Why Do Catastrophes Happen?

How should a believer respond to catastrophe? We’ve all heard the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s a good question, and the answers are difficult. Our pastor addressed this last Sunday to a congregation of people who had recently been through the hell of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Many of us in the church, like me, were evacuated and feared losing everything but were spared. At least three families that I know of did in fact lose everything. What do we do with this?

I highly recommend taking 40 minutes and listening to his sermon “Certain Hope.” This link leads to a site where you can either download the sermon or just hit the play button and start listening. His words were incredibly comforting to me this week.

It’s amazing to me how many “coincidences” happen. (I admittedly don’t believe in coincidences, though. I believe in God’s providence.) I went to the mailbox today and found our August issue of Tabletalk – a devotional magazine. The very first article, by R.C. Sproul, was titled “When Towers Fall” and deals with this very question. “Coincidentally” he uses the same passage Mark uses in the sermon, Luke 13.1-5:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

This is perhaps not a very popular passage. Before this Sunday, I don’t think I had ever heard a sermon preached on it. These words of Jesus pierce “to the division of soul and spirit” (Heb 4.12) and force us to confront some of our delusions. Our delusion about our own guilt and innocence before God. Our delusional judgment that others merely receive their comeuppance. Even the delusion that, even though others aren’t, I at least am basically “good” and therefore untouchable.

I’ve had this overwhelming feeling throughout the week as I clean and put our house back together that I have been spared. I sat on our couch and realized how incredible it was I had a couch to sit on. I sat at our dinner table, working on a quilt, and marveled that I still had this table to work upon, when not so long ago I counted it all gone. It is difficult to express such deep, profound gratitude in words. There are just no words for it.

God, in his wise and provident grace, spared me, my family, and even our house and belongings. But that begs the question, what if he hadn’t? Ultimately I rest on the confident assurance that my life is hidden with Christ (Col 3.3), so though he slay me, yet will I hope in him (Job 13.15).

But that brings me back to the “why?” What does this all mean?

I’d like to borrow a quote from Sproul that I found incredibly encouraging and comforting:

Those who were killed by the Roman troops and those who died when the tower fell may have been upstanding citizens. But in the vertical dimension, in their relationship to God, none of them was innocent, and the same is true for us. Jesus was saying, “Instead of asking Me why a good God allowed this catastrophe, you should be asking why your own blood wasn’t spilled.” Jesus was reminding his hearers that there is ultimately no such thing as an innocent person (except Him). Thus, we should not be amazed by the justice of God but by the grace of God. We should be asking why towers do not fall on us each and every day….

Jesus was not being insensitive or harsh with His disciples. He simply had to jolt them out of a false way of thinking. We do well to receive his jolt with gladness, for it helps us see things from the eternal perspective. We can deal with catastrophes in this world only by understanding that behind them stands the eternal purpose of God and by realizing that He has delivered us from the ultimate catastrophe – the collapse of the tower of His final judgment on our heads. (Emphases mine.)

I have been spared not because I deserved to be spared. The reality is that I have sinned, and therefore I deserve the harshest catastrophe in judgment. But by the grace of God through the work of Christ, I have been spared – not only this fiery catastrophe, but the eternal fiery judgment to come. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

Inside Mountain Shadows

I want to share this video with you taken by the audio/visual department of the Colorado Springs Fire Department. This footage is incredible, and it gives you a real sense of just how much the agencies who fought the fire that night did to save homes and hold the fire back.

I want to highlight three parts of this video. First, around 3:35 you see the house I mentioned in my last blog post – the one just over the fence from our neighborhood. As sad as it is that they could not save that house, they were able to stop the fire at the house, saving 195 homes near it – including ours specifically.

Next, I want to highlight around 6:45, when they show the breath-taking footage of the burning of the Ashton Park neighborhood. The is the neighborhood where I saw the man clinging to his charred mug. It is devastatingly sad, yet you can also see how hard they worked to save as many homes as possible on that road, and how they held their ground on Flying W Ranch Road. I am incredibly grateful for that line of engines, because this neighborhood is just across Flying W from our own. In two very real ways, I can specifically appreciate and be profoundly thankful for how these men saved my own house.

Finally, I love the way this video ends around 11:03. Can you help cheering when a new, not-even-sworn-in firefighter puts out a roof fire with a garden hose, saving a house? I cheered out loud.

Please watch this video. Please share it. Say a prayer of thanks for these men and what they did.

Bittersweet Homecoming

Home sweet home. Part two. Hopefully the last part. We visited our home today and were amazed at what we found. It was like nothing at all had happened. The garage smelled a bit smoky, but barely, and I noticed nothing inside the house. I keep walking around smelling the furniture, the towels, the carpets, the shades. Nothing. It smells like a house. No more, no less. And during our visit today, we found out we could come home tonight after 8. Permanently. Finally. So here we are.

