On May 29, 2014, my family suffered a terrible loss as a fire started in our garage. By the time the fire department arrived, flames engulfed the entire garage and had begun to spread into the main dwelling area. My wife Karin and I could only watch helplessly as smoke billowed from the house. When it was finally put out, the heat had melted the vinyl siding off the side of our next door neighbor’s house, it had obliterated our garage including the minivan that had been parked inside, it had basically melted our kitchen, and the heat and soot had destroyed the vast majority of our belongings. It only took three crates to hold everything the restoration company classified as “salvageable.”
Karin and I had purchased that house when we got married, and were the first owners to live in it. We had brought two children home from the hospital to that house. We had laughed and cried, we had suffered tremendous loss and had shared incredible joy, we had grown from young kids barely out of college to adult parents with careers and responsibilities. That house, and the mementos of our lives we had collected there over the years, had been the setting for many, many memories. And in such an incredibly short time, so much of that was gone.
However, and this is a huge however, in what our family experienced that day in May, God took destruction and created hope. Just as a burning bush spoke to Moses and assured him that God would be by his side and lead him, just as a pillar of fire led Israel out of slavery and into the freedom of the promised land, God has worked through our experience. So much of what we’ve learned and what we have been thankful for through all of this are lessons echoed in one of my favorite movies, It’s A Wonderful Life, as I’m constantly reminded of what a wonderful gift our lives really are.
1) When the things we rely on and put our trust in other than God are stripped away, we discover what really matters. We discover that our faith, which is so easily professed when things are going our way, really and truly is our rock when the storms come. We discover that as long as we have each other and as long as we have God’s love, the rest of it really is superfluous. It doesn’t mean that things are easy—goodness knows I don’t want to romanticize our situation and make it sound as though what we’ve experienced has been sunshine and rainbows. It certainly hasn’t. But in the midst of adversity, when everything else we tend to rely on as a false idol is stripped away, that’s when we most fully experience God’s presence in our lives.
2) God dwells in the dark places. When we look for God, we shouldn’t be looking to the high and the mighty and the powerful and the successful…we should be looking to places like the burnt out remains of a house with a husband and wife clinging to each other, trying to shield two frightened children, wondering how they’re going to get by and just live day to day while the insurance companies and the powers that be drag their feet. That is where our family has experienced God at work.
3) No one is a failure who has friends, as the angel Clarence wrote (using less gender-inclusive language) in a note to George at the end of the movie. Now, Karin and I knew that we had friends. What we didn’t realize, however, was the extreme depth nor the extreme breadth of those friendships. In the movie, George gets into financial trouble trying to help out the savings and loan he’s responsible for. When the town gets wind of it, without even being asked they give whatever they can to help him out. All it takes is the word “George is in trouble,” and the town begins trying to find ways to meet his family’s needs. That is precisely what we experienced as well after our fire. So many people came from everywhere, giving what they could simply because they heard we needed help. We were simply surrounded by an incredible amount of support and love. A group of neighbors coordinated giving drives and a huge fundraiser at our church. A family offered us their home for 6 months as they left for a professorial sabbatical elsewhere. There have just been so many incredible responses, overwhelming in the best possible way—that humbling feeling of being enveloped in life-changing, transformative love.
4) Our lives have far more significance than we will ever fully know. Since our house fire, Karin and I have both been told stories of how our lives have impacted others—so many times, these stories have been things that we had no idea about. I had a member of the online Husker sports forum I frequent tell me that because of my words and encouragement, they found their way back to church and rediscovered their faith. I had no idea of any of that until this person told me. Others have told us stories of how our family has impacted their lives, and how they’re more than happy to help us because we have been such a help to them or to others—most of what we’ve been told, we would have had no idea about otherwise. The lesson here for all of us is a huge one. Don’t discount your impact. The scripture reference about the body having many members and everyone having a part to play is so amazingly true—you DO make a difference, often in ways you will never realize.
Over the last six months, my family has experienced God through the faces of those around us. We’ve experienced God through the stripping away of everything else we’ve tried to put our faith in. We’ve experienced God through very real adversity, adversity where we are still facing a number of huge question marks even today. Yet in it we all have found reassurance of a God who walks alongside us, reassurance of that same God’s presence through so many who surround us with their love and prayer, reassurance that our lives do make an impact and a difference, that God does work through us, and reassurance that no matter what, we trust in a God who has the final word, who in the cross and the empty tomb has already won the ultimate victory on our behalf.
For all of those things, how could we not be thankful? Thanks be to God.