Tag Archives: Church Arson

The Bear Speaks Hope

It was the picture of the bear that made me cry.

After the fire in our church building, a child’s teddy bear was found on a grimy window sill, abandoned, its face turned away in the soot.  I looked at that picture and it felt like that was the picture that best represented the darker emotions of my heart in the weeks and months after the fire:  Defenseless.  Violated.  Sad.  Very much in need of being cleaned.

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My life was so caught up, even from the time of the fire, with my Sweet Mama’s health.  From early December, until her death in June, I mostly dealt with my feelings about the burned out Church house by, a) not going there, and b) not thinking about it any more than I had to.  I believed that God was going to do a good work in spite of the devastation, and I believed that He wasn’t surprised or sleeping when arsonists crept into our meeting house and set it ablaze.  But mostly I didn’t think!

I was unprepared for the emotions that came crashing in over the weeks following my Sweet Mama’s funeral, as I worked at cleaning out her house, and found that the emptiness of that house, the stripping of the stuff that was my Mama’s, translated into another very real emotion of loss when I thought about the church house being totally stripped and remade.  It was so difficult for me that I could barely enjoy the first Sunday back, as it felt like yet another dear, familiar face was gone, and had been replaced by something that was, obviously, better and more beautiful — but it wasn’t “mine.”  And it wasn’t what I wanted.

So I’ve wrestled with the whole thing of “What’s wrong with me???”  This is a new start for our little congregation, a new beginning, a fresh opportunity to redefine ourselves.  It’s way more comfortable, way more convenient, way more esthetic than our old auditorium.  And the Sunday School room for The Littles is beyond anything that I have ever had as a teacher.  Beautiful and light and airy and equipped and spacious.  It’s a dream come true.  And it is definitely a whole lot better than the office at our temporary meeting place where we were surrounded by baking supplies and freezers and equipment, where we set up a table every week and did our best to make the room cheery and inviting.

And so, over the last few weeks, I’ve reminded myself that, at least for this Delaware Grammy, everything takes time.  And I’ve decided to not voice my discontent, that I would throw myself into lessons and Christmas preparations in my classroom, that I would do all I could to support and enjoy this new place and ignore my heart’s rebel thoughts that pushed themselves, unbidden, to the surface over the slightest little things that weren’t quite right.

One of the things I’ve always said to my children is “Grumbling is contagious.”  And I’m so aware that just one person voicing one negative thought can turn a tide in a minute.  There’s always something that we can complain about.  However, over these last few weeks, I’ve also learned that Grace extended is contagious as well.  And never was this more real to me than in something that has happened over these last few weeks.

I have a friend.  Loretta Miller, who (with her husband) has been a janitor  at our church for several decades.  I’ve watched (and listened) to her over this last year as she dealt with negative emotions following the arson, put her attention to cleaning our temporary gathering place with wisdom and discernment, spoke encouragement to our church family by seeing the positives that were coming out of the things we were going through, and also dealt with the death of two siblings during the months that we were out of our church building.  She has extended grace in tangible ways despite personal disappointment and challenges that could perplex.  Not too long ago, she told me that she feels so much peace and a sense of worship in our new sanctuary, and that it is something that she is enjoying so very much. That gave me pause to consider.  What was I holding on to that was preventing me from entering into this good gift from Our Father?

Then one day, a week or so ago, she said to me, “You know that teddy bear that was left on the window sill after the fire?  I found it among the things that had been cleaned, and I put it back up on the window sill in your classroom where it had been found.  I thought it might be kinda’ nice.  Maybe it would mean something . . .”

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It’s just a little teddy bear, and it isn’t even all that pretty.  But I looked at it sitting upright on renovated window sill in front of the new and sparkling window and it did this wistful heart good.  It spoke of all the things that were still surviving– that were strong and right:  Things like forgiveness, redemption, restoration, hope and a future.

