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.
I could have gone the rest of my life and never known how God restores broken things. I could have been a good girl who made good choices and everything went smoothly for her and I would have been insufferably good to no one and useful for nothing. I would not have needed the love and comfort of a savior if I saw that I was fully capable of saving myself. But God has graciously not allowed me that luxury.
I have been brought low. I have been laid bare. I have felt powerless and unprotected in many situations others won’t have to face. And on my best days, I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful because I am raising kids who have come through their own fires. There was devastation in their family life before I ever knew them, but God made these children strong and resilient. He put seeds of life in them that this fire has has released. They are kind and compassionate. They are thoughtful and empathetic. They know things other people may NEVER in their lives have to know about forgiveness and redemption. Those are gifts I wish they wouldn’t have had to be given, but they have. And I’m proud of them and thankful for the ways God has humbled me and allowed me to identify with the struggles of the fire. It makes me a more compassionate mother, a more thoughtful friend, a more humble follower of Jesus.
My kids have seen the pinecone painting in our house. I have talked with them in varying degrees about how it reminds me that God can make beauty out of hard things and that he isn’t surprised by our struggles. A few weeks ago somebody special to us left our home. He had been living with us for a few months and it was time for him to transition to the next step of his journey. It was right for him to go, but it was hard. When my kids came home from school that day, just hours after he left, my five-year-old and seven-year-old both handed me pinecones they found on their way home. I cried. I cried tears I didn’t know were just waiting to be given permission. I am not a crier and I think my kids were a little stunned. I told them how I had been feeling sad and their gift reminded me that God knew this was hard and had a plan for us and for this young man. For the next few weeks, they both brought me more pinecones each afternoon. I now have a bowl overflowing with them that sits on the kitchen table.
We need these “ebenezer” objects in this life. We need tangible reminders of where we’ve been and where we’re going and the faithfulness of God through it all. We are prone to wander and forget. Our fires may look different, but many of us are struggling in seasons where we’ve had our hopes dashed and our hearts crushed. For this season, we are pinecone people, holding tight to God’s faithfulness to redeem and restore what we lose in the fire.