Westmont Magazine God in the Ashes
by Telford Work, Associate Professor of Theology
As I look out the window of my office in Porter Center, to my left is the same verdant vinca that covered the ground Nov. 13. But the mulch and wood chips I see in the area to my right hide blackened soil underneath. Clearing away damaged vegetation has left me with a surprising view of the prayer chapel and Porter Theatre, along with a row of scorched oak trees. It’s our first day back from Thanksgiving break, and students walking the paths outside are turning from side to side to gawk at the bare landscape. Their minds are struggling to adjust their mental maps of Westmont to fit our changed reality. Our theological maps are adjusting as well. As a liberal arts college, we’re constantly encouraging one another to think critically about everything. We can hardly avoid thinking critically about the meaning of the Tea Fire.
This morning in the gym, the air was thick — not with smoke but gratitude. We gathered for “a service of hope and renewal,” beginning with praise of God and then with applause and ovations for the staff, firefighters and law enforcement officers who kept us safe and our campus largely intact. But did God really save our campus? Did God really spare the home of the friend who claimed as much a few days afterward? And if so, what about homes and offices that burned? What about our neighbors on Mountain Drive — some friends of Westmont, some opponents, some indifferent? Did God not spare them? If not, why not?
Soon after the fire a debate sprang up on the Web over the prayer chapel. Some found the fact that the fire burned the riparian forest right up to its picket fence beyond reasonable coincidence. Others were disgusted by the idea of a God who would save a building for his own worship but not the homes of families. Watching the back-and-forth produced the familiar sensation of inadequate theology doing terrible damage.
If Jesus shows anything, he reveals a God of wonders. There is no question that God could naturally or supernaturally have saved the gym, the prayer chapel and all Las Barrancas and Mountain Drive. If not, our prayers would have been nonsensical. So was God involved? As we thank the people who did obviously save our lives and much of our campus, should we thank God too, or leave God out of it?
There are times to leave God out of it. I’m glad I haven’t heard anyone claim that God started the Tea Fire, drove it down the mountainside with his winds, or chose which homes to strike and which to spare. The idea is and ought to be outrageous. But then we seem to be cherry picking — crediting God for what we like, but holding back from extending the credit to what we don’t. In other words, we seem to be crafting an idol out of the doctrine of divine providence. And the solution seems either to become Deists and say God has simply left us on our own, or swallow hard and take the mystical position that it is somehow all God’s natural and supernatural power, from the winds and fires to the fire hydrants and evacuation plans. All unacceptable alternatives.
Where is God in these ashes, then? Let me suggest a different pronoun: Who is God in these ashes?
God is the Father who created the earth that gives us life, however precariously and fleetingly. Like it or not, we’re fragile creatures living in a beautiful but imposing world (Psalm 104). Whether we brought on natural disasters through Adam’s original sin or we merely face them in a bad position of sinful foolishness and vulnerability, we face them nonetheless. Our rare Mediterranean climate is coastal, mountainous, warm, dry, lush — a paradise that necessarily suffers earthquakes, wildfires and floods.
God is the Son who took on mortal flesh and took up residence in our bittersweet world. He shared human hunger, thirst and homelessness and even occupied one of our graves. The Lord is not aloof from our sufferings but in the thick of them (Hebrews 2) — or rather we are not mired in them but risen with him in the Father’s safety (Colossians 3, Hebrews 9).
God is the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Christians are so focused on the risen Jesus that we can come to expect miracles all the time. That is the right kind of mistake: one borne of hope rather than desperation. Yet it misreads the usual role of miracles. In the biblical narratives, signs and wonders are typically inaugural: they usher in a new, yet soon ordinary, life (Genesis 2, Joshua, Acts 2). Even if the prayer chapel had burned along with Kerrwood Hall and our other campus treasures, we would still be basking in the never-fading glow of the first Christian Passover and Pentecost and awaiting the signs that will herald the last Advent. And even if the prayer chapel was saved through an act of special providence, that tale would be but a footnote to the stories we tell over and over of the new creation 2,000 years ago, in our own lives’ turning points, and in the early days of our school. What will ultimately matter most about 2008 is whether we have remained faithful to the new life these events launched.
God is the Son whose wonderful presence is traced across the centuries and across cultures in consistent patterns and symbols. Typology, the art of discerning the fuller significance of discrete and otherwise seemingly isolated events, is not cherry picking but detective work. When we consider a few of our homeless faculty and students, our biblically informed imaginations instinctively reach for the story of Job. These friends’ sufferings are not punishments for sin, sadistic pleasures for the Almighty, or meaningless occurrences onto which existentialists project the only authentic meaning. Rather, they are strains on a trusting relationship with their Savior that will survive every trial: not because these people are superheroes but because Jesus has gone before us all to a test and a triumph beyond even Job’s (Job 42). That doesn’t mean God sent the fire or directed it their way! It only means they’re more than conquerors through him (Romans 8).
