Friday, September 7, 2012

When The Light Goes Out

I first thought someone had burned dinner and was airing out their smoke-filled kitchen. I could only see the eves of the roof from behind the high privacy fence, but the coloration of the smoke wafting from the corners of the shingles informed me that this ominous cloud was not coming from any burnt meatloaf.

After calling in the location of the structure fire to 911 on my radio, I ran from my cruiser to the high privacy fence and vaulted over, breaking the tops off several fence planks in a less than glorious dismount. I pounded on the door with urgency and yelled “Police, is anyone in there?” over and over again in an attempt to wake any sleeping residents. It was 11:30pm and most of the townspeople were down for the night.

There was no response, just more smoke and now a flicker of flame coming from the back of the house. I kicked the door open and was greeted by a wall of exiting black soot. Squatting down low to avoid the rising eclipse, I could see an opening in the black cloud that led straight into the living room.

There is a certain sort of darkness to structure fire smoke—darkness that clouds out even the light of the dangerous fire that gives it birth. Most people that die in house fires are killed by inhalation and asphyxiation long before the flame ever touches their skin.

My flashlight broke through the pitch and to my horror, instantly revealed several small toys just inside the front door.

“There are kids in here!”

The smoke was so thick it blocked the view of most of the room, so I took the only path available and entered low and to the floor. From the center of the living room I frantically scanned the house with my flashlight, yelling between shallow breaths and gagging coughs. “Is there anyone in here?!”

The only reply was the increasing crackling of fire from the back of the residence.

Then it happened. My flashlight went out—and the darkness surrounded me in the room like an enemy ambush. I hit the light against my hand and clicked the end cap switch over and over. Nothing, but darkness and smoke.

Now, allow me to take a small interlude from the action to explain the difference between a firefighter and a police officer. A police officer running into a burning building is much like a firefighter stumbling onto a bank robbery. He might be forced to act out of sheer moral responsibility, but he is not trained or equipped to act with the same effectiveness.

I would even go as far to say that a firefighter would probably be better off handling a bank robbery than a police officer would be at handling a house fire.

Firefighters are trained to fight the flame as they rescue people from the fire. They wear special fire retardant clothing; have oxygen masks, special lights and even thermal imaging devices that can see through walls as well as through the smoke. And they have water, lots of fire extinguishing water. 

Police officers wear polyester uniforms (that incidentally melt to your skin in the heat of fire) and carry pepper spray, metal expandable batons and guns. To my knowledge, no one has ever effectively pulled a 45 caliber Glock on a fire and made it comply. Fire does not respect authority—it only respects superior equipment and training.

So there I squatted in the smoke filled living room, in complete darkness, as the fire spread towards me—and I thought to myself, “This is how I die.”

Just then, I saw a bright light. It was not the light at the end of a tunnel that people talk about when they have a near death experience, but it was just as attractive. The smoke had shifted away from the open front door exposing the streetlight, illuminating the exit to safety.

I crawled across the smoky room, out of the house and sprinted to the police department only one block away. I grabbed another (working) flashlight and sprinted back to the scene of the fire, only to find the house completely involved as flames licked the night sky through the top of the roof.

The feeling of helplessness was almost overwhelming. There was no possibility of survival now. I fell to my knees in the front yard sucking air and coughing up smoke. The sound of wailing sirens from the approaching fire trucks began to fill my ears. As the firefighters swarmed against the flame, I heard one of them say, “There is no one in the house. It belongs to one of our guys—he just dropped his kids off at the baby sitter’s and came to work.”

Instant relief was followed by slow regret.

“Thank God! Thank you Lord! No one is in that house!"

"But wait a minute, I had just crawled into a burning house for nothing? And what about that flashlight? What a piece of crap! I’m going to write the company a long nasty letter letting them know how their product’s defectiveness almost cost me my life.”

It’s amazing how our so-called “sacrifices” can lead so quickly to thoughts of self-preservation and entitlement.

A few days later, as I was recounting this story (and my ever lingering frustration with the defective flashlight) with a wiser man than myself, I was given some great insight. Perhaps it is far reaching, but it lends some perspective to that awful night. More importantly, it lends some perspective to life.

“Greg, (he paused contemplatively) Have you ever thought what might have happened if your flashlight didn’t go out? You would have stayed in that house, looking feverishly for lost souls that weren’t there. You probably would have died in that fire. Perhaps the smaller light went out so you could see the greater light.”

The insight to God’s complete sovereign intervention was sobering: The defective flashlight actually saved my life!

I still carry that broken flashlight in my police cruiser. I’ll never use it again, but it will always remind me of God’s goodness—even in the midst of pitch-black darkness.

"Perhaps the smaller light went out so you could see the greater light.”

We don’t always understand what the Lord is doing in our lives and we don’t have to fully understand in order to act. Still, we can trust His power even when we cannot see His plan. He is sovereign; He is good and full of grace. 

And sometimes the light goes out leaving us stumbling in the darkness panicked, frustrated and hopeless—even angry that the defectiveness of the light would thwart our mission. But the Lord is good to break our lights and cloud our vision during certain dark and difficult times. For only then can we see the true, life giving, hope saturated light of rescue and crawl victoriously to His door of refuge.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Tragedies (and Grace) of a Two-Week Vacation

We come here every year. 

