One of the most memorable mountain bike rides I’ve taken also became a parable about death and new life. Taking a break from the pastors’ retreat I was attending, I peddled up a chert strewn, sandy trail into mountains that resembled barren mounds some demon had impaled with burnt toothpicks. It was the first time I had ventured into the area know as the Hayman Burn, which, in 2002, was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, turning the mountains southwest of Denver and northwest of Colorado Springs into smoke and ash. On that mountain bike ride I remembered how and when God turns a life of ashes to beautiful redemption.
Sometimes Life Looks Like a Charred Landscape
Eerie does not describe the feeling that settled on me as I wended my way through both standing and fallen charred pines. Not one left living. The silence fearful. The seared landscape marred the Colorado blue sky as they met above the burnt tree-tops in an ashy gray blend. My breath came hard and dry as I pushed through the dust.
These were the mountains I had roamed and fished and explored as a child and young man. The Redheaded-Wildflower’s parents owned a cabin in these mountains we stayed at a kids and later as a young couple. It was spared, barely. My first novel is set in these mountains. The Hamen Fire blistered not just 215 miles of forest and 135 homes, but also memories and possibilities, each charred acre holding stories of the past and lost hopes for the future. Now all ash.
This is how life looks and feels often too. Charred plans and hopes, relationships, jobs, dreams stand round us reminding us how fragile life is. Therefore some choose to not dream or hope at all. Maybe the state of the modern church has torched your faith. Whatever the tragedy, we insulate ourselves in hope-retardant suits. But hiding doesn’t stop the pain and may also insulate us from potential joy.
God Brings Beauty From Ashes
Then I noticed something in the burnt landscape. Splashes of gold. Among the burnt pines God had planted aspens as crowns of beauty for ashes. Along the almost invisible creek, trickling life through death, and in odd places off in the distance, young groves of aspen–the replacement forest–had sprung up. Made up of only a dozen or fewer trees in each grove and only standing head high, they shouted hope.
Aspen trees are often the first to come back and rehabilitate a devastated landscape. So too is the redemption planted in us by God. “Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.” Psalm 130:7. Redemption is God’s ability to bring beauty from ashes.
God Renews Even Scorched Lives
The Hayman Fire was set by a troubled woman who, it seems, was trying to torch her own demons and instead released them on the people and wildlife of the Front Range.
This seems to be the way life is. Most, if not all, tragedy has a human source. “We have met the enemy. And he us,” said Walt Kelly in his “Pogo” comic strip.
And it’s not just the landscape or our enemies we scorch. In his brilliant short-story Every Little Hurricane, Sherman Alexie describes a fight between two American Indian brothers “slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.”
Human history is littered with pain, hate, hurt. Lashing out at others or inside at ourselves is a reaction of shame. And a scorched-soul mindset only worsens the problem. Jesus forgave from the cross and the Holy Spirit empowers us to likewise forgive ourselves and others. And forgiveness puts out the fire of shame, guilt, and hate. Forgiveness is God’s balm of healing in our own souls.
Grace Brings a Golden Redeemed Life
Seeing the golden grace of new life in the landscape, I noticed something else.
Life holds splashes of golden grace. Along the way, life trickling through death, and in odd places off in the distance, someone forgives a grievance, another delivers a kiss, a baby laughs, an old woman closes her eyes to begin the journey home, a young couple turn their love into a vow, a man tosses a dollar to another holding a cardboard sign, a Democrat eats with a Republican, friends weep together, enemies call a cease-fire, a parent thanks a teacher, two children laugh and squeal as they trundle down the slide together, a teenager holds the door for a stranger, brothers lower their fists.
These little things shout hope also. These little things are the seeds of salvation. Because mere humans cannot destroy forever what God has eternally created. Just as those aspens are rooted in God’s ever-life-producing soil, though burnt, we too, when rooted in God and his gift of grace in Christ, can spring back to life from the soil of charred lives.
I zipped back down the trail on my bike breathing easier and filled with a melancholy hope. In the midst of this scarred landscape is a golden place called grace, where heaven, blue, clear and descending meets the burnt tree-tops of our lives. With God’s grace my charred, difficult life can shine as well.
Read my other blogs on Finding and Forgiving Dad and on The Good News in Le Mis and here are a prayer about hope and forgiveness: Sunday Psalm: An Honest Prayer Asking God for Forgiveness, Redemption, and Renewal