God is the Father who peeks through all these signs. In the Son we see the Father clearly, not just as one who made and ordered the universe in inscrutable ways (Job 38-41), but as a lover: lover of Israel, of justice, of the whole creation, of life and, above all, of the Son. Our gratitude to the God of all mercies after a disaster is not mere projection. It is entirely consistent with the display of divine love in Christ’s life. The Father supplied him with all he needed, from a family and a home to grow up in, to the Holy Spirit to empower his ministry, to witnesses to testify to his rise from the dead. Thus we rightly thank God for the colleagues, friends and strangers who took in our evacuees and our displaced. We thank God for the authorities who knew what to do. We thank God that the water flowed and the winds stopped. We thank God for the companies that cleaned up. We thank God for every kind response in word, prayer and deed. There really are good things in life, not just because they please our tastes but because God is good and is ordering them toward a happy ending.
God is the beloved Son who is and embodies Wisdom (Proverbs 8, 1 Corinthians 1). Gaining wisdom (whether through proverbial convention, empirical research or spiritual gifts) and heeding it is of immeasurable help in negotiating our subtle and sinful world. Out of their love of wisdom, a group of believers founded Westmont as an institution dedicated to seeking and spreading it – not only in the form of biblical and theological knowledge but as natural science, social and behavioral science, humanities and life experience. We are back in class and rebuilding because wisdom is worth it.
God is the Holy Spirit who groans even now for the coming renewal of the rest of creation (Romans 8). The Spirit heard our prayers on the night of the fire and transposes them still into the Father’s language of logos. We are all still processing this ordeal, fighting to come to terms with an unwelcome reality. Our inspired scriptures would be our best tutors in how to lament and grieve. Yet we should not imagine that God does nothing but come alongside mourners; the Lord is the Spirit who leads the imaginations of prophets and apostles forward beyond present circumstances. God finally wills a kingdom not of ashes and tears but comfort and joy (Revelation 7).
God is the Son whose orders to prepare for apocalyptic disaster remind us to prepare for ordinary disaster too (Mark 13). Human foresight is a gift, whether it comes to an imprisoned Joseph in a dream, a Nehemiah praying for a way to rebuild Jerusalem’s ruined walls, a dishonest steward who makes friends while he still can, a Paul charging his congregations to build with precious stones rather than wood or straw — or a Troy Harris developing a disaster plan that protected every life on campus and a Russell Smelley leading the effort to clear brush that helped save most of Las Barrancas. When students learn to be mindful of the world’s predicaments, to anticipate them and answer them with skill and grace, their prudence points to the only wise God who knows how to meet both the future’s patterns and its mysteries.
God is the Father who disciplines his heirs to be content in all circumstances (Philippians 4). In the days after the fire, I noticed a contrast in how people were treating their own feelings. When the sheriff announced that students were responsible for the fire, many assumed they were from Westmont, and antagonists and supporters flooded local Web sites with strongly worded comments. When Westmont students were soon exonerated, few apologized. Instead, both sides tended to defend their sharpest statements as legitimate simply because they reflected feelings. Why apologize for feelings? Yet others around me seemed to have a whole different relationship with their affections. There are, of course, the firefighters habituated to calm and endurance under pressure. Among our own, Russell Smelley and Dave Wolf were two of many whose temperance stood out. It can’t be coincidental that both are coaches. Their profession demands the retraining of feelings like deprivation, pain and fear. I never needed convincing that athletics is integral to Christian liberal arts education; if I did, the kinesiology department’s conduct after the fire would suffice; three of their faculty lost homes. I’m embarrassed to compare some of my own reactions. We can and should repent of inappropriate feelings of narrow self-protection, shameful joy or prejudicial support. More constructively, we may seek the discipline Christ sought (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 in Luke 4:1-4) that will yield new feelings and actions that glorify God and work wonders.
God is the Son who warns us of things we will regret. Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by advising us not to build either our eternal houses or our temporal ones in unsustainable places (Matthew 7:13-27). In the last few years, building on the Indian Ocean’s shores, the Mississippi Delta and the Santa Ynez foothills hasn’t looked so smart. How many times has Santa Barbara burned in the last 50 years? How much of California has burned in the last five? We should know better. Down deep, we do. Native Californians like myself have learned to think of living here as a manageable risk. And it is. But a risk is still a risk. Furthermore, risks are psychologically comforting to minimize and dismiss. Our world’s societies are characterized by just such mass denial, all but forcing even the prudent to suffer the consequences. And no one is more prudent than the suffering Messiah who advises us to count the costs, spare no expense to buy heavenly treasure and build on rock so we’ll have no regrets when the rest comes to ruin. That sounds like a call for Westmont to flee Montecito. Yet where is it really safe in this age?
God is the Holy Spirit who leads Jesus’ witnesses into just such places of unsustainability: empires on rotten foundations of idolatry and oppression, cities stricken with poverty, corruption and overbuilding, peoples who can respond to the gospel in unpredictable and even hostile ways — and wealthy semi-rural neighborhoods whose structures burn every few generations before being rebuilt by insurance benefits. Every location, however frustrating, is a place from which to proclaim Christ’s Kingdom (Acts 1:8). Each one calls for courage. It took fortitude for Ruth Kerr even to hear the call to move Westmont to the former Dwight Murphy estate, let alone to heed it. Being here involves taking on financial challenges, local challenges and natural challenges that include the threat of wildfire. Our leaders are undeterred by them because we have taken on a mission to be here cheerfully in the confidence of God’s great faithfulness and in the hope of an indestructible future.