My conflict isn’t over.   I’m not called “an old stick in the mud” for no reason.  But neither am I blind to the fact that God has often used very commonplace things to redirect this stubborn will and to remind me that I can’t go forward when I’m holding on to the past.  And if humans can take a picture as forlorn and sad as the first one, and with time and effort, make a tableau as peaceful and hopeful as the second one, think what God can do with a restless heart that feels bleak and troubled and discouraged.

“Make your way through these old ruins: the enemy wrecked everything in the Temple.”  (Psalm 74:3)  Once again the verse is echoing through my brain, except with this repeat, there is hope.  If Jesus is making His way through these old ruins of my heart, the enemy can wreak his havoc no more.  There is hope and a future, and I do not need to resist the unfamiliar.  God is already in the tomorrows of my life, and He will be with me in things just don’t seem “right.”  And just to think on these things gives my heart joy.

For a bear on the windowsill, for a friend who extends much grace, for God’s Word, repeating God’s Words to me in my head and my heart, for this sunshiney day and the blessings of life, for these and so much more:  My heart gives grateful praise.

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The Feetwashing Tubs

When our church burned almost six months ago, one of the things that did not melt was our stack of tubs for feetwashing.

Our church family still practices feetwashing.  For those of you who are not acquainted with this tradition, it is usually held in connection with two of our communions a year, in keeping with the passage in John 13:4-17, where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.  In verses 14 and 15, Jesus said, 14 “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash each other’s feet. 15 I did this as an example so that you should do as I have done for you.”  We have chosen to believe that there is value in taking these words literally and beautiful symbolism in this act of humility, servitude and vulnerability.  Many, many sermons have been preached on what this really means, and I have found it incredibly precious in different ways at different times,

That being said, as we were preparing for communion this spring, Certain Man was under the impression that the elders were planning for feetwashing, and as the deacon, it is his job to take care of the physical preparation for the celebration.  So he stopped one evening on his way home from work and looked for the stack of eight, gray Sterlite tubs that we use for feetwashing.  He found them, alright.  For some reason, they were not melted as were most plastics in the church that terrible morning.  But they were blackened by smoke and dirty from water.  He brought them home.

“Hon,” he said.  “Someone has to clean these up.”  (“Someone,” I took it to mean, was his wife.)  They sat on the cupboard in my laundry room and I looked at them with distaste and dread.  I really didn’t want to scrub them up, but communion was only a week away and I knew I didn’t have much time.

Then the Elders decided that, given the shortened time frame, Sunday school being such a big part of our Sunday morning service, and us not being in our own place, that they were going to forego the feetwashing part of our communion this time.  And I, glad for the reprieve, did not scrub the tubs up.  They sat on my counter sometimes, in my laundry sink sometimes, sometimes being moved so I could work in the area that they were, and for some reason, they did not get any cleaner.  They just sat there and waited.  I kept thinking that maybe someone would get tired of seeing them and would do something with them, but it did not seem to be the case.  Last night I looked at them again (probably for the hundredth time at least) and decided that I would do something with them.  TODAY!

So this morning I drew a big sink full of water with bleach, fetched myself a magic eraser and set to work.  I watched the black spots come off, saw the smooth clear gray come clearer and clearer as the black water was rinsed down the drain.  I thought about our church and about feetwashing and how the brothers and sisters there are such an integral part of who I am and what I do.  I prayed for Alex and Joey and wondered what they would do differently that December night if they could do things over.  I thought about redemption and how, even though it seems so simple, it is never easy, and how, even for them, there is Grace enough, if they would only choose it.

The last tub was especially covered in soot and grime.  I thought about how washing these feetwashing tubs was something that came down to me being willing to do it, and I prayed that in this washing, God would reckon it as a way that I washed the feet of my sisters and brothers.

I took the tubs out, stacked them on the steps to the upper deck to dry.  They were so common in the morning sun, but so glorious in my eyes.  Another thing set wrong by the arson was back to order.  Slowly, one step at a time, things are getting done– not only in the building, but in our hearts.

And I give grateful praise.

