The Fire and the Flood

My husband and I are mountain people through and through. At any given moment, if you were to ask either of us where we most want to be, the quick and sure response would be “the mountains.” If that’s not the answer you get, call the police because someone is obviously impersonating us.

For most people, vacation means warm locales, sandy beaches, and doing as little as possible. For us, vacation means brisk alpine days, rugged peaks, and hiking as much as possible—the harder, the better because the most beautiful places often require long miles, quad-busting elevation gain, or both.

I am too pale to ever love the beach—it’s just not worth the endless tubes of SPF 100. And both my husband and I are possessed of an absolute inability to sit still and do nothing for any appreciable length of time. The most stir-crazy hours of my life were spent in Costa Rica, waiting for a friend to finish “laying out” on the beach. I’d been dragging her all over the country from one activity to another for nearly a week, so I had promised her one morning to just relax. I paced the small curve of beach like a chained dog, while she stretched out on her towel in languorous rapture, oblivious to my fitful march. I finally followed a sketchy path into the jungle and found a colony of leaf-cutter ants to watch—not exactly high energy, but better than sizzling like a buttered tortilla in the sand.

My husband is even more allergic to inactivity than I am. I mean, this is a man whose nicknames have included “Mountain Goat” and “Engine of Destruction.” While serving as best man at a friend’s wedding, he once climbed a tree dressed in a full tuxedo, heedless of me standing at the bottom, yelling, “Don’t forget, those tuxedo and shoes are rented!” My husband will walk into a house with a soaring cathedral ceiling, and the first words out of his mouth as he points upward are “You know, drill some holes, bolt in a few holds, and you got yourself a pretty decent climbing wall.” You get the picture—this is a man made to move.

Although my husband and I have very different personalities, we are absolutely bound by our shared love for challenging ourselves in the high places. And when it comes to mountains, for us, there is no place like the Rockies. And when it comes to the Rockies, though we’ve hiked a lot of beautiful places along this range that runs from the United States into Canada, I guess the stretch that feels most like home turf would have to be the alpine peaks and cirques of Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of the backcountry alpine gems that make Rocky Mountain National Park so special

One of the backcountry alpine gems that make Rocky Mountain National Park so special

We first ventured into Rocky Mountain National park on a short backpacking trip that we tagged onto the end of a cousin’s wedding. We were hooked and vowed we’d come back for more. We returned a year later, both of us in pretty good shape from a long summer of road biking and hiking, and kicked off an epic 2 weeks of long hikes into the backcountry. We ticked off a couple peaks and a slew of alpine lakes. We had all kinds of weather from Indian summer days to negative 30-degree windchills and snow. But it’s a trip we both remember with great fondness—something about that time went deep into our hearts and took root.

A panorama of Mirror Lake

A panorama of Mirror Lake

On the last day before we went home, we drove a long way up scenic, winding Poudre Canyon to a remote trailhead and hiked into Mirror Lake—a place so isolated it seemed we really had left the rest of the world behind. I remember returning to the car, tired and happy. We drove back through Poudre Canyon in a mixture of sun and rain, black storm clouds overlaid by a vibrant rainbow visible in our rearview mirror for miles. In 2012, much of that canyon went up in flames consumed by the High Park Fire, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history. I was in the park while that fire raged. I watched the black and orange flames roll over the top of the peaks of the Mummy Range and mourned the destruction of such a ruggedly beautiful place.

View looking upstream from our prayer rock at Horseshoe Falls

View looking upstream from our prayer rock at Horseshoe Falls

My husband and I returned a couple more times to Rocky Mountain National Park. Dreams and plans and prayers were birthed in that place until it pulled at our heart strings something awful whenever we left. We decided the name of our first child while on its trails. When we became youth ministers at our church, we spent a precious evening praying for each of our teens perched on a rock above Horseshoe Falls. Here, the Roaring River cascades over the Alluvial Fan into Horseshoe Park. This area of the park was catastrophically altered by the failure of a dam in 1982. In the fall of 2013, this landscape was again forever changed by massive rains that caused severe flooding and brought a deluge of water and rocks down the slopes. As I followed news of the flooding, it saddened me to see that peaceful place where we had prayed buried under rubble and mud.

It has been hard to watch as a place we love has experienced a succession of natural disasters in the last 2 years. We loved the beauty that was, and we wanted it to stay the same. And yet as I think about the devastation and damage caused by wildfire and flood, I can’t help but think that our life in the last year has been like those peaks and valleys—hard hit, burned by injustice, flooded with pain, forever changed by wounds we never expected. Somehow in the last few years, the havoc wreaked on this place we love has mirrored our own journey with Christ.

I’ve looked at photos from the fire. New trees will spring up to cover the burned-out ridges, but right now, it’s ugly and messy. It will be a long time before that canyon boasts swaths of stately conifers in the charred scars left by the flames. I’ve looked at photos from before and after the flood. In places, the landscape has been completely changed as rivers raced down slopes, shuttling rocks and mud; breached their banks; and forged new courses, creating channels where none existed. The old way it looked, the old way it was, is gone.

