June 1, 2020

God’s Beauty Through the Ashes

In these challenging times, when we feel threatened physically, emotionally, and spiritually, it’s good to remember that God is with us in our struggle. In this article we share the memories of one family’s escape from the Camp Fire that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise, California, in 2018, as a reminder that God doesn’t leave us to face our challenges alone.—Editors

One day in early November 2018, I chose to spend time in worship and praise. As I meditated on Scripture, I looked out the windows and noticed an extraordinary sunrise. I went outside to take a picture, and within moments I heard what sounded like rain, but it wasn’t raining. I stretched out my hand and felt ash falling. In our front yard I saw huge tumultuous clouds—black with smoke, soot, and haze. Smoldering chunks of ash fell from the sky.

As I came back inside, I called my cousin, Carrie, asking what was happening where she lived. She said, “Mary, we’re packing our things to evacuate immediately.” She added, “I received a phone call that Adventist Health—Feather River was being evacuated.”

I glanced back and saw a huge black cloud as Paradise was being consumed by fire.

In the meantime, my husband, Ben, after observing a fire about 35 miles away via Google, felt convicted to hook up the RV to the truck. “Mary, you need to get your clothes, and place in the RV anything you want to take with us,” he said. We had recently returned from a discipleship seminar in New York, so I had my suitcase opened with some of the things I hadn’t yet unpacked. I threw in two pairs of jeans, two tops, a sweater, and a skirt. I told myself, “That will be enough to last a week or so, then I’ll come and get the rest.”

This was the fifth time we’d had to evacuate. We’d always returned and didn’t have to worry about “what if.” I grabbed my computer, my Bible (the one I’ve taken all over the world), my preaching Bible, Dad’s Bible, my iPad, and my phone. At the last minute I mentioned to Ben, “Get your passport, just in case we need identification.”

As Ben backed the RV down Crestmoor Drive, I stopped to take a picture of the RV and the house—for whatever reason. (We later realized the first thing the insurance company asks for is a recent picture of your house.) We began traveling in tandem; I followed Ben, who was driving the RV. The smoke was so thick I could hardly see his taillights. All four lanes of the highway took traffic southbound. The heat of the fire was so intense that I had to turn on the AC to cool the inside of the car. Our dachshund, Buster, was shaking on the seat beside me.

The farther south we drove the more intense were the flames. I saw telephone poles burst into flame, then the wires. Within seconds the blazing fire would rumble just feet away from the car—forcing me to swerve to the shoulder of the road. I heard huge explosions as transformers burst into flames. I heard the sound of trees, homes, and underbrush being consumed by fire.

I had texted our children that we were evacuating and that I would be in touch. While driving, I called them and described what I was experiencing. They each began praying that God would protect us.

While evacuating, a car beside me had its tires burst into flames. A few feet from the car with burning tires, another vehicle in the median caught fire and exploded.

As we began coming out of the worst fire zone area, I glanced back and saw a huge black cloud as Paradise was being consumed by fire. We later learned that the fire burned our home an hour later.

The Kindness of Others

We decided to drive to Modesto, where our son, Benjie, and his family live. What normally takes three hours took us five hours.

God showed us compassion in Modesto. Each day, after we shared our story, people gave us discounts, meals, manicures, etc. When one store assistant asked if I could find everything, I shared with her my story and she hugged me and began to cry. She later sought me out and handed me $60 cash, more than enough to purchase what I needed.

One Sabbath, Ben spoke at the Turlock Seventh-day Adventist Church. A gentleman came to speak with me about our loss. In sharing with him our story, he handed me (as we shook hands) a $100 bill. Shocked, I thanked him for his generosity. He said he hadn’t planned to go to go church that day, but then he decided he would. “I know why God brought me to church today,” he said; “to help you and your husband.”

God oversees our loses, our emotions, and our lives. I learned during this process that God’s faithfulness and promises are what I hang on to. The first morning after sleeping in the RV outside our son’s home in Modesto, I thought of this passage: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isa. 43:2, NIV).*

The next day God gave me another promise, and each day He has been merciful as He has shown His glory. He has provided people—many friends and family members—to show their love, support, compassion, and gifts of concern.

God’s beauty has shown up through the ashes!

Mary H. Maxson is retired after serving as an associate pastor of the Paradise Adventist Church. She and her husband, Ben, have two adult children and a grandson, Benjamin.

*Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.