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Tears in the night

We are traveling a familiar road, Certain Man and I.  I knew when we set out on this Deacon call that we would be going this way, but I was not prepared.

We came around the curve and came up a small hill.  Far away in the distance, the lights of our church building shone through the Sunday evening cold.  It took my breath away.

“There are lights???  At the church???” I asked Certain Man.

“Sure are!”  He replied in his off-handed way.  “They’ve had them on ever since they got electric back in after the fire.”

“But how???” I am still more than a little incredulous.  “The lights were all taken down!”

“Oh, they just strung them up however they could.  They want lights on, especially at night.”

Oh.

We come on down the road, closer and closer to the church, and my eyes drink in the light shining out of every window.  As we get closer, it was plain that the lights are from various wires, strung all over the empty, gutted church.  Up close, it isn’t half as beautiful as it was from the distance.  I look hurriedly and hungrily through the dusty windows.  It is full of light, but without life.

I am sad and reflective on my side of The Silver Chariot.  “I’ve not been in,” I say quietly.

“What???  You’ve not been in since the fire???”  I feel Certain Man’s disbelief spearing me through the darkness.

“No.”

“Why not???”  There was so much coming and going in the days following the fire, so much traffic from our house in particular with Certain Man being the first on the scene from our congregation and then both Eldest Daughter and Middle Daughter playing a part in the aftermath and the clean-up that it had been so easy to hide the fact that I didn’t go.

I feel the tears welling up in my eyes.  “Because,” I almost whisper.  “I just didn’t think I could bear it.”

“Well, Hon, I think you need to go,” says my steady spouse.  “I really think it’s something you should do.”

“Why?  I feel so terribly sad, and it is something I just don’t want to see.  Maybe after it is all fixed up, I won’t hate it so much.  But for now, I have no desire to go in and see it.”

He doesn’t push me, and we stop at the four-way stop sign at the corner of Carpenter Bridge and Canterbury Road and then go on.  I sit in the dark and think about this church family that I call “mine” and I think about the strength and courage and grace and forgiveness that has marked these days since that early morning call on December 2, 2014.  Our people have not wallowed about in despair or self pity or been immobilized by this bump in the road.  They are still gathering for worship, encouraging one another, doing the things that have been a part of our lives for so many years.  We are still praying, singing, giving to needs outside the congregation, some of us are teaching Sunday School, some are volunteering at Stevenson House, some are preparing and delivering sermons, and last week, in the middle of the coldest, icy-est, darkest time of our winter, most of us gathered together for renewal meetings and the majority of us didn’t miss a night.  And this doesn’t cover the everyday lives of our people who work and play and raise families and maintain their homefires.

And so I remind myself that we are not defined by that damaged church house there on a country road in Kent County, Delaware.  These people are The Church, and though we are certainly re-evaluating and seeking to hear what God is saying to us through these difficult times, we are very aware that God has something so good for us through this fire that has truly proved to be a Refiner’s Fire.

And while I may shed some quiet tears when I look at a building that holds the church memories of almost 50 of my 61 years, I will not hang my heart on a structure that can, well — be destroyed.  This made me think about a passage in 2 Corinthians that goes something like this:

1-5 For instance, we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less. (The Message)

And so, when it is all said and done, it isn’t a church structure.  It isn’t even these earthly bodies that are so prone to letting us down.  The Hope is in that Home that will not be destroyed.  Heaven.

How my soul wants that to happen!  Job 19:27b

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Holding the Hurt Loosely. Thoughts on Church Arson

The call came in at 5:41. Our friend who is a Delaware State Trooper was on the other line.

“Mary Ann, this is Andrea. Has anyone called you about anything going on up at your church?”

It was still dark outside. My head was fuzzy. “Our Church?”

“Yes. I just came by and it appears that your church is on fire. The firemen are on the scene. Initially I thought there was an accident, but I did see smoke.”

“No, no one has called.” I felt like this just wasn’t true. Who would burn our church? We’ve had break-ins over the years, some petty vandalism, graffiti (that didn’t use Sunday school words) spray painted on the outside, but these incidents were few and far between. Who would burn our church? 

