windy conditions, the fire made its way through the Mayacamas Mountains to Santa Rosa in a matter of hours. It would become the costliest and most devastating fire in the history of modern California. Forty-six people died. More than 8,000 homes and business were destroyed. The firestorm burned deep into the heart of the city.
It was about 2 a.m. when I was abruptly awakened by my wife, Sheri. “We need to leave now! There’s a giant fire!”
I quickly dressed and raced outside. The mountain near our home, including everything east and to the south of us, was consumed by a firestorm. Explosions large and small rang out every five to ten seconds. There was a low ominous roar in the distance. This fire had a voice. It was like we were being attacked by an unknown enemy.
People were hastily packing their cars, and warning neighbors. In the midst of this, Sheri fell and dislocated her thumb. We were now headed to a hospital. I only had time to grab the cat, our phones, and my computer.
The two-lane road leading in and out of our neighborhood was now four lanes going one way—out. When we got to a freeway overpass all we could see was fire and smoke. Both local hospitals were in the burn zone, so we headed west on small backroads to a community hospital fifteen miles away.
While the medical staff took care of Sheri, I went outside and called family, knowing they would soon awaken to the news. From where I stood in the parking lot, it looked like all of northern Santa Rosa was on fire. Large pieces of burned paper and ash twigs started to fall like giant snowflakes. I could make out the writing on some of the paper.
After Sheri was released, I started to receive texts from Dan Ferguson and Mason Williams, fellow pastors at Redwood Covenant Church. They were letting people know that the church—which was on the opposite side of the city from the fire—was open and safe. We decided to head back toward the fire—and the church.
When we arrived, dozens of people in all states of shock and emotion were already gathered. That morning twenty-six families from Redwood Covenant Church lost their homes, including one of our pastors.
Mandatory evacuation orders came quickly and the church became a shelter for many. The reports were horrifying. Entire neighborhoods were gone. Two mobile home parks destroyed. Accounts of people caught in the firestorm, cars on fire speeding down the hills, elderly people abandoned in care facilities—it was all too much to take in. A first responder came in because he needed a place to talk about what he had seen.
The entire Redwood staff, about fifteen of us, were working around the clock caring for fire refugees in the midst of uncertainty about what was happening to our homes and neighbors. Fire victims volunteered in great numbers because it kept their minds off their losses.
By midday that first morning, the Pacific Southwest Conference notified area Covenant churches of our immediate needs, and Bayside Church in Sacramento arrived with a truck filled with blankets, pillows, and personal supplies. Our Covenant family was the first to respond, and they did so quickly and abundantly. More than 100 volunteers from Bayside helped us for an entire week, giving Redwood staff a chance to mourn, recover, and minister personally to our friends.
Many of us lived at church that first week. Because we had escaped with nothing, at one point Sheri and I went back to our neighborhood (and around the barricades) to get a change of clothes and other essentials. Although our immediate area had survived the first night, the hills and neighborhood were still on fire, and our home was not out of danger.
As we looked around for what we would save we found there was very little that was now important.
As we looked around for what we would save we found there was very little that was now important. Our attitude about our home and our belongings had changed since our quick evacuation. We were in a place we could walk away and truly put our future into God’s hands. We filled a few laundry baskets with pictures off the walls, old VHS tapes, and important papers from the safe.
Now that some months have gone by and I am sitting in my home reflecting on all of this, Lent is upon us. Lent, the season in which we reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, and for some of us the time to give up something in order to keep focused on the cost and promise of the resurrection. Too often we simply put aside a luxury or indulgence, as if the absence of an unpronounceable coffee drink or passing on dessert could point us to the indescribable passion of Christ.
Honestly, whatever I once did to engage in the Lenten season now seems like a joke. If there’s one thing a devastating firestorm in your city does for you, it gives you incredible perspective. Unfortunately, part of what sharpened that perspective for me was the reality that not everyone escaped the fires. Forty-six Sonoma County friends, neighbors, and family lost their lives. Each had a name and a story. They did not have the opportunity to return to their spared home and choose what to save. As Jesus suffered and cried out to his Father he, too, was not spared. The lesson of Lent, however, is that God was with his son—and with the forty-six neighbors who died—just as God was with us.
Too often we simply put aside a luxury or indulgence, as if the absence of an unpronounceable coffee drink could point us to the indescribable passion of Christ.
