Becky and I spent four years early in our marriage at a church conference center near the south entrance to Yosemite National Park. I was on full time staff and Becky worked part time. During those four years we came to know and love some wonderful people – Bob and Barbara, Bill and Mary, Dave and Cindy, and dozens more – whose names are still vivid reminders of friendship and the communion of the saints.
Calvin Crest fills 340 acres a mile high in the Sierra Nevada, and every summer the place is filled with children, youth, and families who come to sing the mighty power of God who made the mountains rise, and who has made his redeeming love known in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The youngest kids, third, fourth, and fifth graders, still dress up as Robin Hood’s merry men and women for their week in Sherwood Forest.
Calvin Crest was nearly consumed by fire this week, the flames of the Railroad Fire, one of so many wildfires in the west, as they crossed onto the property and lapped at Sugar Pine Road where it separates “camp” from forest that climbs to the top of the property. Here’s one of the news stories about the fire.
If you read the story, you’ll hear about a stand of old growth sequoias also threatened by the fire. Nelder Grove is on U.S. Forest Service land and an easy walk from Calvin Crest. It is the home of the Bull Buck Tree. Depending on how you measure, Bull Buck may be the second largest tree in the world. Regardless, Bull Buck is 2,700 year old, soars 247 feet into the mountain sky, and has a base circumference of nearly 100 feet.
As I read the Sierra News story about the fire, I thought of the camp and its history and all the ways God has used it. I thought about the little neighborhood, now evacuated, down the mountain where Becky and I owned the A-frame that was home when our first two children were born. I was struck by what the reporter wrote about the fire and Nelder Grove with its Bull Buck Tree. “The fire continues to back its way through Nelder Grove, and it will be interesting to see the results of fire activity that could not have been scripted any better for the health of the grove and the survival of the ancient trees.”
Of course. That’s exactly what we told the third, fourth, and fifth graders in the merry men and women tunics and caps as we led them on hikes through the sequoias. The old growth groves need fires to clear undergrowth and open cones. The bark on a tree like Bull Buck can be two feet thick and is fire resistant. Bull Buck has seen hundreds of fires during his long life. He has learned to welcome them.
This has been a hard week. The winds of Harvey and now Irma have been massively destructive. This morning’s 8.1 earthquake off the southern coast of Mexico has destroyed buildings and taken lives. Our friends in Guatemala were jolted awake, but report that they are well. Fires from Glacier Park in Montana to near Yosemite in California are raging through a tender box left by winter’s rains.
The prophet Elijah thought God had abandoned him. He found a cave in which to hide from the world. God tells him to go to the entrance of the cave. As Elijah stands there, a great and powerful wind, full of destruction, passes by. Then a fire, and finally an earthquake. God is not to be found in the wind, the fire, or the earthquake. Finally, Elijah hears “a still small voice of calm,” and in its whisper God speaks to assure him of his presence and his provision for his life.
Fires are a good thing for old growth sequoias. But not for people who live in the mountains. Hurricane winds and floods may clear the bayous, but they are no friend of people who live in Houston or Miami. Earthquakes come by the shifting of tectonic plates , but knowing that is no comfort to Mexican villagers who lives have been shaken to despair.
We are taken to saying some really foolish things in times of disaster – natural disasters and the personal disaster of job loss or devastating diagnoses. Some blame God and assume he has abandoned them, while others look for what they assume is God’s obvious plan and purpose. One Facebook poster thinks that God may have sent Harvey and Irma so that our polarized and divided country might be reminded of how we need one another. You can have that god. I don’t know that god, though I know our country needs to be reminded that we need one another.
The question is not whether or not the sovereign God is sovereign. In fact, he makes the mountains rise and spreads the flowing seas. He counts the hairs on our heads and knows when the sparrow falls to the ground. His purposes and plans are good and in all things, including earthquake, wind, and fire, he works for good with those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
God’s ways are not our ways. They are beyond our understanding.
This weekend when a friend tells you about a family member who has fled from Irma’s winds, don’t try to top the story or tell your own story. Listen well and speak slowly. This weekend when you hear of a dreaded diagnosis, please don’t tell the story of a friend who died of the exact same disease, Listen well and speak slowly. This weekend when you hear about someone who lost a job, don’t dig for details or try to solve the problem. Listen well and speak slowly. Who knows, having listened well, praying and speaking slowly and faithfully, God may use ours as his still small voice of calm.
See you Sunday