Summertime in the Inland Northwest involves a lot of smoke and a lot of prayer. In fact, yesterday afternoon there was smoke rolling in like I’d never seen before right around the time we were having a few families come over for a time of prayer. Of course, the two things were unconnected at first… but slowly became remarkably entwined.
I had spent the afternoon preparing to welcome nine families over, plus our two sets of parents… all together, we were going to have 69 people over for a bbq potluck. While this may sound like no small undertaking, it was not hard to rally my family to mow the grass, set up lawn games and tables, wipe down a few dozen chairs, and tidy up the main area of the house to be as hospitable as we could manage. Our goal was to make our guests feel at home, to feel embraced and welcomed. While we had met each of these families at least once before, most of the people we were having over are new friends: they are the people we will be pursuing education with this coming year in our new homeschool co op. As Director of the co op, I have been spending weeks compiling family info and class schedules, pulling together curriculum in order to prepare lesson plans. I had printed out each mama’s own teaching schedule and supply list, plus a stack of updated data—schedule, directory, and other documents. I had even gathered textbooks and teaching resources to share with mamas who would be able to put my things to good use this year. We had smoked pork butts shredded, watermelon cubed, bags of chips opened, condiments set out with big stacks of paper plates and napkins… we even had dispensers of ice water, lemonade, and iced tea beside towering stacks of classic red Solo cups. And just because I like to add a personal touch whenever I can, I put out centerpieces of sliced wood, burlap squares, and jars of flowers from my garden bed on every table inside & outside.
I guess you could say, I felt ready. Dare I say, I even felt in control.
Being a leader is new to me. I have long loved following. I like being told what to do, so there is no question about whether I am doing the right thing or not. I’m still a recovering people-pleaser, and being in charge of things can make me anxious: what if people don’t like the way I am leading, preparing, or organizing? Well, God has been pushing me to make strides in these areas over the last couple of years, and this summer you could say He shoved me the final distance to close the gap.
But last evening, as we were welcoming a few families into our home for a time of prayer over our homeschooling plans and upcoming co op year, the smoke was rolling in—and it slowly became obvious that I was in control of none of it.
By the time we finished our prayers, we looked up to see more fresh smoke through the windows, and more new friends arriving, bearing armloads of food and furrowed brows.
Then peoples’ phones started shrieking with alarms. Evacuation Level 2 was at play for us, and Level 3 was happening for friends of ours just down the road. The smoke was not blowing in from a far distance as has happened in previous summers—this smoke was from forest & field charring up just down the road in our little farming community.
It felt a little surreal. Steven and I just sort of stared at each other, bewildered or unbelieving or naïve—I’m not sure—while the other adults who were gathering around us in our dining room seemed to all be talking at once. Pack your things, Where are all your important papers, Tell us where to put your photo albums, How can we help, What do you want us to do, We’ve been through this before… Thoughts and questions and experiences were entering my ears in fragments, but I wasn’t really processing any of it. I just looked into the eyes of my husband. Honestly, I felt calm—or maybe numb. I remember sighing and asking, What am I supposed to do? I’m supposed to be hosting and leading. Do I just send my children away with all these friends, and stay here to pack up whatever we can salvage before our home burns down? I wasn’t panicked. But my questions were plain.
Then one of our new friends raised his hand, and we all looked toward him as he said, May I make a suggestion?
I’m pretty sure Steven and I both sighed with relief as this man calmly spoke, commanding the room with his gentle leadership (so Christlike). He looked at me, while all the eyes were turned on him. If I may, I suggest you take your children and go with all the other families and have the potluck somewhere else. Then you let your husband stay here to pack up and do what a husband is supposed to do. He will take care of it, he will pack up what is needed in order to protect and provide. That’s what a husband is supposed to do.
All of a sudden, we had a plan. And a leader.
Most of the parents gathered up all the food and serving supplies, and shepherded children into vehicles. One woman pulled out her iPhone to take pictures and videos of every room (and every bookshelf) in my house, in case we needed such things for insurance claims and repurchasing of items. Another woman walked to all the bedrooms with me, holding a duffel bag and I threw in “two of everything” for each family member. Women kept asking about the pictures on my walls, but in this modern digital age, it was easy to say—I can always print more if I need to. I grabbed one painting, one baptismal gown, and some things from when my babies died. I left everything else. I went outside to make sure my children were prayed with and buckled into the car. Two men stayed with my husband, to remind him to gather banking information, identification papers, business folders, laptops, cash, guns & ammo. My children had been allowed to grab a couple quick things—piggy banks, a favorite doll, a blankie, a book to read.
I kissed my husband before I drove away. While we knew this might end up amounting to little more than a dress rehearsal for a performance that may never open curtains, there was also a sense of heavy reality. Perspective checks are good and healthy. It is a good practice to remember that even the things which feel most precious, and to which we may be fairly attached, are still just things. Even things which have been painstakingly handmade with incredible love are just things. Even if they are technically irreplaceable, they are just things. My children’s eyes welled with tears at the thought of books and musical instruments and bunkbeds and sketchbooks being reduced to char, but they were so obedient and composed and sweet amidst the chaos. Sixty-some people (most of whom they did not know well at all) were rushing around our home and yard, dispersing just as quickly as they had arrived—while smoke billowed in, and the bright sun grew eerie behind the orange-brown haze all around—and my children were being told to leave with only an item or two, perhaps for good.
The Lord was clearly in our midst.
When I pulled into a friend’s driveway ten minutes later, the potluck spread had already been quickly reassembled on a large table, the kids were frolicking and laughing in the yard, and the sixty-some people were now welcomed and embraced by a different hostess. Someone else’s husband asked for God’s blessing on the meal. Someone else had to give directions to the bathroom and repeatedly direct people to the garbage cans. Fellowship happened, bellies were filled, friendships were forged.
And I had almost nothing to do with it.
While I had been planning and prepared to host and lead and act like an adult, what ended up happening was that I was the recipient of some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. A friend of mine who was planning to receive hospitality suddenly offered hospitality to this huge group of people. A friend of mine who I barely know yet walked through every room in my house to document all my belongings (in whatever their current state) on her phone. Another friend I barely know helped me pack socks and underwear and toothbrushes, wandering from bedroom to bedroom and bathroom to bathroom in my home—reminding me of the simple task at hand, when it could have felt very complicated.
Later in the evening, my husband and the other men who had stayed with him joined us at the bbq’s new location. We all fellowshipped and feasted until it was almost too dark to see outside anymore. And it was right about that time that phones began to blare again with emergency updates—the fire was being reasonably contained, and we were allowed to return home if we wanted to. We remain in Level 2, but our friends down the road have also been reduced to Level 2—which makes us think the constant hum of helicopters and buzz of airplanes overhead are accomplishing good work. We didn’t sleep much, but we rested in our own beds.
Upon waking this morning, I am decidedly thankful that our home was not directly in the line of fire. In fact, only one home has been lost in the 155 acre blaze. Praise the Lord for His hand of protection over our neighbors! But I am also decidedly thankful for the hospitality roles which were turned on their heads last night. I am thankful that when I felt rather like a follower than an equipped leader—or more of a child than an experienced adult—we had friends ready to fill the gaps and lead us with charity.
Sixty-some people showed up to my home last evening expecting the kindness of hospitality. What they did rather was embrace my family in our own time of need, and showed a unique variety of hospitality to us and one another.
I won’t forget that.
And as fire season has only just started—and a solid month earlier than most years—I will carry with me the lessons they taught me. About what to do and how to serve in moments of crisis. This is Christlike community, and while the smoke & prayers continue to be laid on thick—I am thankful.