Things We Learned From the Fire: the day the church broke me

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In the middle of the night before Halloween my first year in high school I stood in my pajamas out in the front yard and watched our house burn all the way to the ground. A hungry spark from a wire in the attic had begun to feed its greedy, licking tongue while a family of eight remained tethered to sleepy dreams in the only peace and quiet there was in a full day.
And that fire…it ate and ate and ate until it devoured the attic of the old house and began climbing down the walls searching for more. Even though it had never occurred to us to practice fire drills, the drive to save your own neck is basic instinct and we all managed to help each other scramble out nearest windows and gather in the red dirt driveway.
The neighbors joined from behind their curtains and we all watched without words the ripples of heat bend the cool night air and the house seemed to suck in on itself until it vanished.
The fire, finally sated, had taken everything except our lives and the kitchen table.
Driving away from the ruins of a whole life’s time that early morning, the smell of smoke and our unasked questions hung in the air between us.
Insurance for the poor is basically the same as a ten day Italian cruise and we had signed up for neither. This left our large family with no clothes, no shoes, and nowhere to port.
A thought parade of things lost in the fire began in my mind like bubbles from a freshly poured coke. I considered the clothes I had laid out for school the night before, a box of treasured letters hidden under my bed, and the robin’s egg I found under our clubhouse tree I was sure I could coax to hatch.
And like coke bubbles tend to do, these thoughts made my eyes water, too.
If we had just enough to get by before, we had nothing now and my heart could not make the ends of any two thoughts tie off into a solid knot of us somehow being okay.

*****

The next day we went to pay our respects to the general area where our home used to sit because that’s what’s expected during the visitation part of laying to rest.
After awhile the adults got boring and the younger ones started poking through the ashes and made a game of identifying melty black globs. We got lost on our own for just a short while until a truck rocked slowly into our uneven driveway. A man I didn’t recognize unfolded from the truck and scooped his hat off his head.
He told us how the church had been praying for our family and they had all pitched in to help us get back on our feet and where did we want him to put all this stuff?
The truck of his bed was full.
For weeks, a truck continued to back right on up to the door of the house someone helped us rent and didn’t stop unloading until our house was full. Clothes, furniture, dishes…anything that can be replaced was.
And then some: I even got my very own water bed.
I had never been rich before.
Watching the little church pick us back up felt to me like trying to fit a very large square into a microscopically, impossibly small round space.
It felt exactly like that.
I understood we were a family more than a strong throw of a stone outside the circle of light cast by privilege in more ways than one. We could never pay anyone back and because we were all like marked POWs in my dad’s war with addiction, we were mostly left alone to deal with the things we all silently agreed were secret.
But the church wouldn’t just leave us be.
In my memory there seemed to be no gap between the warmth of still-seething ashes to the arms of the church around our shoulders.
I was fourteen and I knew we didn’t deserve it and I began to droop under the extravagant nature of this lavish love and giving.
Now isn’t favor we have no way of earning just the warm breath of Grace?
I began to droop and bend under the weight towards the floor and all the way to my knees where I began to crack into what must have been a thousand pieces and eventually broke wide open.
Leonard Cohen sings a song about how the cracks in everything are how the light gets through. I know this to be true but they also let a lot out, too, like old hurts that try for all the years to hide in shadows.
I am ever grateful that old country church didn’t try and cram Jesus down my rebellious throat with every bite of their hot casseroles or split the frog-fine hairs of each other’s theology or debate amongst themselves about whether we deserved the help given the obvious state of our broken affairs.
They showed up and they loved us.
And everything about my life is different now because of that.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Eliza | 11th Oct 16

    Love this! “I’m grateful that old country church didn’t try to cram Jesus down my rebellious throat . . . They showed up and they loved us.” How profound. Kinda like the kindness we were talking about the other day. We sure need more of this.

    Love you, my friend. Hope today is good to you.

    • Melissa Blair | 3rd Nov 16

      I know you know this well. Love swimming in the deep with you and miss you crazy. Gavin and Emma have both read Wonder and it is on my list. Will you please come to the Ozark mountains for coffee soon?
      PS I’m still sour-ish that they won’t have you filling them full of good stuff.
      PPS Love your guts.

  2. Teresa Stout | 11th Oct 16

    Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. It is wonderful to see the church be the hands and feet of Jesus.

    • Melissa Blair | 3rd Nov 16

      Oh, Teresa. It was so good to hear from you. The hands and feet are alive and well in spite of, aren’t they? Thank you so much for these words.

  3. Jenny Marrs | 11th Oct 16

    Oh goodness. This is so beautiful. What an incredible picture of the church…one so many of us need a reminder of. How we can love freely and extravagantly and set aside debates over theology and who deserves grace (and who doesn’t). Thank you for sharing this hard, yet redemptive, story.

    • Melissa Blair | 3rd Nov 16

      Jenny. Thank you friend for the gift of these words to me. The church, she is alive and well…we know this by heart, don’t we?

  4. Casey Squyres | 11th Oct 16

    Melissa I sure love ya… Even though your words made me cry on a Tuesday morning. ❤️

    • Melissa Blair | 18th Nov 16

      Oh Casey. I love you. These simple, sweet words from you just rung some bell in my heart and cleared out some of the noise there. Miss you so much.

  5. Heather Gee | 11th Oct 16

    I will never forget this. I rode out there with my dad. Saw the house and tried to get out to help like I was some kind of fireman. I couldn’t even lift the hose but I knew it was my friend’s house and I was not going to let it fall! He made me get back in the truck…..

    • Melissa Blair | 18th Nov 16

      Your comment made me laugh…and then have a little sideways grin of missing you and those times so much. Buckeyes got each other’s back, right? Miss you friend. Sure love hearing from you.

  6. Scott | 11th Oct 16

    Have I told you how beautiful you are today? I’m glad you’re mine. I’m proud of you and I love you. The unconditional love the church showed that week lives in our family today through you. The decision they made for prayer first and then willingness to act on faith and obedience. Why must I complicate it so often.

    • Melissa Blair | 18th Nov 16

      Favorite comment of all time ever in the history of. This stopped me in my tracks and took my breath a little…love you so much. And you’re ALL MINE. Best life ever.

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