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SAFE HAVEN IN A WILDFIRE

Fast-moving brushfires devastated southern California in October 2003. According to the Los Angeles Times, the fires killed 24 people, burned about 740,000 acres, and destroyed more than 3,500 structures. Fred Colby lived in a suburb of San Diego at that time, and recalls the inward journey that took him and his wife to safety, and helped rebuild a community.

From the June 27, 2005 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel


I thought it was a well-deserved rest. I was sleeping late on an October Sunday morning almost three years ago. I'd stayed up late the previous evening at my nonprofit's big annual dinner dance.

Even after my late night, though, I was awake in the early morning hours. I felt a general sense of unease, a need to do some praying. The thought came to me that God was ever present, and that His Love was ever enveloping and protecting us.

I'm glad I took time to pray. When I awoke later that morning, my wife told me that a fire appeared to be bearing down on our community, Scripps Ranch, California.

As I looked out our south-facing windows, I could see the whole horizon blanketed in smoke, with bright orange reflecting on the gray blanket's underside. After checking the local newscasts, we decided to pack our two cars with our most important items. A later newscast showed that the fire had already engulfed the whole southern area of our community, and had passed us by in its westward rush. We feared being encircled, so we struck out, driving toward the beach areas.

As we drove west, my first thought was that there is no fear in God, that He is omnipresent and omnipotent. The Bible says in First John, "God is love" and "There is no fear in love." I continued praying: There can be no place where God is not, and His protection is here, not just for my wife and me, but for the entire community. All of us are protected and provided for, and none of us can lose anything of real value, no matter how bad the images of destruction may be. There can be no separation from God, for any of us, not even for a moment.

I also prayed to understand that home, in its deepest sense, is a spiritual idea, and that an idea cannot be damaged or destroyed.

We drove to a restaurant near my wife's place of employment and left one car in the parking lot. Within an hour of leaving our home, we received several offers of a place to stay, through cellphone calls from friends, fellow workers, and family members. Even people who didn't know us stopped to offer to let us stay in their homes. The love expressed to us was nothing short of wonderful. We thought of it as an expression of "God with us," enfolding us in His arms and giving us what we needed.

When we had a quiet moment, I thought of the Bible's account of Elijah on the mountaintop (see I Kings 19). While he took refuge in a cave, the wind broke off pieces of rock, an earthquake shook the mountains, and fire burned around him. Then Elijah heard a "still small voice" and understood that God was not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but was heard in a reassuring voice.

Wanting to be like Elijah, I refused to become fearful because of the continuing reports of fire and danger. I felt at peace and knew that things would be all right.

We decided to drive to our daughter and son-in-law's home in Chula Vista, a suburb in the southern portion of San Diego. The fires had spread to their area as well. Shopping centers were shutting down because of the dangers posed by the fire and smoke. In one more small sign of being fully cared for, employees at a fast-food restaurant gave us free meals before they closed down.

While at our daughter's home, I finally had time to go to a quiet corner and read that week's Christian Science Bible Lesson. It was titled "Probation After Death." I wondered, "What could be in this lesson that would help us now?" As so often happens, the lesson had relevant and supportive citations from the Bible and Science and Health. It included a verse from Psalm 16: "For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [and that's how San Diego looked at that moment]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption" (verse 10).

I saw this message as reaffirmation of God's protection, of His hand reaching out to lift our thoughts above the fires and apparent destruction. That lesson also contained this verse: "If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved" (I Cor. 3:15). This promise assured me that what was most important had been, and would be, saved. By this time, I was no longer surprised when I found that the lesson included the definition of fire in its Biblical significance from Science and Health, which is, in part, "affliction purifying and elevating man" (p. 586).

By the end of that day, our community had created a website that enabled residents to find information about their homes, offers of help, and ways to contact insurance companies and to meet other immediate needs. The outpouring of offers of help — including shelter, clothing, food, labor, and other items — was overwhelming, and clear evidence of God's love meeting basic human needs.

There were more and more messages of love and support for us from friends, in a sense filling our house with the love that couldn't be destroyed.

During this time, we periodically called our home, knowing that if the answering machine worked, our home was probably still intact. And we continued to get our phone message, despite numerous news reports of devastation on our street. Each time we called, over several hours, there were more and more messages of love and support for us from friends, in a sense filling our house with the love that couldn't be destroyed.

A final directive from that week's Bible Lesson was in this passage: "Love is not hasty to deliver us from temptation, for Love means that we shall be tried and purified. . . . Whosoever believeth that wrath is righteous or that divinity is appeased by human suffering, does not understand God" (ibid., p. 22). At that moment, those words meant that we each had a responsibility to see what was spiritually true about our community — to cleanse our own thoughts of fear, blame, or doubt, and to do for others as others had already done for us. Over the next few months, we had many opportunities to do just that.

After staying two nights in places offered to us, we were able to return home. We found our house totally untouched by the fire, without even the smell of smoke inside. We rejoiced with neighbors whose homes had been saved, and offered comfort and help to those who had lost theirs. For many months following the fire, you could drive down our streets and see neighbor helping neighbor in ways not seen before.

The first rebuilt home was completed six months after the fire, and we often walked around our neighborhood celebrating as each wall went up, as each roof went on, as each door was hung and swung open. We became a stronger and more united community. People freely talked with neighbors they had never spoken with before.

A community expresses the qualities that God gives to each of His children — qualities such as the brotherhood and sisterhood that enabled us to come through this challenge stronger than ever. | ♦


Fred Colby and his wife now live in Portland, Oregon, and have the unusually dry Pacific Northwest on their agenda for prayer.

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