Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pain and Fire and Steel

This reflection, originally written for Westmont College's student paper, The Horizon, concerns the loss of our house in the Tea Fire of November 13, 2008. The dog in question is our beloved 10 year-old border collie.
She steps over a row of sandbags and pads past a remnant of stucco that stands on charred guard over the cremated remains of her home. Proceeding cautiously, Strider crosses the detritus of cindered rafters, twisted copper and blackened steel, then circles back to the hollow in the yard where she once tracked the tos and fros of our once-bustling, now-quiet neighborhood. On the breeze she smells wisps of wisteria, dampened earth and ash—always the ash—but her ears detect few voices. She looks away from the rubble as if the emptiness were too weighty to bear, as if in her dog brain she could remake the safe place where she once awaited family and welcomed visitors.

In her simple way Strider is learning what many of us have known all along: that all is not well in this world. She knows nothing, of course, of the airborne embers that descended, like enemy paratroopers, onto mulch and woodpile, deck and roof. Nothing of the drama of land scorched and lives saved. Nothing of heroic fire fighters and triumphant soccer players. She knows only that what was safe and secure is gone. She sees the void and responds the only way she can: with silence.

Like Strider, my grasp of what has happened is sharply limited. I know we inhabit an untamed planet, that we have chosen to live on the edge of wild. And now I know that moonlight behind smoke becomes apocalyptic. But I don’t know why an infinitely good and all-powerful God didn’t dial back the winds last month nor summon the winter rains a week early. Like Strider, I look for assurance among trusted companions, chief among them a rabbi named Paul of Tarsus and a troubadour named Bruce Cockburn of Toronto.

Prophets both, in the line of Jeremiah, Paul and Bruce understand well that ours is a wounded, bleeding world in anguished need of redemption. And that redemption is coming. Paul, the apostle of resurrection and herald of Christ’s Lordship, can make sense of the present crisis only in light of the future. In this life, he says, we suffer; in the next we won’t:
The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; … creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23)
November’s firestorm consumed the undergrowth of my personal comfort and security; it burned my pride and laid bare my weakness. But it also gave me cause to yearn more than ever for creation’s redemption. Cockburn, like Paul, imagines a brokenness that extends far beyond ourselves, even beyond our planet. Imagine, he says, a wounded cosmos. If the Milky Way is a spiral, we find ourselves way out on its broken rim.
Way out on the rim of the broken wheel
Bleeding wound that will not heal
Trial comes before truth's revealed
So how am I supposed to feel?
. . . In a world of pain and fire and steel
Way out on the rim of the broken wheel (“Broken Wheel,” 1981)
How are we supposed to feel? We grieve, we groan, we long for healing, for ourselves and for our world. We take grateful shelter in the arms of friends and receive their gifts of quiet hospitality. We smile through tears when we see previews of the redemption we all seek: green shoots already pointing heavenward through charcoal soil, old family photos arriving in the mail, laughter at a Thanksgiving feast, afternoon’s diamonds on the water, the transcendence of poetry and song, a dog’s rough tongue on a sweaty palm, the aftertaste of bread and wine. We receive these gifts, unbidden and undeserved, as a preview of another gift still to come, a Gift that will also ride on the winds, but when this One finally comes the time for tears will be past. Now is the time to mourn. Then it will be time to dance.