Last year there was a fire in an area of the country that is precious to me. We spent five years working in a group home that bordered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I was glued to my computer last November, watching for updates from friends, checking on the situation at the group home, and keeping tabs on the local news where I heard the names of beloved hiking spots and areas of the park that held precious memories for me. . . all burned and burning.
As I watched it all unfold at a distance, I remembered driving through Yellowstone National Park on a family vacation when I was a kid. We drove through a part of the park that had been recently devastated by wildfire. I was upset to see the black earth and dead trees. I remember telling my dad this didn’t seem right. Why didn’t firefighters stop the fire? My dad patiently explained to me that sometimes the best thing was to let a fire burn, that a fire could be part of God’s plan for keeping the forest healthy by burning out the overgrowth and letting it start fresh. My dad pointed out areas where you could see new trees returning and new growth coming up through the charred remains.
Now, sitting in front of my computer, agonizing about the fire that had put so many homes and lives in danger and was ravaging a beautiful place I loved, I needed some tangible sign of hope. I wanted to remember that fire can be a cleansing thing. I needed to know it not just because of this literal act of fire in front of me, but because I’ve seen too much devastation and pain. I found myself reading article after article about how a forest rebuilds after a fire and I stumbled upon an image I couldn’t forget. An image of a pinecone burned and charred, still glowing red from the heat. But a pinecone that was open with possibilities for new life.
There are pinecones that will not open to release their seeds unless they are heated to extreme temperatures. They sit high up in pine trees, potentially for decades, entirely closed. They are the forest’s “in case of emergency, break glass” plan for regrowth in the aftermath of a fire. When a fire rips through, the pinecones are heated up to the exact right temperature to cause them to slowly open so they can release their seeds. After the fire has stopped, these pine trees are one of the first things to repopulate the forest. As I looked at that image, I knew it was something I needed around to remind me of how disasters, suffering, and pain are not surprises to God. He has already looked at the devastation of the world and he planned for ways that new life could take root. He planned for growth to come from situations that seem entirely like death.
My talented friend Maddie took the image I came across and painted it for me. It now hangs in my home as a daily reminder to my family and me of how God takes what was meant for evil and uses it to bring good into the world. The beauty of my life and family would not be possible without a whole lot of fires. I don’t think God takes joy in the fires of infertility, of family break-down, of marriage struggles and miscarriage. But I think he sifts through the ashes of the pain the world throws at us and shows us where he’s hidden the seeds that will bring joy and hope again.
I wish this world had never burned me. I wish these were lessons I didn’t need to know. But I have seen this frustratingly consistent theme in my life over the last 15 years. God took a girl who had a sweet, protected, mostly carefree upbringing and he has brought her through the fire. Things have been taken from her and she has experienced grief and loss she didn’t know were possible. Which is precisely why it was necessary.