When I was in Canada there was a one week period I spent fixated, watching a whole city go up in flames.
Fort McMurray was decimated by a fire that seemed to rage out of control.
As an Australian watching the images on the screen there is a strange sense of familiarity in it all.
For our family, in particular, it all brought back memories of the King Lake bush fires in 2009. Then, as in there were in Fort Mac, there were all kinds of stories of heroism and heartbreak.
A story that particularly touched me was the news that, of only two fatalities from the fires so far was a triplet and a daughter of the assistant fire chief of Fort McMurray. When fire crews realized that their boss and friend’s house was threatened containing all the remaining memories of his daughter, they surrounded the house and fought to save those precious memories. While they knew that their own houses were probably burning, they were fighting for their friend.
It’s moments like this that remind us what a good person looks like.
We all know that the ultimate show of love is about self-sacrifice, and people all over Canada are exhibiting real love at the moment.
My daughter works at Costco and she told me how large numbers of people are coming from Fort MacMurray to purchase whole new wardrobes and basic supplies, looking shell-shocked and bewildered. Maddi also says that lots of people are purchasing things to give away. She was particularly touched when one customer decided to pay for the entire bill of the person in front of them who had just arrived from Fort Mac and was purchasing all the necessities of life.
A crisis helps us all remember what it is important. Its what happened in 2009, its what is happening now.
My friends, Jack and Ngaire, had been in King Lake for many years. They had faithfully loved and served their neighbours. They had lived and loved, raised a family, hosted numerous visitors, but carried a sense of frustration because the little churches in the area were not very strong. Their faith really mattered to them but there were not many other people in the community that shared that faith.
Every little town in Australia has its own volunteer fire brigade, and after many years of service Jack had become the leader of his little crew. He was well respected in the town and no-one was surprised when it was Jack leading the team against the roaring fire front.
Ngaire was quite matter-of-fact in describing what it was like to be caring for her grandchildren while the fire that had destroyed houses all around them came right up to their front door, and then as she desperately prayed with the children, somehow spared their house. Jack had no idea what his wife was managing at the time.
Jack and Ngaire both kicked into gear in that week, serving and caring but it was when the glare of the world spotlight was off the region that their work really began.
One of the realities of a crisis like this is that in six months the rest of us will all be back to business as usual, but for those who are affected, business will never again be “as usual”. After the government money has gone, after the Red Cross has spent the donations, after the initial flood of volunteers have left, the people who have had their lives turned upside down, will actually need our love more than ever.
Nothing really prepares a community for a disaster like this, and nothing really prepares them for the vacuum that is left after all the activity dies away.
One of the tragic side effects of the aftermath of the King Lake fires was the horrible toll it took on people’s mental health. Lots of people moved away, and some that didn’t probably should have. There was an extended period of time that was very difficult for that little community.
It is not a certainty that Fort Mac will go through the same darkness, but if it does it won’t be the government that gets them through. It will be the Jack and Ngaires of Fort McMurray. It will be the faithful people who can sustain self giving love beyond the crisis, who have a vision beyond themselves who bring hope in the midst of the darkness.
In King Lake, Jack and Ngaire realized a simple way they could love the people of their town. The fires had not only decimated people’s homes, it had destroyed their gardens… so Jack and Ngaire did what they could to acquire plants from across the state and created a free plant nursery.
Once a month for a little while, our team would travel through the fire zone to help however we could. There was something right about the act of giving people who had to rebuild their lives, the chance to rebuild the life of their gardens. It was a very practical form of grace.
Every time we made the trip our kids would get black from the charcoal, but they loved every minute of it.
There was something about working hard for the sake of someone else that was memorable for our kids. They loved helping Jack and Ngaire, and Jack and Ngaire found a way to love their community.
As I am preparing to preach on Sunday, I am reminded that this is how it is meant to be. The Christian Church is meant to be a light in the darkness, a symbol of hope and self giving love.
When we are at our best, the Christian Church doesn’t need a crisis to remind us what a good person looks like, our faith is based on the ultimate expression of self giving love.
It will be the little churches of Fort Mac who will still be there in six months, after all the rest of us have moved our attention to other things.
The book of Ephesians says that God has chosen the church to make his wisdom known (Eph 3:10), and that hope will come as the church does the hard work to put aside self absorption and truly loving in a self-sacrificial way.
We need to be praying and caring for the 80,000 people who have been displaced this week, but we particularly need to be praying for those who will be with them over the long haul.