It was a cold December night when a fire broke out in the apartment building where our family lived.
We experienced the devastating loss of most all of our earthly possessions. With only a T-shirt and khaki pants on, I stood barefoot across the street from all the smoke and flames in a state of shock. The unbelievable happened before my very eyes.
It seemed forever before the firefighters arrived. By the time the fire was out, what was not burned was forever damaged by the acrid, nauseating smoke, which lingered in my nostrils for weeks.
For reasons long since forgotten, I had brought home from college for the Christmas holidays all of my clothes I owned except a tuxedo. Now I had to start all over again building a wardrobe.
What do we do when we suffer significant losses beyond our wildest expectations? How can we find the courage and wherewithal to pick up the pieces and begin to live again?
For us believers in God, a shattering loss produces a crisis of faith. We feel abandoned, betrayed and forgotten by God. "How can a God of love and mercy and grace allow this terrible thing to happen?"
There inevitably follows a time of soul-searching: "What did I do to deserve this? Is God punishing me for something? What is God trying to say to me through this devastating loss?"
Then we go move from grief to anger toward God. Like a child who believes he has been unjustly punished, we may engage in behavior that reflects a negative attitude toward God. "I'll show you. If you are going to abandon me, I will just abandon you and your ways!"
Unless we persist in these foolish ways, God allows for some rebellion, as long as we eventually restore our broken relationship with him.
God helps us to recover from this temporary estrangement by sending messengers (angels?) of mercy and helpfulness into our chaotic situation. Into our family's fire crisis, God sent a neighbor from across the street with a pair of shoes to cover my bare feet. Never mind that they were size 13 and I wear a size 8. Other neighbors supplied warm garments. Such gifts brought much-needed warmth to our spirits on what seemed to us a "God-forsaken" night.
Once our church learned of our tragedy, we had offers of temporary housing. Members gave us items of every description to replace the things we lost.
At that time, one of my cousins just happened to be managing a men's store in our city, so I received a complete new wardrobe. Upon my return to college, my friends said, "Gee, you sure look better now in all your new clothes!"
Many of God's gracious ways can only be experienced after we suffer a great loss. No, let's not go out of our way to create calamities; they happen frequently enough. But, when we do pass through the valleys of deep darkness, we should watch and wait for God's graciousness to work in our behalf. Our courage and fortitude will be renewed so we can carry on and live out the good life of faith.
Dr. Gene Norris is a Presbyterian minister who serves as a hospital chaplain and family therapist.