Being Refined After the Fire
July 16, 2020
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
I love the opportunity to write for CMDA on a regular basis. I always sit down at the computer and words flow out of my heart and out of whatever I am experiencing at that point in time. It has been a new experience to struggle so much with my blog entry this month. I have written four or five entries—and every single one of them is depressing and discouraging, and also very similar to the one I wrote on my last assigned blog date. I keep trying, and I keep coming up pretty empty. It’s only after attempt number four or five that it occurred to me to think about the emptiness itself.
There is a story in my family’s history that has always been deeply meaningful to me. When my grandfather and his four older siblings were children, their family lived in a ranch house in West Texas. I have never seen pictures of the house, but in my mind, it’s a large, rambling, comfortable home with plenty of room for the family of seven. My grandfather and the siblings I knew always talked about it with great affection and nostalgia. It was, apparently, a wonderful home for their family. In 1916, when my grandfather was three years old, the house caught fire. There were no fire hydrants on the ranch, and town was a drive away. No easy access to water or any other firefighting material was available. And the house—the one with plenty of room and creature comforts—burned down. The family of seven then moved into town, into a two-bedroom home where they crowded together and tried to rebuild the life they had enjoyed.
Maybe some of this is my own fantasy interwoven with the actual facts. But as a child, I vividly remember my grandfather and his sister talking about things that happened “before the fire” and “after the fire,” as if the fire was a sea change that divided their family’s life into two distinct parts. My great aunt Eleanor still lived in that same two-bedroom home when she died 12 years ago, so I had a lot of personal experience with that little house.
Imagining a family of seven living there has made my mental picture of the old house more colorful, I suspect. I remember sitting in the tiny kitchen of the house in town and Aunt Eleanor pointing out two exterior doors. “We brought those from the old house after the fire,” she said. Why they removed doors from the remaining walls of the burned house and moved them to their new home, I have no idea. But the doors weren’t the only things recovered from the fire. For example, when Aunt Eleanor died, a shoebox that was more than 90 years old was found way in the back of a cabinet, filled with soot-covered bits and pieces. Half a porcelain doll’s head. Broken china plates. Rings that had melted onto other items in a pool of black goo. Pieces of glass I can’t identify. The doors and the box reinforced my vision of a family whose life was abruptly chopped into two irreconcilable parts. And in some way that I can’t really pin down, the part of life “after the fire” was never as full as it seemed it might have been. There was always a lingering regret that seemed to cast its shadow forward into the future.
Again, half of this may be my imagination filling in the gaps. But, true or embellished, this story has been my lifelong cautionary tale of sorts. When Aunt Eleanor died, the only thing I wanted of hers was one of those exterior doors that came from the old house “after the fire.” It now stands in my home. My kids and I decorated the window that fills the top half of the door and we included the verse that the story of the fire always brings to my mind: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1a, NIV 1984).
That Psalm goes on to say: “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:1b-2, NIV 1984).
Funny how I have that door and that verse standing in my living room, where I see it every day, and I seem to have completely forgotten its truth. For emptiness is a result of laboring in vain, isn’t it? Isn’t the void I’m feeling related to a problem of output being greater than intake? Laboring more than I am allowing the Lord to build?
I have been deeply discouraged and disillusioned by the fact that the church—or at least vocal parts of it—are leading voices lately in refusing to love others and refusing to show compassion. I am absolutely certain that if Jesus walked among us today, He would wear a mask, even if He thought it was silly, as a way to protect and encourage others around Him. I am absolutely certain He would listen to the hurt of those who have experienced racism and would try to understand their perspective. I am absolutely certain He would value the scientific expertise He endowed us with and not find it threatening to His power or faith. He would not argue death rates or percentages. He would cry over the ones who were lost.
How is it that we, His people, are doing the complete opposite in so many of these areas? We who label ourselves with His very name—“Christ-ian”—but speak with judgment and division rather than love and compassion. Honestly, I have thought many times over the last few months, as I listened or read the thoughts of a Christian, that, were I not already a Christian, I would run as far away from what these people have as I could. There is nothing attractive about a Christianity that is more interested in defending its own freedom than it is in caring for the vulnerable among us. There is nothing attractive about a Christianity that tells a person of color that they have not experienced what they say they have experienced. There is nothing attractive about a Christianity that is afraid of the scientific information and expertise God has given us as humans.
So this is a “fire” experience. “Before the fire” I was comfortable and happy in my faith and in my professional expertise. “After the fire” I find myself squeezed into a tiny little place without enough room. A place of loss and disillusionment. A place where other people don’t fit.
But somehow, like my grandfather’s family before me, I am allowing the fire to cast its shadow into the future. Right now, “after the fire” feels like all that is left. But it isn’t all that is left. It is only what is around me now. If God built my house and watches over my city, then its future is certain. If God loves me, then rest is guaranteed. The fire is difficult and traumatic and wounding. But it is not final. In fact, God uses fire to refine us (Isaiah 48:10).
He also promises to walk through it with us:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…Fear not, for I am with you…” (Isaiah 43:2-5, ESV).
If these things are true, then fire, though uncomfortable, is not a thing to fear. It is a thing to welcome. It provides a path to purification. It opens an opportunity to experience God’s presence in a new way. And Isaiah, the same prophet who gave us those words about fire, gives us these words from God about the future:
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV 1984).
I am challenged to see the new things God is doing in and around me through the challenges 2020 has presented to date. Where is He reviving me and those around me? How is He changing and refining my practice? My family? My church? Where is He asking me to let go of the past (or the present) and look to the future He is opening up in front of me?
Questions worth pondering. Join me