“In the darkness we light a flame of hope. May it dance not only upon our advent wreath but in our hearts as well.”
- an Advent Prayer
It’s Advent again.
One year ago I wrote about being an Advent person. I wrote about how special this time of year has always been for me, due in large part to my mom’s amazing commitment to celebrating each week of Advent and not just rushing to Christmas. I’ve always understood that Advent was about waiting and preparing for something. When I was a child, I thought it was about waiting and preparing for the birth of Jesus. The incarnation. And presents. Lots of presents.
Last year I wrote about how in our house we were celebrating a different kind of incarnation – the incarnation of recovery. We still are. It’s a daily celebration, a daily incarnation.
This year, however, the meaning of “waiting” has taken new meaning. A more gut-wrenching, heart-breaking meaning.
On November 8, my parents’ home and the entire town of Paradise, California, burned to the ground in the Camp Fire.
My mom had left for work before news of the fire’s speed and intensity reached her – indeed, the fire’s intensity and fire surprised everybody. It is a straight up miracle that as many people made it out as they did. That the hospital and the nursing homes were cleared. That every single student in the schools and every single child at the daycare centers made it out.
My stepdad was visiting his parents who lived an hour and a half south that week, so he, too, was away and safe.
They didn’t know for a few days whether their home – our family home – had made it. I was the one that broke the news, strangely. I found a video on Facebook shared by the editor of the local newspaper. He had driven the streets while filming to show people the damage. He drove down our street. I was shaking so badly I struggled to hold my hand steady, but there it was. Our house. Or rather, there it wasn’t.
I don’t know how to talk about what it feels like to lose your childhood home – and entire hometown – to a disaster like this. This sort of thing happens in other places, to other people, all the time. But to my places, to my people? Huh. Surreal.
Heartbreaking. Heart-achy. I’ve sobbed in the shower more times than I can count… but probably somewhere around 20 times, because it was daily for the first few weeks after the fire. Now it’s less.
Look for the helpers, Mr. Rogers said. Indeed, helpers rose up like it was their job to make for darn sure my parents’ every need was taken care of. Housing? Clothing? Food? Things to make food with? Orthotics? Prescriptions? Hearing aid batteries?
I mean, what are the thousand tiny things you use each day to just live? Imagine having to spend your days now trying to remember all those things and then going about acquiring them again, one by one.
The weekend after the fire, my parents were staying near Sacramento with family. My mom went to a pharmacy to see about getting a prescription refilled, and they gave it to her at no charge. Just this week she was fitted for and given new custom orthotics – no charge. She attended worship with my brother and his soon-to-be fiancé and found hearing aid batteries in the lobby – they were her exact kind and, again, free for the taking.
Aaron Rodgers donated $1 million to the North Valley Community Foundation and led a campaign for State Farm to get matching funds. A wealthy retired man from San Diego travelled up to Chico, the nearby city, and gave every single student and faculty member from Paradise High School a check for $1,000 – each. The total was around $1.1 million.
In the immediate days after the fire started my future sister-in-law, a night-shift nurse at the local hospital, worked at shelters during the day.
Look for the helpers, indeed.
It seems that when the world is at its darkest, something in humanity rises up to shine the brightest light. To cast out the darkness. Kind of like Christmas after Advent.
It’s easy to feel helpless, so far away from my family as they recover from this disaster. As they grieve, and I grieve, 2,000 miles away from each other. Add Christmas to the mix and it throws another wrench in recovery. I mean, gifts?
What do you get the person who lost everything?
But my mom and stepdad reminded me who they are right away. They’re Advent people. They asked for an Advent wreath, with candles, and as much of our old Advent prayers, devotions, and hymns & carols as I could find and send their way. And they sent me a picture of their first Advent service as a family. Because no matter what physical, tangible loss they’ve experienced (and it is total, mind you), they have not changed. They are faithful. They wait for Christmas.
For the day they can go back to the house to sift through what remains, if anything, of their life before November 8.
For insurance claims to be processed.
For a decision on where and when they will build, or rebuild, or just buy something else, somewhere else, which may take years.
It’s not so unlike another family we talk about and sing about and celebrate this time of year. Who trusted that, despite the terrifying circumstances of their child’s conception, God would carry them through. Who traveled far from their home and waited for the birth of the child, trusting God would carry them through. Who were then forced to flee, to travel far away again, to wait with no word on when they would be able to return home. They waited, too, trusting that God would carry them through.
And so, along with thousands of others, my mom and stepdad continue to wait, also trusting that God will carry them through. In the darkness, they continue to light flames of hope. This year, more than ever, the hope extends even farther beyond the wreath, beyond just their hearts, so powerful that it’s reaching 2,000 miles eastward and landing in my heart, as well.
And maybe yours, if you can feel it.
Because remember, the deepest dark is where grace goes to be reborn (credit that quote to Alexander Shaia – remember him from last year?). This is where God does God’s most awesome, life-giving, live-saving work. Are you ready? Just wait.