“Well, I’m going to turn around and go back,” she said. “I’ll see what’s going on and I will call you back”

I hung up the phone and went to talk to Daniel. His first response was to get ready to go up to the church, calling the integral people on the way. I started my morning routines, getting ladies up and showered and fed. My busy hands were on automatic, but my heart was in turmoil.

“What could have happened? We had carry-in on Sunday. I wonder if something got left on? Oven? Coffee Pot, Candle? Oh, Lord Jesus! Please. May this fire not be the result of any of our member’s negligence. That would be a burden too hard for anyone to bear. Please, Lord Jesus.

Andrea called back to verify that there was, indeed a fire.

“Do they know what started it?” I asked.

“They are waiting on the fire marshal,” she replied reassuringly. “They will investigate and I’m sure you will have an answer.”

It wasn’t long until Daniel called. The fire marshal was there and had a conversation with him. It seems that there were three churches in the immediate area that had fires within about three hours.

“We can’t know for sure,” Daniel told me, “but it would certainly point to the fact that it was arson.”

I was so relieved to know that this fire wasn’t from negligence on anyone’s part. I know that may sound really immaterial, but one of the things that I have found in these days following this cataclysmic event is that our minds cling to small comforts and somehow, in the greater scheme of things, those small things add up to a bigger, better picture of a God that has our good in mind.

As the story unfolded, we have certainly had ample reason to rejoice. Apparently, a passerby noticed the flames through a church window and called 911. The local fire company had just gotten back from one of the other churches, and were still suited up — they were at the church within five minutes. When they got there, the first thing they noticed was that both entry doors were propped open. The firemen found a critical situation in the auditorium of our church. A pile of hymnbooks, bibles and Sunday school papers as well as some blankets, bedding, and costumes were put under a bench that had been torn off the floor and the whole thing had been used to ignite a bonfire. The church had been vandalized, with every single cupboard and drawer gone through and the doors to the classrooms left open. The firemen said that we were only five to seven minutes from what they call the “flash point.” This is where everything is so hot that it bursts into flame. The clock on the wall was melted to nothing. The plastic speakers in the ceiling had dropped to the floor in a blob of melted plastic. The flowers on the Christmas wreaths and the tinsel on the angel wings, all up in the one classroom where we stored the costumes, were melted. If the fireman had been just a little bit later, we would have lost the whole thing. As it is, though there is terrible damage to so much of the inside, the structure is sound.

One of the biggest blessings has been a gift that we were mostly unaware of until this all came down. Some years ago, J.R. Campbell, as a trustee of our church, had gone over our insurance policy with a fine-toothed comb. We couldn’t have had better coverage. When J.R. passed away earlier this year, we had no way of knowing how his foresight and expertise would bless our little church. It has been so comforting to us, knowing that we don’t have to clean up that terrible mess. Knowing that all the contents were covered, all the cleanup, all the repairs. Everything to return it to its pre-fire condition. This blessing has been beyond our expectations, and we are so grateful.

“Ah, J.R.!!! What I wouldn’t give to see you get into this situation with your knowledge and ability to get what is needed, when it is needed. If you are watching somewhere, I hope you know how much of a blessing you’ve been to us . . .”

The ensuing days have been so incredible. It feels like the slashes across my heart have been filled with healing and love on the part of the greater family of God and our local communities. People have literally come out of the woodwork to pray for us, to offer help, to comfort and encourage and even commiserate. I cannot begin to tell you what is in my heart tonight. So, so much good has come out of this tragedy already. I can only imagine what God has for us in the coming weeks and months.

I know this post has been a long time coming. I am still processing so much. I hope that those of you who are reading it will continue to pray for us, to speak encouraging words. We are resourceful and accustomed to working hard. We want to stay together. I won’t pretend that this has been easy, but I hope you understand when I say that it has been GOOD. And it will be GOOD. We have so much to look forward to.

And once again, my heart gives grateful praise.

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