St. Paul once wrote that we grieve, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). I saw that personally once, when I attended the funeral of a man who was the patriarch of his Hmong clan, some of whom were members of the congregation I served. The family had decided to have one service, first letting those who had become Christians approach his body, and then allowing the rest of the family to say goodbye.
The contrast was like night versus day. When the Christian family members came forward, they wept and mourned, but also recalled Scripture that affirmed his eternal life and their opportunity to be with him again. Then they withdrew to the back of the church, and the rest of their relatives came forward. These people believed it was goodbye forever, and the depth of their grief was unfathomable, inconsolable.
Grief is even more traumatic when the loss is on a massive scale. This past week, an entire town – Paradise – burned down in a single day. It’s the largest wildfire ever to hit California, and it’s still burning as I write this. For those of us lucky enough to be outside that area, the smoky air has been dangerous: a white wall of particulates so bad that people were advised not to go outdoors for four of the past six days. We grieve, all of us, for the many people we know, and for the many more we do not.
People are already lining up to respond. Scores of fire fighters and Medical Examiner units have come from other regions and other states. The Office of Emergency Services has set up an entire town of tents for survivors. More than 35,000 people were evacuated, the great majority of them dispersed to family or friends for the duration.
People have experience community devastation in many ways, including a town in Southern California that same day, not to mention hurricanes, floods, or mass violence. In every case we grieve, right along with God, and then we respond as soon as we can, and learn what we can do to help. We grieve, but we also hope for new life that can arise – and then we work to embody God’s healing presence.
Your partner in ministry,