AUGUST 29, 2023
It was eleven years ago, but sometimes it seems like yesterday.
Watching the recent wildfire-induced devastation in Maui has pushed some buttons with me. My heart aches. It also remembers. It aches over what the victims are going through, and it remembers some things God taught me in a similar circumstance just over a decade ago.
Having just finished a ministry trip in Russia, I headed down to northern Italy to start a Sabbatical—a brief time of respite and rejuvenation while serving in my role as Senior Pastor of Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. A few days after, my family joined me for a dream vacation we had been planning for months.
During our first dinner together, our well-laid plan was abruptly interrupted. My cell phone began to vibrate. And vibrate. Finally, I answered, knowing something must be up. It was the urgent voice of a friend, “Matt, sorry to interrupt your holiday in Italy, but a wildfire has spread in the Waldo Canyon area near your home and your neighborhood is being evacuated. A few of us are hurrying to your house now to gather anything you’d like us to salvage. What’s the key code to your garage? What do you want us to grab?”
Our dream vacation was on the verge of going up in smoke, literally and unbelievably.
Over the next couple of tense days, things settled down. The fire was seemingly cordoned off and contained in a wilderness area away from houses and neighborhoods. With relief, we thought the fire was under control. So did most people back in Colorado.
But on the third day, we got word the wind had picked up and was moving the burgeoning blaze over tinderbox terrain primed by months of drought. I woke early the next morning in the tranquility of a Piedmont village, picked up my cell phone, and was greeted by dozens of texts and voicemails conveying condolences. As I read and listened, my heartbeat relocated into my throat. Sixty-mile-per-hour winds had catapulted the flames over the defensive firebreaks and our neighborhood had been invaded by an inferno. Serenity gave way to big-time stress.
The messages weren’t a complete confirmation as to whether our house was gone, but all of the senders were assuming it. From the online news coverage, photos, and videos, I saw why—there just didn’t seem to be any way our home could have survived such a firestorm.
I woke my family and shared the surreal and heartbreaking news. That day and into the next, we struggled with the assumption that the place we had called home for eleven years, along with everything but a computer and a few boxes of hastily grabbed photos, was gone.
Then, incredibly, it was confirmed our street sustained only one destroyed home and only one other with significant damage. Amidst the smoke and ash, ours was still standing. But our personal relief was short-lived. A tragic total of 346 homes around us were destroyed. The most devastating wildfire in Colorado’s history to date had left a painful scar, not only on the landscape of our beautiful city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but also on people’s lives and stories.
Soberly realizing hundreds of people from our church were affected, we agreed as a family I should fly back from our vacation. As our home and neighborhood was closed for weeks to everyone but government workers, we also decided my wife and three sons would continue with our Italian itinerary.
The morning after I arrived in Colorado Springs, I toured the smoldering and still evacuated neighborhoods with a couple of city officials. It was hard to get my head, much less my heart, around what I saw. Entire streets and neighborhoods were just…gone.
DEALING WITH IT DIFFERENTLY
In the days to follow, I had conversation after conversation with people impacted by the fire. Many seemed lost and paralyzed with panic…understandably so. But with others, while juggling the same circumstance of forced evacuation at best, and total home destruction with catastrophic material loss at worst, there was something different. I began to notice a common thread woven through the latter group of people: intentional, trusting, and submissive stillness at the feet of Jesus. They might not have had smiles on their faces, but there was a hopeful resolution in their hearts as they dealt with the stress of a scorched, less-than-perfect world in a way that was noticeably different.
So when I see the Maui photos of the devastated town of Lahaina, a memory—and heart lesson—bubbles to the surface.
A week after the Waldo Canyon wildfire catastrophe, Colorado Springs’ World Arena hosted a benefit concert for the fire victims. Many artists with Colorado connections volunteered to participate. The evening of the concert, I was at the home of a friend who had invited Issac Slade, lead singer of The Fray, to join a small group of us for dinner. At the end of the meal, he sat down at their grand piano and played the same song he would sing before thousands later that night. The title was comprised of two words I’d come to see as the common denominator of those who were weathering the fallout of the firestorm. Be Still.
Recently written for his younger brother, Isaac and The Fray had released the song five months earlier on their album, “Scars and Stories.” The lyrics are based on the unusual perspective of Psalm 46. The Psalmist begins by describing some less than peaceful circumstances: “…though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…” (Psalm 46:2-3). In the midst of panic-inducing stress which causes all of us to move our feet in a frantic fashion and either flee in fear or chase futile solutions, God gives some surprising instruction: “Be still…”
In the face of a storm which prompts us to panic and do anything but be still, God counsels us in the opposite direction: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). Listen to some of Issac Slade’s powerful paraphrase:
Be still and know that I’m with you
Be still and know that I am here
… When darkness comes upon you
And covers you with fear and shame
Be still and know that I’m with you
And I will say your name
… If terror falls upon your bed
And sleep no longer comes
Remember all the words I said
Be still, be still, and know…
MAKING THE CHOICE
Jesus encouraged a similar response in the journey of a woman named Martha who, in the face of just plain ‘ole everyday stress, was choosing to be anything but still. He gently chided her, instead of being distracted, to pay attention to how her sister, Mary, was responding in the moment. Luke describes that Mary, “…sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said.” Jesus then counseled Martha, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
I’d like to extend to you an invitation—even a challenge—regarding whatever difficulty you’re in the midst of. I’ll also make a commitment alongside you regarding some stresses I’m grappling with. Whether we’re facing a raging firestorm, tussling with some everyday annoyances, or navigating something in between…let’s make a counterintuitive choice… to hit the pause button.
To be silent and hear His voice above all others.
To calibrate our heart’s compass under His direction.
To trust and submit to His plan.
To not be panicked or passive…but to be still in His presence.
Even in the midst of the smoke.