Cara and I went home last summer to see my dad. Going home is different since my mom died. We’re navigating new territory and creating new rhythms. The piano sits quiet but memories are loud.
I wanted to take Cara to Hume Lake and my dad decided to join us on our day trip. So he drove the four of us — my twin sister came too — into the hills, telling stories, remembering turn offs, and pointing out landmarks on the way.
On the way up the mountain, we saw the ravages of previous forest fires. Once-beautiful trees stood like charred sticks in a blackened and ashy terrain. This bleak landscape was interspersed with foliage and trees that had somehow survived the arbitrary run of the flames. Shadows intermittently poured onto asphalt, creating a mosaic of light and darkness as we traveled.
Once at our destination, we walked around the lake, celebrated dragonfly sightings (my mom loved them), enjoyed a milkshake on the shore, and felt a deep sense of gratitude for the memories from an idyllic past and the reality of the still-pretty-good present.
It was a golden day. For it was the first time in a long time we felt somewhat whole since mom’s death. And as the car spun around the curves on the way down the mountain, something unraveled in all of us.
I sat in the backseat, looking out the window, tucking the memories into my back pocket so that I could pull them out when I needed them. And I thought about forest fires.
The scars a fire leaves in its wake are deep; it will be decades before the land recovers. But as we meandered down Highway 180, we could see that new growth had already begun to emerge. Fragile but resilient, the green pushed through the ash. The decimated hillside was reseeding itself. Life remained. The root system, harnessed deep beneath the soil, remained intact.
And as I considered the beauty of that rebirth, I thought of our family — and the forest fire of my mom’s illness and death.
Grief remains. I feel it in the songs I cannot sing at church, in the tears that appear at the most unexpected moments, in the tightening of my throat and the clenching of my jaw. I will never not miss my mom. But the grip of grief seems less heavy as we lift our eyes to the hills (both literally and figuratively). And the roots of our family — our deep love for each other, our faith in life beyond this earth, and our constant recognition of the gift of mom’s life — endure.
I have come to realize that the grief that I am processing of late is not limited to the loss of my mom. I recognize the grief and trauma of the losses we have incurred corporately — and individually — at church as well.
Sometimes I think of the combination of covid, recent Synod decisions, and the loss of our pastor and worship leader as “the perfect storm” for our church. Perhaps a forest fire is a more apt metaphor. Without a doubt, hot spots linger. Trauma smolders and anxiety occasionally flare up. We certainly bear the scars of these past few years. It’s easy to only see the damage, to only see what we have lost. But I’m starting to recognize that there is life beneath the ash.
I feel sparks of life in small moments — in the a cappella singing of “Just as I Am”; in a hug at the bottom of the stairs on a Sunday morning; in a pastor who intends to stay despite the unknowns; in the presence of a teenager in the balcony — attending without his parents; in our Care Closet ministry; in the ability to listen and love even as we navigate differences of opinion. I feel these glimmers in my own heart as I work through the grief of our shared losses and struggle to cast aside my pride and surrender solely to God’s will.
I do not know how our journey as a church will end. But I know that the roots of our faith — our acknowledgement that we are broken beings, saved only by the grace of God, our deep desire to worship and glorify God in all we do, and our determination to reflect and extend God’s love to others — are not easily destroyed. Healing and growth can occur even in the most scorched spaces. And I know that — as we sang a few months ago — “God Himself is with us”.
The Bible’s references to fire are many: the burning bush, the flames at Pentecost, the dangers of a sharp tongue. In several places, scripture equates fire to God’s judgment. But I can remember no specific scriptural reference to the rebirth that occurs after a fire.
And yet I hold on tightly to verses from Lamentations 3 that my mom wrote repeatedly in her journal: “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”