This last year has come with no shortage of challenges for many of us. Our family has stayed mostly in lock-down because of some vulnerabilities to COVID-19. We’ve thus committed ourselves to living as beautifully as we can despite the circumstances. Against all other threats that have inhabited recent history – divisive and destructive politics, a global pandemic, job losses, fractured communities, heartbreak and death – in all this, home has been where we felt safest. However, what happens when that very home is threatened by wildfires?
At one time, there were three large wildfires within a 20-mile radius of our home, to the North, South, and West. This distance may seem like a lot, but the North wildfire spread 17 miles in one day, and the West wildfire spread over 120,000 acres in one week! Our state is in a heavy drought right now, and with all the uncertainty, we felt it wise to begin preparations to evacuate if we needed to. It was the strangest of sights to stand in our backyard at night and see an ominous orange glow pulsing over the hills to the North only to turn our heads and see a bright red glow over the hills to the South.
So… how to tell the kids? How do we ask them to carry this uncertainty when we ourselves don’t quite know how?
“I suddenly asked, “Father, what is sexsin?”
He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor.
“Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said.
I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.
“It’s too heavy,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.””
― The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom
So how do we know what our children can carry?
We did tell the kids. We tried to keep it as fearless as possible, but we did not hide the possibility that our home may be in danger. We focused on what we could do: Go-Bags. We had the kids pack Go-Bags just in case. We invited them to pack favorite books and a few special stuffed animals and a couple changes of clothes into their little suitcases. And they responded fairly well. But the next morning, my daughter was pulling around her suitcase with her wherever she went. It’s difficult for a 5 year old to express existential angst, so I asked her how the suitcase was feeling, and she told me that the suitcase felt safer being with her. I wanted to tell her everything was going to be ok. But I didn’t know that. And if fire swept through our valley, I would be a liar. So I pulled up the map of the fires and showed her where they were, then showed her where we were. I told her she could trust me to keep an eye on it today. I told her to put her suitcase in a very special place where she knew exactly where it was, and then I told her she should go about her day, to have school with her mom, to play, and to trust her dad to let her know if and when we needed to go.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
I want to protect my kids during this time. To find how to help them navigate this time well. It was VERY tempting to downplay COVID-19, and it was tempting to not tell them about the danger from the fires. I still don’t express my concerns about politics to my kids, because that is not something they are ready to carry, but I also know that, try as I might, my kids will have challenges – challenges that I will be unable to protect them from. In fact, some challenges would probably grow BECAUSE I protected them too much.
So I’ve been trying to walk that balance.
There is danger in the world. There are things we cannot control. But God is good. And He has called us to do things that help bring light to the dark.
Sometimes when we’re scared we are given grace to move through that fear, and then we are given the grace to help others when they are afraid. God takes all things and turns them for good, and we can participate in that. We can invite others to see God in the midst of their challenges, fears and difficulties, whatever they may be. I love my kids very much, but a truer, deeper worth is only to be found in their Heavenly Father, the God who is the same loving God yesterday, today, and forever. We can teach our children to trust a certain God in uncertain times, not with the expectation that He will always take the bad away or make everything immediately ok, (although He COULD and we’re sure gonna pray for that!) but by calibrating our hearts to His goodness and the trust that everything, ultimately, in the End, is going to be ok. I want to teach my kids that God’s grace is sufficient. …because I need to remember that, too.
But even with a good God at our side, we cannot expect that we will never be asked to carry anything that feels unbearable. There will be losses and heartaches that each of us will face. These losses are not always physical. They are oftentimes emotional too – a lost sense of safety or blissful ignorance. So much of parenting is steeped in the false belief that if my kids are not happy all the time, I’m not doing my job. But if happiness is the only atmosphere they breathe during their childhood, they may be gasping for breath in their adult years; constantly trying to acclimate to air full of increasing challenges and difficult emotions. As I teach my kids to hope in the eternal, I also want to teach my children how to grieve well the inevitable losses that will come in this life. We ourselves find it all too tempting to hide from grief. As if necessary grief was a specter of terror meant to take something from us, and if we could only hide from it, we would be free from pain. But grief itself can be a gift of healing too, much like a forest fire.