What we found when we came home. Aside from the fact that it looks like we robbed ourselves, the house was just a house. Hubby’s reading the utilities info that was tacked to our front door.

It is dumbfounding to us how supernaturally ordinary our house was today. We were anticipating soot, ash, smoke, and an awful mess in the fridge and freezer, but as my husband is reading in the notice in the above picture, we found out that we had not lost utilities long enough for the food in our fridge to go bad. There is some food that we will need to throw away – food that was sitting out, so we don’t trust it in case smoke did get into our house at some point and then air out over the week. Our water is clean and drinkable, our electricity and AC are back on. The only utility missing is natural gas – read that “hot water.” But we anticipate having someone come by tomorrow during the day to help us turn that back on. Incredible.

We are technically still on “pre-evacuation notice” again. This means that even though the fire is 55% contained and they are confident in the fire line built on our side of the ridge, this fire is still active and not truly predictable. We still need to be ready to pack up and evacuate at a moment’s notice. It’s such a relief to be home, but can you blame us for leaving our clothes and toiletries out and ready? We’re just not quite ready to fully put everything away…

Packed and ready to go.

We also used the opportunity during the visit this afternoon to take a walk through our neighborhood, and then briefly drive through the rest of Mountain Shadows while it was still open. Many parts of the area went back into mandatory evacuation this evening, so we wanted to know what had happened while we still had a chance to check it out. What we saw was sobering.

I took a few pictures, but at the same time I sought to treat this area with enormous compassion and respect. For that reason, I’ll refrain from posting most of the pictures, and just show you a few to give you a very basic idea.

The first thing we noticed was how close the nearest burned out house was. This is the only picture of a house I will post, and I beg of you not to link it and share it with others out of respect for the family that lost it. The only reason I want to put it here is to show you how close it came to our own. As we walked to the back of our complex, we saw this:

Moreover, we stopped to consider what “blocked” the fire from our own town homes. The fire came up to that fence, and it stopped there. All that was between a devastating, house-destroying fire and our own complex was this:

This small drainage ditch is all that was between the closest burned out house and our own town home complex.

It is as if God put his hand there and said, “No further.” I can’t imagine why. I don’t understand why their house burned and ours didn’t. I have to admit, I’m going through some weird version of survivor’s guilt. I almost feel guilty that I’m able to sit at home on my own couch tonight when they can never return home. My heart breaks for them.

I also looked down and noticed burned leaves. It stopped me short as we walked. I just didn’t expect them.

Burnt leaves.

Finally, I would love to show you a picture of just how scorched the ground is. These beautiful hills used to be covered with the most amazing evergreen forest. The trails and views throughout these ridges were breath-taking. Now they are heart-breaking. I look forward to the regrowth. I know that just a few years from now it will be even more beautiful than before. Fire has a way of cleansing and resetting. For now, however, it is a sad sight.

I’ll leave you with an image of hope. As we drove back out of the neighborhood, we saw these signs painted on torn-down sections of fencing. We are truly grateful to all the firefighters. It was so clear today that they saved our home. They really are our heroes.

So what’s next? I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I feel housework deprived. I’ll spend the next several days deep-cleaning everything, rearranging furniture, getting the house back to a normal state. And I plan to get rid of a lot. For example, I left behind quite a bit of clothing and two full boxes of books, hoping they would burn so that I could get the insurance money. I figure, if I need that stuff so much that I actually wish for it to burn, it’s time to pack it all up and donate it to Good Will or something where people who do want it can get it. Going through an evacuation like this kinda inspires one to simplify.

I’m also going to spend a lot of time reflecting. I saw the face of a man today who visited the rubble of his burned out home. He clutched one small, charred mug in his hands – like it was the only thing he could recover – even though it wasn’t important enough to him to take it during the evacuation. His face will haunt me. His sorrow. His clinging to the only thing left from his former life there. I don’t know his name but I find myself in desperate prayer for him.

I also need to work through my own mixed emotions. I still can’t really believe our house is here and in almost perfect condition; I was so sure it was gone. Someone at church this morning put it perfectly when she said it was like God asked us to give it all up, and then gave it all back. I never faced death but it’s like I have a new chance at life. I want to really make an effort to get to know my neighbors. We all have this common experience now – there’s something to build on. Another friend had the great idea to hold a neighborhood picnic. Give people the chance to get together, meet each other, and share their stories. Like me, so many others who have had these experiences this week just want to tell their stories to someone – someone who understands, someone who isn’t going to talk about that fire they heard about ten years ago in Arizona, someone who also cried and feared and grieved this week, someone who also is grateful to have their home and life back. It’s a chance for us to share why we hope, to share  our confidence in the One who lost more than we ever could just so that we could have everything He ever deserved.

I’m drawn to the phoenix right now – the  mythical creature that rises from the ashes. That’s exactly what is happening in Colorado Springs right now. There is hope. There’s life beyond the catastrophe.