Accidental Arsonist

A personal encounter with God and fireThe Mains:

“Have I ever told you about the time I burnt down a building?” In the past I have not been eager to share this with others but lately God has been prompting me to and it’s easy to see why: His sovereignty out-shines the fire this story is about.

Just over 10 years ago, in May of 2002, I and five others in their early 20’s were living at Mt. Gilead, a camp and conference center in the redwoods. On a Friday night, all of us went out to dinner and on the way home to camp we picked up a movie at the video store to watch on the big screen in the chapel. Earlier that afternoon a “guest group” had left and we were expecting another to arrive the following day. Between guest groups there is what is referred to as “camp turnover,” when staff clean all the areas used by the previous group and prepare for the next. One of my assignments that Friday was to clean “the mains” (the main restrooms at the center of camp). Why I hadn’t gotten to the mains before we left for dinner I don’t recall but once we returned, before joining the others in the chapel, I began to clean the restrooms. I walked in with an armload of towels and cleaning supplies. While there was a narrow ledge to put the spray bottles, there wasn’t really anywhere to put the clean towels. Rather than put them on the dirty floor, I placed my hand on the heater to make sure it was off and feeling it to be completely cold, I put the towels on it and got to work on the mirrors and sinks. A short while later my roommate, Alison, poked her head in to tell me they were ready to start the movie. She offered to help me finish the bathrooms in morning since the next guest group would not be arriving until later in the day. While I didn’t want to have to come back to finish them the following day, I also didn’t want to keep the others waiting. I left everything where it was, turned off the lights and went to join the others.

I don’t recall the exact time but early the next morning the three of us girls in “Hurst Castle” (a satirical name bestowed upon the old logger’s cabin where we were living) were awakened when the camp director’s wife came in exclaiming,

“Girls! Just thought you’d want to know, the mains are on fire!”

The three of us leapt out of bed and rode with her down to the mains. We joined the guys who were already there watching the scene: it was a sea of trucks, hoses and fire fighters. Some were milling around talking while other were putting things away or assisting the rest who were still hosing down the black and smoldering remains of the restrooms.

Even in this moment, the others looked on and rejoiced at the thought the mains would finally be replaced. It was the oldest building on the grounds and the board of directors had long been wanting to replace them but with so many other more pressing projects and upgrades in addition to general operation expenses, there hadn’t been the donor urgency needed to raise the money.

By this time, I was feeling sick to my stomach. I knew, the moment I opened my eyes and heard the mains were on fire, it was the towels I had left on the heater that caused it. I hadn’t told anyone about my conclusion regarding the towels and didn’t really talk at all the whole ride down or even as we looked on. I was speechless and utterly horrified I had caused so much damage.

Reflecting back on my reaction makes so much more sense to me now. One thing I learned earlier this year is how I have a particularly strong sense of responsibility (on my Strengthfinders test results, responsibility was my third highest “talent”). Having done something, even though accidental, that in my mind so entirely violated my own personal nature, shook me at my core. With this deep-rooted bent to be responsible, I was also feeling sick with dread because I knew I had to tell the camp director what happened. I knew the longer I waited, the harder it would be so within the hour I painstakingly dragged myself into the office where I found him at his desk. Confession really is a beautiful thing. Hard, but beautiful. Of course it helped the director was thankful I came forward, he reassured me I wouldn’t be fired, and was clearly excited this had happened, even thanking me in jest! Of course all credit (for everything!) really belongs to Him who alone is ruler of Heaven and Earth and completely Sovereign over all.

If it is possible to describe a fire as perfect, this one was. The following is a timeline of sorts highlighting just some of the miraculous ways God’s hand was at work thru the fire.

  • No guest group was present (had there been the fire never would have happened!)
  • Because there was no guest group there were no staff around to notice the fire right away.
  • Early Saturday morning, the program director’s parents who lived in the RV park on the far side of camp were leaving on a trip and needed a ride to the train station. The program director got up early and on his way to pick his parents up, saw the fire and did three things: called the fire department, woke up a board member who happened to be sleeping in a lodge nearby, and grabbed a video camera from his office and set it on a drinking fountain a little ways away from the mains where it sat recording the entire fiasco. He then took off to take his parents to the station. (Had they not been going somewhere and at just the right time, the fire could have easily gone unnoticed for quite some time.)
  • The first fire department arrives. Just a handful of yards away from the mains was a fire hydrant. Problem solved, right? No, the hydrant was stuck. The fire grows and there weren’t really any other viable solutions besides using up the water in the truck and working to open the stubborn hydrant.
  • Fire department number two arrives. Hydrant’s still stuck…. and the flames are on their way to being twice the height of the building (as we later witnessed on the video!).
  • Around the time the third fire department arrived (Graton, Forestville and Sebastopol were all in on the action), the hydrant is opened just in time. The men get to work just as there was growing concern about two issues: the potential for the full-grown redwood trees surrounding the building to catch on fire and the large propane tank located precariously close to the mains and the flames that by now, had fully engulfed the building.
  • Because the hydrant was “stuck” (or rather God kept it from opening until just the right moment), the building was so perfectly burned, insurance covered just about everything but the building’s foundation.

I was a mess for weeks afterwards. There are a number of Christian songs out there with lines such as “Use me here, where I am,” “have your way in me,” “your will be done,”… I think it might have been several months before I could sing these songs knowing my heart was sincere. After the fire, my initial thought about these declarations was:

“Lord, if this is how You want to use me, no thanks!”

I could see from the start ways He was working good from the fire but it was still very difficult to come to a place of acceptance and peace where I could tell the Lord,

“Use me however You see fit. All Your ways are perfect and good.”

Among the many lessons learned from this experience (like NEVER put towels on a heater- EVER!), one primary lesson is to remember I am the clay and He is the Potter. Who am I to tell Him how He should form me and how I should be used by Him? As Isaiah warns:

Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He knows nothing”?… Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, “What are you making?” Does your work say, “He has no hands”?

~ Isaiah 29:16, 45:9

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