God allows forest fires, believe it or not, for the good of the forests. When trees die and dry, they must be burned out so that new growth can come in and take its place. If the forest is not permitted to clear the dross in this natural way, the forest will continue to pile up dried dead wood, creating dangerous conditions to the point that when a spark DOES inevitably ignite, it will burn MUCH hotter, MUCH farther, MUCH longer than it would have otherwise. So it is with grief.
Grief that is un-attended to is as a forest full of dead trees and dry grass. When we do not let grief do its holy work, it lies at the bottom, drying and accumulating as kindling. Then when our hearts reach a place where they cannot contain that grief any longer, even a small spark releases a raging fire. Has something simple ever set off an explosion of intense anger or sorrow, and you were not sure why? It is possible, at least for me, those conflagrations come because we’ve avoided grieving something in the past, and grief must attend to its holy work. It is for our good, not harm. And that natural grief is good for our children, too.
I’ve also learned that Lodgepole pinecones don’t open unless they’ve been opened by fire. There are no new pine forests without forest fires. Some new growth must be activated by flame. I believe the joy and love of the Lord God is what will draw my children unto Him. But I must never forget that in a fallen world, God has given us the gift of challenge and grief so that we may grow here in this soil, too.
What if we changed how we thought about difficulty in this time of… great difficulty? What if we were good stewards of the hearts of our children so that they were not broken by being asked to carry what we are meant to carry for them, but also that they are not underdeveloped because we carry for them what they are meant to carry for themselves? What if instead of not wanting our children to be ‘scarred for life’, we wanted them to be activated by the challenges as a pinecone is by the flames? What if the certainty of God, pulling at His same yoke, makes any challenge they face bearable, because they face it with Him? What if we try to grow a strong tree, rather than just protect a pinecone?
What that looks like for each of us, and each of our children, I don’t know. There will be differences. And I’m not suggesting we ADD things for our children to wrestle with. Those things will naturally come. But when they come, as we saw when they were babies taking their first steps, sometimes the fall is just as important as the step, because the body is learning how to balance. The pain of a fall is a teacher, just as the pleasure of stepping forward builds courage and clarity.
A pearl starts with the irritation of sand. The pine tree starts with flames on a pinecone. A child is born into the world with the mother’s agony. And yet, we stand back and look at the results of each of these painful experiences and marvel at what they produce .
If we know that moments of difficulty can facilitate miraculous growth, we must ask what might the challenges our children face right now grow them into being? What could they become if they were equipped to face these present struggles well? What will they ‘here become’? Don’t be too hasty to take the pain away if God is choosing to use it to shape their precious hearts for His good purpose. May we always shepherd their souls to see “Emmanuel, God with us”, with them in it all. Let us commit ourselves to the important work of seeing God in this, yes – even this. And may we show our children how to see Him here too. Our God did not come down to earth as a man to remove all heartache and sorrow from this mortal life, but to be WITH us in it. To give us courage and purpose and point our hopes to the life everlasting beyond mortality, where we will fully become what we are meant to become because of everything this life is meant to grow us into. Even amidst such pain and difficulty, may this grand mystery always draw our eyes up in wonder.
So when the fires come, don’t be afraid. Let the fire do its natural work. And as you pack your Go-Bag, pack it only with what your Heavenly Father has given you to carry. Take His hand and trust him to carry the rest. This is how we teach our children to live in a world with forest fires.
The featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Adam Nettesheim is Director of Fellowship for The Cultivating Project, and a columnist for Cultivating magazine. Through writing and illustrating, Adam seeks to pull on the golden thread that leads us Homeward. Adam is a ‘Multi-Media Specialist’ by day at a municipality in Colorado but his most important (and favorite) work is husband to his wife Sarah and father to his 3 children. His writing (and a few other things) can be found at https://adamrnettesheim.com/.
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