There’s a story in the book of Daniel about three kids taken from their homes and brought to the kingdom of Babylon. It’s a familiar story, but not one we equate with Lent. I find it especially relevant in this season, however, in light of the fires that swept through our community.
We know them by their Persian names—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—the names their captors gave them. When ordered to bow to an image of King Nebuchadnezzar or be thrown into an overheated furnace, they chose the flames. Yet the boys survived and were joined by a figure who looked like “the Son of God.”
Shadrach’s Hebrew name was Hananiah, which means “God is gracious.” Jerry and Kathy Cowan are twenty-year volunteers at Redwood in our children’s ministries. A dear friend, Kathy, works with rescue animals. For the past four years she has been battling cancer. The night of the fire the Cowans loaded Kathy’s rescue van with all her animals and an air mattress. Embers filled their yard and driveway as they left for the church, knowing they would probably lose their home. As sick and pain-filled as she was, Kathy stayed in her van in the church parking lot with those vulnerable animals until a day later when it was safe to return. I marvel at how she did that. Jerry and Kathy’s home did not burn—it was just one house away from the destruction leveled on Coffey Park. Like Hananiah, Kathy’s name should mean “God is gracious.” We recently lost Kathy to the cancer. We are heartbroken, but we will never forget her God-given graciousness which was an act of love and selflessness. Peace be to her memory.
Meshach’s Hebrew name was Mishael, which means “Who is asked for?” Delores McKey is a retired member of our congregation. That night she was awakened in her bedroom by her grandson, Mason Williams, the student ministries pastor at Redwood Covenant. Mason had used a hammer to break down two doors to get to her. The fire had already reached the house, and they made a very narrow escape. All Delores had was her nightgown—there wasn’t even time to put on shoes. Mason lived in the small unit behind his grandmother’s home. Both homes were destroyed. They lived in the middle of Coffey Park where 1,500 homes were lost. Delores did not know that night that “Who is asked for?” would be actively at work on her behalf sending her grandson to rescue her. Neither of them will forget God’s presence that night. Mishael’s captors wanted him to forget his name by giving him a new name. But he never forgot he was named after the God we call upon daily.
Abednego’s Hebrew name was Azariah, “helped by God.” Russ and Connie Berringer were the first Redwood family to lose their home that morning. They lived the closest to the origin of the fire. Russ describes how God literally woke them up just in time. Had it been two minutes later they would not have escaped. There’s only one way down the hill and it was engulfed in flames and violent wind. I went with Russ and Connie when they were finally allowed up the hill to see what was left of their home. The fire was so hot streams and pools of cooled aluminum and glass were everywhere. We searched for family jewelry but only found a small figurine of Jesus that Connie had made in third grade at vacation Bible school. Azariah and the Berringers are with us because they were “helped by God.” In the ashes of a fire that melted metal and glass Connie found her Jesus.
Those three Hebrew boys had no idea whether they would be miraculously saved. Refusing to bow to the statue, they were prepared to lose their lives. Imagine the joy and surprise they felt when they met God in that fire! Mike and Margie Nunley also lost everything and this has been a deeply painful experience. All that was left on their property was an altar where many weddings and other special occasions had occurred. I was talking with Mike and his father the night after the fire destroyed their home. Through the pain and confusion Mike told me, “It’s all stuff, Pastor Scott. It’s all just stuff. We’re fortunate. We get to start over. In an odd way, I’ve never felt so grateful and so free. Look, I’ve got new Walmart tube socks someone donated!” The loss was still there, but the rebuilding began that moment with a glimmer of joy over new socks.
The fire did not discriminate as to what or who it would destroy. Everyone was vulnerable as the winds grew and changed direction. Those three Hebrew boys had no idea what the outcome from their actions of defiance would be, they didn’t know how their story would end. No one at Redwood Covenant that week knew how their story would end and for many of us it’s still uncertain. What I can say now is during that week we lived at the church in community—serving others to the point of exhaustion and learning to trust God and his people for literally everything we had—I learned what really mattered to us. It took having nothing for us to give up our differences, preferences, persuasions, and passions. All of that meant nothing. We were given a glimpse of what it means to trust God for absolutely everything. All that mattered was that Jesus was with us in that fire. We were a family. God with us, Immanuel.