100. Out of the Ashes

100. Out of the Ashes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Out of the Ashes

I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.

~Mother Teresa

Wiping the corner of the coffee table with the dust cloth, I stood back to admire the sparkling glass. I glanced up at the staircase landing, pleased with the look of my new oak bookcase, freshly filled with neat rows of books and topped with a vibrant spider plant. At the foot of the stairs, a nine-foot dracaena added to the sense of life within our home. I loved decorating, and was forever adding or changing something in this beautiful, 3,000-square-foot house nestled atop a mountainside, where we’d lived for nearly seven years.

Outside, a hazy yellow glow emanated from the trees. The wildfires in San Diego were burning out of control and we had heard that a wall of flame, fifteen miles wide and twenty feet high, was marching in our direction. Evacuation was a looming possibility.

I thought I’d do some cleaning, just in case we had to leave for a few days. It was always nice to come home to a clean house.

The atmosphere had an eeriness that made this fire seem different than the last one we’d had. This Cedar Fire seemed to have a mind of its own, like a big, devouring monster that gobbled anything in its path — whether clear of brush or overrun with it. We had heard stories of people having ten minutes notice to leave behind everything they owned. Some said you couldn’t see the flames coming because the smoke was so thick. You had to take it upon yourselves to get out when you sensed imminent danger.

As I dusted and straightened the family room, I looked over all of the things surrounding me. If I knew I would never see any of these things again, which of them would I take along? The decision wasn’t easy. Certainly, photos and family videos would be on the list, but with limited space in our cars, what else should go? As my husband Jerry pulled framed family photos off the walls and loaded them into empty laundry baskets, he grumbled to himself, “What a hassle it will be to put these back up again.”

I unhurriedly packed two suitcases with clothing and shoes, and set aside “treasure boxes” including numerous artistic creations by our young daughter Selah, and my writings from childhood. Jerry’s SUV was filled with business equipment. My compact car would have to hold Selah, our three dogs, the cat in her carrier, Selah’s guinea pig, and whatever personal items we could squeeze in.

As we finished loading our cars, our neighbors a short way down the road telephoned. “The smoke just got really thick here. We’re going to head out.” A few minutes later, not wanting to breathe the ever-thickening pollution, I suggested to Jerry that we go too. Leaving a generator running in the garage to keep our food cold, we followed the trail of cars out of town toward the desert, the only direction open to evacuees.

Staying outside of San Diego County, we were unable to get televised news reports about our area, so friends phoned with frequent updates on the fire situation. Around noon on Wednesday, my friend Karen called. “I’m watching the news, and right now they’re trying to save your house.” For over two hours, the news broadcast showed Department of Forestry helicopters battling to save our home from the air, dropping water and spraying fire retardant.

As we anxiously awaited further news, seven-year-old Selah managed to bring a smile to my face. “Well, Mommy, if our house burns down, maybe next time we could get me less toys so I won’t have to clean my room so much.” Leave it to our little girl to keep things in perspective!

A short time later, Karen called back. “I’m so sorry. Your roof just went up.” As she continued to watch, a huge wall of flame engulfed the front of our house.

The house was gone. The unthinkable had happened. I curled up next to Jerry and sobbed.

Early the next morning, while Jerry and Selah slept, I sat with my Bible on my lap. I opened it randomly and my eyes fell on Isaiah 43: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” It went on: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” It seemed that God was speaking words of encouragement to my heart.

Three weeks after our home burned to the ground, I went for the first time to survey the ruins. I looked across the pile of what had been such a vibrant center of life for our family and friends. Huge, twisted chunks of metal were strewn over piles of drywall and unrecognizable rubble. I could see the corroded corner of Selah’s brass bed frame poking out of the ashes — once such a place of comfort and security as I’d tucked her in at night. The springs of our living room sofa, a spot where I’d loved to sit and look out the window and watch wildlife as I prayed, now lay exposed to the elements.

I walked around the perimeter of the refuse, feeling numb. Lord, I prayed, before I leave here, please show me something in the ashes that got saved. My eye caught sight of a charred Christmas ornament lying atop the waste. I made my way over to it. Normally, I would have been climbing into the attic in just a few days to haul out the Christmas decorations that would transform our home into a yuletide wonderland. I realized that this must be the spot where the attic had caved in. I scanned the area, and suddenly saw something poking out of the ashes. A definite shape. I reached down, took hold of it, and pulled. Out of the rubble came a completely intact piece of our beautiful Nativity set — a shepherd. Another shape caught my eye, and I pulled out a wise man, then Joseph, an angel, and Baby Jesus and the manger. One after another, the pieces continued to come up, all unbroken.

One thing had changed, though. The intense heat of the fire had burned all the color out of this beautiful, hand-painted Nativity set. All of the figures were now pure white. As I stared at the pieces, the significance of this overcame me. God sometimes allows His purifying fire to burn in our lives, but when we walk through His fire, we will not be destroyed. We will only be changed to reflect more of His glory.

As I held the figurine of the baby Jesus and looked around at the devastation that was once our home, I realized something else. When everything in our lives seems to be falling apart, there is one thing that remains intact. The baby, born 2,000 years ago in a humble manger, is still here. He will never leave us. For us and for hundreds of other families in our tiny community who lost everything, He would be there in the midst of our sorrow and need, sustaining us with His ever-present comfort and strength. And He would walk alongside us into the brand new thing that He was going to do in our lives.

~Sandra Sladkey

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