For 25 years we have spent at least a portion of our summer vacation at Cherry Grove, SC on North Myrtle Beach. We come here for several reasons. Probably the best reason is my in-laws own a condominium on the beach and offer it to us a week each year, free of charge. Nothing makes a vacation more inviting than free accommodations.

We also come here because we love this town and we love the beach. It is fun for our family and is relaxing to our souls. There is something about the ocean that makes a person feel small, the way they should feel, while at the same time illustrating the peaceful and powerful attributes of the Almighty.

There is also the sentimental meaning of this place. Kim and I first came here the year before we were married. We began our courtship here, and we still take long walks on the beach holding hands 25 years later. We have come to this place many times as a refuge in seasons of great life storms, and other times just to relax in a shelter away from great life stresses. Cherry Grove claims a special place in our hearts and lives.

And so every year we strategically and intentionally begin planning our vacation in January and set out in June for one full week of beach life. The six months from planning to going is part of the joy of the vacation, filled with great anticipation, dreaming and preparation. This year was even more special because my in-laws have decided to sell the condo and settle down in Florida with their fellow snowbirds. Added to this is the realization that my son, Noah, will be leaving for a four year enlistment in the US Army in August.

We figured our future vacation time here might be limited for our family, so we planned a very special two-week stay. 

The anticipation of a two-week vacation, away from our very stressful jobs, at our favorite place in the world, with the realization that it could be our last, made us count down the days like a prisoner awaiting release. 

But when the day finally came, it came complete with the pain, tragedy, interruption and disappointment that this sinful world cannot avoid.  We began our 10-hour trip south by first heading 3 hours north to Columbus, OH, paying one last heart-wrenching visit to my dear aunt (who was more like a mother to our broken family). She had been diagnosed with stage four cancer two weeks prior.

We left her house in tears, knowing we had said our final goodbye's on this side. We then proceeded 3 hours northeast to be with our son, Jake, as he had some minor (which is always major) surgery at a hospital in Morgantown, WV.

After spending six hours at the hospital with an autistic man-child in complete hysteria--and finally in a medicated stupor, we got him back to his safety net at the Potomac Center and proceeded south to Cherry Grove, SC. It was a long, quiet, emotional drive.

We spent the first three days of our vacation feeling guilty for being there, worrying about our son and waiting for the inevitable call from my uncle. Added to our guilt was the aftermath of a severe storm that ripped through our home community leaving thousands without power and food during a 100 degree heatwave. It was so bad that they had to evacuate the hospital where my wife works. And here we were—two “first responders”—sitting on a beach 500 miles from the mayhem, with our toes in the sand, watching our children being refreshed by the simple pleasures of Krispy Kreme and cool water.

But the beauty of the ocean, the feel of the sand, the smell of the beach all seemed stale and dull, unable to penetrate the wall of guilt and pain that had been built over the past few days.

Then came the call. My aunt died peacefully at midnight on the fourth day of our two-week vacation. I was walking on the beach in the early morning with Kim when we got the call. 

We made the 10-hour return trip home for the grave-side service and a nightmarish view of our sweltering, storm tattered community.

After it was all said and done, we had four days left on our two-week calendar. I seriously contemplated just going into my bedroom, lying on the bed and sleeping for the final four days. I was on the verge of being emotionally paralyzed.  

Instead, I made a command decision to repack my family in the truck and head back 10-hours south in an attempt to salvage what was left of our peaceful getaway. It was probably done more out of spite for the circumstances than in pursuit of relaxation. I am not easily defeated.

Being at the beach during those last four days had its moments of peacefulness; mostly surrounded by a short-time countdown to the end of our vacation and the departure back home.

As I sat on the beach in deep contemplation, frustration and disappointment, I wondered to myself if retreating to a place or a time on this earth where the heart can be fully rested, relaxed and restored was actually possible. I even grew cynical towards God thinking, “The Creator of the universe could not fix two weeks of my schedule, uninterrupted, to enjoy some time with my family! Really?"

The only thing that amazes me more than my sinful, selfish mind is His unconditional, merciful grace.

Then all of a sudden, there on the beach, four days before I would be headed back home, back to work and back to the stressors of life, I finally opened the first book of my carefully planned, two-week vacation reading.

I made it all the way to page 12 before John Piper punched me right in the nose. 

“Imagine being able to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy forever. This is not now our experience(Emphasis mine) Three things stand in the way of our complete satisfaction in this world. One is that nothing has personal worth great enough to meet the deepest longings of our hearts. Another is that we lack the strength to savor the best treasures to the maximum worth. And the third obstacle to complete satisfaction is that our joys here come to an end. Nothing lasts.” (John Piper, The Pleasures of God)

And there I saw the grace of a merciful God who was so skillful and careful to reveal to me—through the shadows of eternity—that He is not taking pleasures away, but preparing me for pleasures unending. 

Nothing lasts here. Storms come, people die, hearts break and sin abounds. And two weeks (or two years) is not enough to kill the pain. Nothing is able to meet our heart's most desperate desire for pleasure. And even if it did, we do not (yet) have the capacity to comprehend and enjoy it with any lasting effect.

However, there is coming a Day when He will lead us down the crystal beaches filled with unspeakable treasure, into the ocean of unending pleasure. And on that Day, our greatest satisfaction will not be in the relaxation of a two-week (or two-millinium) vacation, but in the relationship with the One who will fill our hearts with eternal joy.

"So we do not lose heart...For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:17)

May all of our vacations point us eternally homeward, and gracefully Godward!