December 20, 2019

53: That time my house burned down on Christmas Eve

It was Christmas Eve 1974. I was 7 years old. I was lying in my bed late into the night and thought I could hear something downstairs. I strained really hard to listen and try to hear what it was. I lay completely still, listening really hard. What was I hearing? I knew I had heard that sound before but what was it? Wait, I know, its the sound of rustling cellophane and wrapping paper. And there was only one reason why I would hear these sounds in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus was downstairs, setting out all my presents. Was I really hearing Santa Claus? I mean, no one ever, ever saw or heard Santa Claus. He always just magically showed up, put out the presents, filled the stockings, and ate the cookies, all while everyone was sleeping. But this time I was actually hearing him downstairs, in my house. I continued to lay in my bed as still as I could because I just couldn’t believe this was actually happening.


The next sound I heard was my brother burst into my room screaming, “The house is on fire!” I jumped out of bed and ran into the hallway. My parents were frantically trying to figure out what to do. We were all on the second story of our house. I vividly remember my dad trying to go down the stairs, only to stop at the second step, turn around and say, “We can’t go down the stairs, they are too hot!” We then ran into my parent’s bathroom, climbed out the window and sat on the roof that overlooked our porch. My dad jumped down first and then my mom, brother and I proceeded to jump off the roof as my dad tried to catch us. We then ran through the back yard to the safety of the neighbor’s house.


We lost everything, including the family dog, JoJo, our little black poodle. All the presents burned. The next day there was a huge pile in the back yard of all our burned, charred and smoldering belongings. I remember that year for Christmas I had asked for a Redskins jacket. Remember, it was the 70’s so this was one of those jackets that resembled a letterman jacket, with the wool center and vinyl sleeves. I vividly remember seeing that jacket in the pile, but it was half burned and the sleeves half melted away. By far the worst Christmas ever.


Or was it? You see, before this particular Christmas eve, my family was not attending church and there was no spiritual life in our house. Before the fire, on the outside things were great. We lived in a nice big, new house in a really upscale neighborhood. We belonged to the country club. My dad who played golf in college was in heaven, he could play golf anytime he wanted. My parents drove new cars, my dad had a successful sales job and my mom had opened her own retail business. Just a few years earlier we had all taken a vacation to Hawaii.


The fire changed all that. At some point during the next year, a couple had befriended my mom and led her to the Lord. My mom became a “born again Christian”. Remember, it was the 70’s. So my mom starts to get really involved in this church and starts taking me and my brother with her. My dad, however, did not embrace Jesus and instead started embracing alcohol.  I think while my mom was experiencing a brand new life, my dad was having a nervous breakdown. I mean, who could blame him? His family had just been through the most traumatic event in their lives and the insurance company did not come through to replace everything with the house. His life was falling apart.


But this new relationship with Jesus that my mom was experiencing was really transforming her life and she was really praying that it would change her family’s life as well. As an 8-year-old, I just did not understand everything that was going on. You just kind of go along with the flow. We went to church and Sunday School every week. My mom’s new friends were amazing. They were kind, helpful and really walked beside our family for the next several years as my family struggled to make ends meet and my parent’s marriage began to crumble.


When I got to high school my mom made me go to this thing called Young Life. It was just getting started at my high school but I had no idea what it was about. My mom drove me to the house where Young Life was, dropped me off and drove away. I remember thinking, “Well, I guess I have to go in, by myself, and find someone to give me a ride home.” So I went into this stranger’s house and there were a bunch of kids hanging out and having the time of their lives. I remember there was singing, a ton of laughter and then this guy got up and shared a story about Jesus from the Bible. Although I was incredibly shy and spent most of the night hiding under a coffee table, I left thinking that was the greatest thing I had ever experienced. For the next four years, I went to Young Life, every single week. I never missed a Young Life club.


That summer I went to Frontier Ranch, a Young Life camp in Colorado. There I heard the life-giving message of Jesus and started following Him. My life was changed forever. The gospel had invaded my heart, taken over and started transforming every area of my life.


Each Christmas when I think about the fire (because there will never be a year that I don’t think about it) I think, “What an incredibly tragic event. I can’t imagine my own kids having to go through that.” But then I think, it was the fire that triggered a series of events, obviously orchestrated by the sovereign hand of God, that led my mom to the Lord and eventually her leading me to the Lord. 


You can’t stop the gospel. You just can’t. God is going to relentlessly pursue you, using any means He chooses. Christmas is about God sending His Son Jesus, who is the good news. He is Immanuel, God with us and he came to save us from ourselves. In the end, all the presents get burned. But the gospel, no, that lasts forever, and it’s the gospel that changes everything.