I realize it’s such a convicting metaphor for how God has been working in our lives this last year. I know God is not the cause of the wounds we have received. I know He is grieved and weeps with us. He does not relish the fire and flood, but though His hand could have stayed them, He chose to let them pass on through and roll over us. Looking at our situation, people have often lamented in awkward, hesitant words that we must wonder how God could do this to us. I’m sure there is suffering God could allow in our lives that would tempt me to agonize over that question, but not this time, not this trial. I am convinced that it broke the heart of my Lord to allow the fire and flood to fall on us, and so I am just as convinced that He must have had a very good reason for letting them come.

God’s ways are always beyond us, but sometimes they are easier on the heart. We can readily accept when He comes like a warm campfire on a chilly winter night—the kind we want to sit around and roast marshmallows. It’s harder to take when He comes like a searing wall of flames—the kind that scorches everything in its path, making ashes of the things we wanted to keep. We welcome God when He comes soft and gentle like a cool rain on a blistering August day. But sometimes, we need more than a pattering shower. So He comes like a flood, tearing old things away in His torrent, raining new things down in His rush, carving new channels where none existed, and forever changing the landscape. And we weep for what we miss. And we mourn for what we lost, and that is okay. God knows how hard it is to see the seed of beauty in our burned-out, flood-ravaged lives. But by faith, we can know that seed is there. Before the first sprig of green pushes up through the blackened earth, it is there. Before the flood waters recede, it is there. It is there because He is in the fire and the flood. There is no suffering He allows that is not meant to bring greater beauty to our lives and to His Kingdom.

I’m convinced that in those moments when we feel completely wrecked by God’s hand, He is actually at work in our lives in ways that only fire or flood could accomplish. Suffering testifies to His transforming power working in us and His tender Presence walking with us. This is why we can “consider it joy” even when God’s hand on us is heavy. We say that we want to be more like Christ, that we desire for God to change us. Well, sometimes, to be changed by God is to be ravaged by God—not ruthlessly, recklessly, or callously, but lovingly, purposefully, and tenderly.

Whenever I am tempted to despair under trial, reading Lamentations 3 always brings me this surging sense of hope. Here, Jeremiah recounts in great detail his own ravaging by God, and just when you want to cry, “Stop!” because you can’t take hearing any more of this man’s pain, the story takes its turn into beauty:

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. – Lamentations 3:21-33 (NIV)

It’s been a “Lamentations 3” sort of year for my husband and me, awash with wounds and pain that have nearly staggered us at times as we have stumbled together side by side on this path on which the Lord has placed our feet. We have wanted off so badly at times. Although we have been blessed to have each other’s steadfast love and comfort in this trial, some hurts go so deep only God can fully understand what we’re feeling and minister to us. But somewhere in the haze of pain, there has always been a keen awareness of God’s gaze firmly fixed on us in tender love and compassion.

A year and half ago, when the first wisps of this trial began to swirl around us, I distinctly remember a night that I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what was happening. I came downstairs and began to pray. I had been reading a devotional called God Calling for several months. It’s arranged by calendar days, but I had fallen a few days behind. As I prayed, I sensed God urging me to turn to the devotional reading for that day. This is what I saw there:

The Hardest Lesson

 Wait and you shall realize the Joy of the one who can be calm and wait, knowing that all is well. The last, and hardest lesson, is that of waiting. So wait.

I would almost say tonight, “Forgive Me, children, that I allow this extra burden to rest upon you even for so short a time.”

I would have you know this, that from the moment you placed all in My Hands, and sought no other aid, from that moment I have taken the quickest way possible to work out your salvation, and to free you.

There is so much you have had to be taught—to avoid future disaster. But the Friend with whom you stand by the grave of failure, of dead ambitions, of relinquished desires, that Friend is a Friend for all time.

Use this waiting time to cement the Friendship with Me and to increase your Knowledge of Me.

In a holy hush, I wanted to whisper, “Wow!” But all I could do was weep in awe of a God of such precise sovereignty that He could take words written 80 years ago and breathe them into my heart at my exact moment of need. I was awash in His love, its soothing stream soaking my anxious, desperate soul.

Yes, God allows us to be ravaged by adversity, but oh how He loves us in the process! Oh how it breaks His heart to see our pain! Oh how quickly and tenderly He works to save us, to make sure there is not one moment of unnecessary pain! Waiting is so very hard while we are laid open, bleeding, desperately crying out to Him for relief. But I am convinced that if we could see His face with our hearts—see how His eyes are tenderly trained on us and weeping with us even as He allows the pain to come—we would know that His is the greater hurt, watching His beloved suffer and yet knowing it must be.

For me that night, reading those words—it was God setting His precious face before me and saying “See, how I love you! See how My heart breaks over what is about to pass!” It was a stake in the ground, declaring the absolute certainty of God’s goodness and love beyond all the pain and devastation the days ahead would bring. It was my first glimmer of beauty in the suffering, and those moments of precious communion have fed and sustained my faith through this trial.

God is always good. We say it all the time. But if our faith can really absorb the hard truth that God is good even as He allows us to suffer, then I think nothing in our earthly intimacy with our Savior surpasses the rich dichotomy of His goodness and love coming to us in the fire and the flood.

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