As Eugene Cho wrote recently in southern california is burning, it can be hard to actually enter into another person’s experience. Even for us, right in the midst of the firestorm and its aftermath here in SD, there can be a strange disconnect. Like others around the nation, we’ve been watching the firestorm from the television. As Shane Hipps comments, “The screen always wins.” I mean, we are here and it wasn’t even a week ago that we were grabbing only the essentials as we evacuated through the smoke and sirens early in the morning and yet watching the constant news feed has a strange, dulling effect. The sense of being “informed” creates a false sense of understanding, which can easily create a barrier to actually engaging the reality of individual people’s lives.

Sometimes it takes just being there to feel and understand it. During our return back to San Diego, we drove past the Camp Pendleton fires which created a menacing black cloud through which we had to drive. This junky cell phone photo (which, not to worry, were taken by my wife from the passenger seat!) shows how powerful one small brush fire can be — the hills and valleys in the immediate vicinity were, at the time, pretty well ablaze, so you can imagine what the larger scene looked like:

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However, more than just driving by, what brought home the impact of these fires for me was helping a church family try to deal with the aftermath. This particular family lives in one of the hard-hit neighborhoods and were just able to re-enter today. After much worrying and wondering, they were relieved to find their home in good condition. Their neighbor five houses, down, however, was not so fortunate:
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I have heard about the random nature of fires — one house will be perfectly fine, the next completely leveled. But it is an altogether different experience to see it with my own eyes. We spent most of the afternoon trying to clean up the ash and soot that covered most of everything and to try to make their place livable again.

On Monday, while were still greeting evacuees at our church, a stranger wandered into our education building. After talking for a bit, finding out some of his story and giving him some bus fare, he said (regarding the wildfires), “You know, people call these kinds of things ‘acts of God.'” I told him I didn’t think that was an accurate description of what was happening. As much as we’re all grateful that God has spared our homes, can we really say that we out-prayed or received more favor from God than those who lost their homes? I don’t think this is a straightforward one-to-one proposition — otherwise, we’d all end up losing our places, wouldn’t we?

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After cleaning the front of the house and the garage, we moved to the backyard — which, if we didn’t realize it before, definitely put into perspective how close they came to losing their house. One family member saw the garden hose in the back and didn’t remember leaving it out, and then we saw this burnt out palm tree, not even ten feet from the house:

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We could only guess that either a firefighter or neighbor who stayed behind saw the burning palm tree and doused the flames with the garden hose. Just beyond the white fence is the ravine through which the fire cut a brutal path — embers kicked up from the Santa Ana winds must have caught the house five doors down.

However, the street just across the gulch was hit much harder. I passed house after house that looked as if some angry, mythic giant had just stomped on them; but there was the same randomness — one house was hit, the next three were fine, and then two in a row were gone. News crews were out in full force (I saw at least three), chronicling the heartbreak of families trying to salvage whatever they could.

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My daughter attends the preschool of a church in this community in which 57 families lost their homes. Tonight, they hosted a gathering of worship, prayer and sharing. It did our hearts good to stand with others in our community who have lost it all and yet can say, “We are survivors; God is with us” as we did as a modified benediction today. Reading Scripture together, seeking God and interceding on behalf of others, sitting together in silence. The old hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” came together with a new resonance tonight.

We realized tonight that, in our longing for connection, community is not going to come to us — we have to pursue it, build it wherever we are. If you are in the San Diego area, there are plenty of people in need. Some need help sifting through the rubble, some might need special expertise navigating the maze of FEMA and insurance, and some might just need you to listen to their stories and weep with them. Let’s be the body of Christ to a hurting world. Or, as Donald Miller writes, followers of Christ are called to live “as if something was broken in the world and we were supposed to hold our palms against the wound.”

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